Migrants board a small boat

Political rhetoric around migration is often febrile - especially in the UK over the last few years, with frequent talk of ‘crisis’ and ‘invasion’. Indeed, a government source in June 2023 described the small boats crossing the Channel as a ‘ticking time bomb’ threatening the UK’s social and economic security. Such discourse reflects an emotional turmoil of outrage and indignation, fear and panic, mistrust, and repulsion.

Alongside such splenetic rhetoric, however, the political response to irregular migration is also one of callous indifference and disregard. We see this lack of care demonstrated in the UK’s massive asylum backlog, with 170,000 asylum seekers now awaiting an initial decision. It is also reflected in the UK government’s plans to warehouse asylum seekers on boats and in military barracks, and to automatically banish new arrivals to Rwanda.

These contradictory emotional displays distract from government failures to manage the immigration system effectively, but they have real-world impacts. This includes seriously and detrimentally affecting those navigating the immigration system, as well as wider societal impacts, with evidence of growing xenophobia and racially-motivated offences.

From policy to decision-making and operational practice; from Home Office administration to immigration detention centres and judicial appeals, it is clear that the immigration system is at once garishly emotional and yet, seemingly, emotionless.

Birmingham Fellow Dr Melanie Griffiths, University of Birmingham

My new Identities article focuses on people working within the UK’s immigration system to examine its emotionality - drawing on 15 years of research across the UK’s immigration and asylum systems to explore the circulation of emotion across multiple scales and spaces. I use the concept of ‘emotional governance’ – or the government of emotions of the self and others – to ask how emotions within the immigration system are controlled, managed, manipulated, required, and denied. From policy to decision-making and operational practice; from Home Office administration to immigration detention centres and judicial appeals, it is clear that the immigration system is at once garishly emotional and yet, seemingly, emotionless.

Four key emotions

Four emotions are particularly prevalent – anger, disgust, suspicion, and fear. Although immigration systems are invariably presented as rational bureaucracies operating through neutral policies and employees, they present a highly charged affective register. For example, whether through political rhetoric or individual-level encounters, the system abounds with varying intensities of anger. From ‘fiery’ immigration judges losing their temper, to rude Home Office personnel, antagonism, hostility and aggression are endemic. Likewise, the immigration system is saturated with anxiety. – whether among those working within the system or those subject to it. Immigration Judges worry about tabloid attacks, whilst Home Office staffers are afraid of the repercussions of missing targets and Ministers suffer chronic fears of being criticised as too ‘soft’.

Feelings of distaste or revulsion are also evident amongst those operationalising border policies. Sexuality-based asylum claims may be especially prone to aversion, shame, and humiliation. Equally, housing new asylum arrivals in isolated barges and barracks reflects underlying feelings of contagion and repugnance at people deemed offensive or contaminating. They also demonstrate practitioners’ ingrained mistrust of migrants and their narratives, documents, identities, and emotions. A pervasive ‘culture of disbelief’ frames migrants as necessarily liars and cheats; although feelings of uncertainty are so pervasive in all directions, they can be considered core techniques of the immigration system.

These four emotions are so dominant across the breadth and depth of the UK’s immigration system that they should be considered not only characteristic of it, but as actively producing the system.


Alongside these intense emotions, immigration systems operate through chilling coldness and disinterest. Practitioners may prohibit or ignore migrants’ emotional displays, and dispute or disregard their purported emotions. Those deciding spousal visa applications, for example, question the veracity and strength of love, whilst those assessing refugee claims query applicants’ fear and honesty.

It is not only migrants’ emotions that are overlooked within immigration systems. Through both individual tactics and structural mechanisms, such as outsourcing and layers of middlemen, immigration practitioners are insulated against the emotionality of their work. Through emotional suppression or avoidance, unbearable feelings are blocked-off and responsibility shifted. Rather that suggesting emotional absence, this points to the heavy ‘emotional labour’ required of immigration practitioners.

Emotional governance

Migration politics are emotional, and emotions are inherently political. Despite the facade of overarching legal rationality, migration bureaucracies employ emotional governance to disenfranchise migrants, employing emotional content that fosters racial categorisation and domination. This creates people deemed simultaneously threatening, polluting and irrelevant. Mobilisation and suspension of emotions sustain social stratification and subjugation to produce deportable and disposable persons.