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Thanks to  Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain for this review. 

In her latest book Impoverishment and Asylum. Social Policy as Slow Violence (Routledge, 2020), Lucy Mayblin addressed a subject that will be familiar to many readers of this blog but sets it within an innovative analytic framework.

The focus of Mayblin’s book is the systematic impoverishment of people seeking asylum in the UK, and she approaches the topic through the lens of “slow violence”. This concept, developed by Rob Nixon in the context of environmentalism, describes violence that may be invisible, taking place behind closed doors, dispersed, slow to become apparent (in contrast to the immediate and often visceral violence of, for example, detention and deportation).

The book looks at how people seeking asylum lost access to the right to work and mainstream benefits in the early 2000s because of social policy shaped by an obsession with (unproven) economic “pull factors”, and a racial turn in how people seeking asylum are perceived. Mayblin points out that there was little concern for the motivation (economic, political) for the movement of refugees during the Cold War. But in 1990s and 2000s there was clearly anxiety about the “dark-skinned” people seeking sanctuary in the UK, who were racialised as unbelonging and undeserving.

An important aspect of this analysis is Mayblin’s situating of the policy within a “colonial present”, in which colonial histories can (to use Ann Stoler’s phrase) “yield new damages and renewed disparities”.

Immigration control can be seen as a form of the “regional containment” described by E. Tendayi Achiume – keeping out those deemed unmodern and backward, people from countries occupied by Europe, positioned by colonial logic as representing Europe’s “opposite”, its “past”.

Mayblin also adopts Achille Mbembe’s useful framework of “necropolitics” – individuals targeted by the sovereign power because their existence is seen as detrimental to the wider population. Rather than active killing as punishment, necropolitics (a development of Foucault’s biopolitics where the state works to enable life) is about letting people die. Applied to the state and people seeking asylum, this can be seen as the state fulfilling their legal obligations to an absolute minimum by providing mininal support – people being “kept alive but in a state of injury”. The deprivation of the right to work also creates a relationship of dependency on the state, facilitating monitoring and control.

The book considers the production of slow violence by the state, and how this is possible because of dehumanisation of people seeking asylum, mobilising a “moral distance” that is akin to colonial imaginaries. Mayblin then looks at the civil society organisations ameliorating social violence through provision of humanitarian assistance, at a cost of at least £33.4 million a year. She also nods to the tension created when NGOs fill the survival gap created by social policy – providing often vital support, but at the same potentially maintaining the status quo.

Then the book, to this non-academic reader, really comes alive in the chapter that focuses on the experience of slow violence: poverty in the asylum process due to unbearably low levels of asylum financial support. There’s a great subsection on the interview methodology and the harm reduction method utilised in the research process.

This chapter (co-produced with Mustafa Wake, Mohsen Kazemi and a researcher who chose not to be named) uncovers the internalised shame and sense of worthlessness many interviewees felt as a result of deliberate impoverishment by the state. People felt shock at what their everyday lives had become and grief for their previous everyday normality.

One interviewee said: “I feel like I am inferior to people. You feel like you don’t even look good enough like normal people. You can’t even able to buy and wear clothes with this money. It is ruining my life, has put black points in my life, and really hurts my feelings so much.”

Another used the striking phrase, “I feel I am embargoing myself”.

People spoke of the social death experienced as a result of the policy of enforced destitution. They felt deprived of identity due to the lack of food, with its social and cultural meaning: “I feel I am not Kuwaiti as having Kuwaiti food is becoming a dream”.

The chapter also shares (time-consuming and knowledge-dependent) consumer survival strategies as a form of resistance: maybe going to three different supermarkets to get the best price, maybe pooling resources to do shared, cheaper meals. The desire to maintain one’s physical appearance is also cited as a method of active resistance to the dehumanising loss of control over body, health and appearance to the state.

I would personally have liked to see more weaving of the theoretical concepts (necropolitics, the colonial present etc) into the chapters on producing, ameliorating and experiencing social violence but for the last chapter in particular, I sensed that Mayblin didn’t want analysis to speak over the direct testimony. But even for someone who is (indirectly) very familiar with the subject matter of impoverishment in the asylum process, the analysis added to my understanding and the interview excerpts were extremely powerful. I will certainly be taking a look at Mayblin’s previous book Asylum after Empire for more historicising of the current system.