Uncertainty, precarity and identity: between ‘student’ and ‘migrant’ status

This book has explored the ways in which migrants navigate and come to know the city, as well as the material, emotional and spiritual elements that they draw upon in creating a sense of home in East London that remains connected to Vietnam. However, an examination of participants' plans, hopes and aspirations also illuminates the impact of uncertainty about their future upon their everyday lives, identities and senses of belonging. Participants who have migr ated to study occttpy a particular position in what has been termed the ‘education-migration nexus ’: policy fr ameworks that cormect the mobility of international students with flows of skilled migration in neoliberal economies (Robertson and Runganaikaloo

2014) . In the case of the UK, immigration policies take place within the context of an ageing population, skills shortages in particular areas of the labottr market, aud the development of free movement policies within the EU. UK immigr ation policies are currently being revised as a result of the EU referendum in 2016, in which Britain voted to leave the EU. Despite the likelihood that free movement will end when the UK leaves the EU, at the tune of writing, the shape of its future immigr ation system remains uncertain.

Like other neoliberal western economies, the UK’s immigration regime has undergone a shift from permanent settlement and family reunification towards an emphasis on a flexible migrant labottr force that is targeted at filling gaps in the labour market (Geddie 2015). The UK. along with Australia, New Zealand and Canada, has adopted a points-based system in which migrants are assessed and selected on the basis of their skills and qualifications, but also in terms of their language fluency, their perceived ability to integrate into the host society and on biological factors including age and health, all of which are evaluated in relation to ideas of their ‘desirability’ as workers (Robertson and Runganaikaloo 2014). These factors have influenced policies that are designed to allow international students to transition into the labour market. International students have been viewed as particularly desirable because of then qualifications, English language skills and the fact that they have already undergone a period of living in the UK.

However, despite increasing competition among higher education institutions to attract international stirdents, those in the UK have been affected by major policy changes that have taken place in the context of economic crisis and negative discourses surrounding immigration that are prevalent within the mainstream media. Immigration is increasingly framed as a threat to national security and the UK economy, and a key commitment by the Conservative government pledged to reduce net migration ‘to the tens of thousands’ (Travis 2011, cited in Geddie

2015) . Despite acknowledging the value of the funding, skills and qualifications that they contribute to the UK economy, international students have been included within net migration reduction targets and have been affected by increasingly strict border security policies. In 2012, the UK Border Agency suspended London Metropolitan University’s status as a ‘highly trusted sponsor’ of international students, after identifying significant breaches of immigration controls. This

Future homes, mobilities and belongings 135 initiated a wider and ongoing crackdown on private higher education institutions (Guardian 2012). At London Metropolitan University alone, around two thousand international students were no longer allowed to start or to continue their courses and faced removal from the UK if they were unable to secure a place at another institution witliin sixty days. Additionally, the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) visa, which allowed non-EU graduates to remain in the UK for a further two years to gain work experience, was closed in 2012 as part of the government’s aim to reduce net migration. Reports on stirdent mobility have registered concern at the declining numbers of non-EU students applying to study in the UK, warning that the government’s stance on immigration risks damaging the country’s reputation as an attractive destination for international students (Universities UK Report 2015). The experiences of participants in this book highlight how the framing of immigration and its policy outcomes impact upon the everyday lives and aspirations of Vietnamese students in the UK, particularly as they transition from ‘student’ to ‘migrant’ status. Participants' experiences of navigating the constantly changing immigration regulations illuminate the ways in which geopolitical structures interact with their senses of identity and influence then ideas and practices of home and belonging. Whilst international students are frequently represented as part of the ‘transnational elite’ who can move freely around the world in the pursuit of their education and career, the reality of experiences amongst my participants suggests that a more nuanced understanding of the positioning of non-EU students is required.

Participants in this book expressed a sense of being caught between constructions of privilege and marginality, expectations of success and fear of failure. While their journeys of migr ation may have begun with a sense of aspiration and adventure, the reality of then positioning in the cunent political climate had a powerful effect on their self-esteem and identity. While these obstacles present significant challenges to developing a sense of home or belonging, participants also demonstrate agency and resourcefulness in the strategies that they develop to navigate the immigration system and to cope with its impacts on their everyday lives. Ty described how the experience of having to change colleges when his university lost its sponsorship licence had influenced the direction of his education and career. In studying to become a chartered accountant rather than pursuing Iris original degree in Business Administration, Ty had chosen a qualification that could be studied in multiple institutions and is respected in different countries. This decision was directly related to the fear of other colleges in London being closed down by the immigration authorities. Ty must now pass a number of exams over the next two years, which will qualify him to work as an accountant, also providing another route towards settlement in the UK:

I started thinking about ACCA [Association of Chartered Certified Accountants] because I thought, ok, if the school closes, the association’s still there, so I just sit the exam and go to another school and tuition provider, London School of Busmess and Finance - luckily I didn't study my BA with them, because they are crap as well! They just got their licence suspended.

last month, with another 46 schools and educational things like that. For ACCA, they’ve got an open source of knowledge, so every school can provide tuition in their way to make you pass the exam and then price is not so different.


Ty described the strategy that he devised in order to protect Iris education and increase his chances of being able to stay in the UK on a long-term basis. When his studies were jeopardised by the suspension of his institution’s sponsorship status, Ty and his family consulted lawyers who advised him of the available options, enabling him to change institution and stay in the UK. Ty had gained extensive knowledge of the immigration system and how to navigate its processes, helping him to feel more in control of his future. However, Ty also described how his response to the crisis had been influenced by his spiritual beliefs:

I was lucky. But, like, in Asia, we believe that we’re fated. Like, you’re not lucky because you’re connected somehow, in some way you don’t know. I really believe that. Because before my school closed down, there’s always something that troubled me, something I wanted to tell but I didn’t know till it happened. Your instinct tells you, but you don’t know what to do with that. That’s why like, maybe because of the fact that I’ve been through lots of like .. . scams, like with my school, and accounting is the last thing in the world that is right and wrong - when I go to study business administration, you become just business admin, that’s the level that you get to. But with accounting, you can do a lot more things.


Linli's narrative describes the challenges of finding employment, the difficulty of being financially dependent on her parents and the uncomfortable realisation that she might actually have more career options if she returned to Vietnam:

It’s not easy for an older person like me. I worked for five years [in Vietnam] and I have to come back to student life - it’s not easy at all. That you get sponsored by your parents again, and you go to school and you study what you have known, because I have a Master’s degree already, you know? So it’s not easy. I even think that most of what I learnt at King’s, I have from my first Master’s degree already, so ... I feel it’s a big problem here. Now I have graduated, I think that the biggest problem for me is that if I go back to Vietnam now, and I have the degree from King’s, with my network I will get many offers. And even before I went to UK, a CEO told me that ‘when you come back, work for me’. So if I go back to Vietnam, I will find my place very easy, and I can afford myself easily, but here in UK, it doesn't mean that you will get a job immediately, and even if there’s a job, I have to find it. In Vietnam, if I come back they will come and find me and offer me that, you know? And even if I work for that company, they could be my friends and network before, so it’s very easy for me to work with them. Also, if I stay here, I have to think about how to get a mortgage ... so I don’t know what to do.


In a study of international students in Australia, Robertson and Runganaikaloo (2014) describe the demands of the immigration regime as a source of stress and anxiety for students, particularly as they come to the end of then' studies and are positioned as ‘migrants’ rather than ‘students’. This transition fundamentally changes the nature of their relationship with the state. Whilst international students may have been welcomed as contributors to the economy, being re-categorised as a migrant transforms this relationship into one of suspicion, surveillance and insecurity:

This is a space in which they have to ‘prove’ their right to belong through. . . the performance of a particular kind of migrant subjectivity ... while living with ‘precarity’, student-migr ants are still engaged with the same processes of settlement as other migrants: building networks, making friends, working .. . and starting to feel at home.

Robertson and Runganaikaloo 2014: 212

Many international students will have lived in the country for several years during their studies and will have developed then- own senses of attachment, home and belonging. For those who hope to settle on a long-term basis, the uncertainty of being on a temporary visa and the knowledge that they may have to uproot themselves (and sometimes their families) and return to their countries of origin leads to a sense of ‘living in limbo’ (Robertson and Runganaikaloo 2014: 214). This experience is visible in the narratives of several participants in this study. Since the abolition of the Tier 1 (Post-Study Work) visa, non-EU students must negotiate more complex and demanding requirements if they hope to stay in the UK. While they previously had up to two years to find work after theft graduation, they must now secure a job paying at least £30,000 and be sponsored by their employer to gain a working visa. The competition for graduate jobs and the cost to employers of obtaining the visa makes this particularly difficult for non-EU students to achieve. At the time of writing, Minh held a Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) visa, a scheme that allows recent graduates to stay in the UK for a further year in order to set up a business, providing that they are endorsed by their college or university (UK Home Office 2018). This can be extended for a further year only if the applicant provides a letter stating that they are making ‘satisfactory progress’ in developing their' business and can show that they have specific funds available. Whilst Minh’s former university endorsed her to set up a brtsiness providing care for older people, she has since struggled to secure further funding and support for business development. Minh expressed anxiety, disappointment and frustration about the future. She has been applying for multiple jobs, but has found that most are short-term contracts and employers are reluctant to sponsor a work permit. She is considering relocation to Australia or Canada, as friends have told her that their immigration regimes are easier to navigate. In the meantime, the instability of her future has a negative impact upon her senses of home, identity and belonging.

Precarity and agency: (im)possible belongings?

Participants who are on short-term or temporary visas articidate a sense of immobility alongside mobility; a feeling of waiting and preparing for multiple possible outcomes, frustration at having to comply with frequently changing visa requirements and of being unable to create a long-term sense of home, belonging or security. Their uncertain immigration status means that they often have little choice but to take jobs for which they are over-qualified and under-paid, as well as accepting transient, sometimes overcrowded housing conditions. Migrants on Tier 4 and Tier 1 visas also have no recourse to pitblic fluids, meaning that they cannot access income support, job-seekers allowance or housing benefit, and many must also pay a surcharge to access healthcare. Scholars have theorised these conditions in terms of precarity: geopolitical processes in which ‘complex institutional and geographic pathways’ render migrants vulnerable to extended periods of insecurity (Goldring and Landolt 2011). This perspective examines the ways in which various forms of state power impact upon migrants’ everyday practices and identities, aud demonstrates that migrants' transnational practices are situated within broader frameworks of power. The concept of precarity has been theorised in terms of ‘ lifeworlds that are inflected with uncertainty and instability’ (Waite 2009, cited in Lewis et al. 2015: 580), and is associated with the rise of neoliberal globalisation, the mobility of capital and demands for cheap migrant labour (Lewis et al. 2015). These structural factors have created exploitative conditions for migr ant workers, who are vulnerable to low wages, long or irregular working hours, unfair dismissal, coercion and forced labour. While some scholars view precarity as a condition specific to the neoliberal labour market (Fantone 2007, Lewis et al. 2015), others have broadened the scope of the concept to encompass insecure life-worlds and conditions of existential precarity (Ettlinger 2007, Butler 2004). Lewis et al. (2015) propose the concept of ‘hyper-precarity’, in which migrants who experience both employment and immigration-related precarity are at risk of entering the labour market at the lowest possible point and are the most at risk of serious exploitation and forced labour. Asylum seekers, refugees and irregular migrants are proposed to be at particular risk, since they are often prohibited from accessing legal work and are forced to seek informal, sometimes dangerous forms of labour. Hyper-precarity is therefore described in terms of ‘processes of multi-dimensional, overlapping employment and immigration insecurities’ (Lewis et al. 2015: 15). Although this perspective is helpfill in terms of illuminating the intersecting vulnerabilities that are faced by refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants, the experiences of participants in this study indicate the possibility of experiencing precarity in different areas of life at different times, including in the forms of transient housing, irregular and low-paid work and an uncertain legal status.

Whilst for the most vulnerable migrants and refugees, aspects of precarity intersect to produce particularly threatening conditions, migrants from a range of backgrounds may experience different forms and degrees of precarity at different stages of their migration journey. This problernatises the reproduction of binary divisions between asylum seekers, undocumented migrants and refirgees (who are frequently positioned as marginalised victims) and international students, who are usually categorised as elite, highly skilled migrants moving freely across borders in the pursuit of their career (Ho 2009). In this respect, this book builds upon the perspective of Conradson and Latham (2005), who propose the term ‘middling transnationals’ to describe individuals who are embedded within transnational networks, but may not form part of either the transnational elite or the most vulnerable migrant populations.

Attending to the experiences of ‘middling’ transnationals also enables a focus on how migrant identities are shaped in relation to discourses and regimes of immigration. In a study of ‘highly skilled' migr ants from Singapore in the UK. Ho (2009) explains that despite holding visas that validate their qualifications, these migrants encounter practical and emotional difficulties and must develop strategies to circumvent the immigration regime. Ho (2009: 129) calls for a ‘trajectories’ perspective that attends to relationships between immigration policies and migrant subjectivities, enabling a comprehensive understanding of the challenges that are faced by all migrants, the strategies that they develop to overcome them and the policy regimes in which they are embedded.

The experiences of participants in this book also highlight the ways in which migrants can move between different immigration statuses at different stages in their migration trajectory. During my fieldwork. I spoke with three young Vietnamese women who had arrived in the UK on student visas but worked in nail salons on a full-time basis. They did not feel comfortable about participating in a formal interview and were reluctant to tell me the details of why they had decided to remain once then visa had expired, but did discuss the difficulty of finding jobs that will sponsor a long-term working visa. Other participants described some of the strategies that are used by migrants who have entered illegally or overstayed their visas and want to stay in the UK. Messages on the forum of the VietHorne website advise migrant women to apply for a visa while they are pregnant or if they have recently had a child. These conversations detail the procedures for applying under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides a right to family life, through which some irregular migrants have been granted permission to remain. Other discussions on the message boards include examples of migrants who have been allowed to live and work in the UK on a spousal visa gained by marriage to a British citizen. Though anonymous and unverifiable, these discussions illuminate the range of circumstances that surround irregular migr ation and how migrants navigate the demands of the immigration regime.

Drawing inspiration from McFarlane’s (2011a, 2011b) work on learning and dwelling in the city, practices and strategies for circumventing immigration controls can be understood as part of the ‘tactical learning’ that is necessary for survival in conditions of inequality. Building upon Scott’s (1985) description of the

‘weapons of the weak’ and de Certeau’s (1984) work on the tactics through which people navigate and resist structures of power, McFarlane (2011a: 57) describes the ‘incremental urban knowing’ that emerges though everyday dwelling in the city. Though improvising, translating and sharing knowledge of spaces, threats and opportunities, individuals and groups learn how to survive in the city and sometimes mobilise to resist practices of marginalisation.

The pressure to earn money, to send remittances to support their family in Vietnam, to seek a better quality of life or to stay with loved ones all contribute to individuals remaining in the UK illegally. Scholars also highlight the multiple routes through which individuals may become irregular. Bloch et al. (2014) propose ‘undocumentedness’ as a process rather than a one-off event, detailing the multiple factors that result in irregular migration:

Some people are bom into irregularity and enter their adult lives occupying this precarious situation; others enter into it as part of a migration project and some fall into it without ever realising it or out of desperation, due, for example, to then need to avoid returning to a country where they fear persecution.

Blochet al. 2014:3

This perspective also identifies the structural factors that contribute to irregular migr ation, including demands for cheap, flexible labour in receiving countries and some reductions in social and economic inequality in sending countries (Bloch et al. 2014, Ruhs and Anderson 2010). In addition to these structural forces, literature on irregular migration highlights the ways in which practices of immigr ation control result in restriction and immobility, effectively trapping irregular migrants in countries of residence (Bloch et al. 2014, Sigona 2012).

Through a focus on the ways in which immigration structures influence participants’ experiences of belonging, home and identity in the UK. this book contributes to an emerging body of scholarship on the geopolitics of home. This perspective focuses on the ways in which structures of power and inequality are influenced by and emerge from the home, and is particularly relevant for theorising intersections between home, nation and migration (Brickell 2012b). Studies of home in relation to geopolitics have encompassed topics including forced evictions and gendered activism (Brickell 2014) and the impact of border security practices on experiences of home among displaced persons and refugees (Caluya 2010, Kabachnik et al. 2010). The concept of a ‘geopolitics of mobility’ has also been proposed to argue that while international borders are porous to economic investment, they remain a source of restriction for migr ants, who are considered to be of low geopolitical value (Hyndman 2004, cited in Brickell 2012b: 580). Studying relationships between home and geopolitics enables an understanding of the ways in which state power penetrates into the domestic space, further problematising boundaries between public and private, institutional and intimate. This perspective also brings together ‘extreme’ and ‘everyday’ geographies of home, highlighting the ways in which individuals can experience disruptions to home and forms of displacement at a range of levels, including through migration.

Future homes, mobilities and belongings 141 violence or environmental displacement, but also due to disability, divorce and life-course transitions (Brickell 2012b, 2014). Moreover, this approach attends to the significance of home as a source of security and identity that is experienced differently in relation to class, disability, sexuality, ethnicity and gender. The home is therefore not separate from the political; it is influenced by and embedded within power structures, and has the potential to be a site of resistance to political injustices.


Sometimes I find a conunon point between Saigon and London - it’s that a lot of people came here to London from different countries and it’s the same in Saigon, different people from different places in Vietnam, most of them are not originally from Saigon - like me, I’m from another province. (Phuong)

This chapter has examined participants’ complex relationships with home, where it might be located and the ways in which they develop a constantly changing sense of attachment, familiarity and security within East London, the wider city and across transnational space. It has identified the fluid, processual nature of return, which for most participants is one part of their longer-term strategies and aspirations of mobility. Their friture plans are intertwined with collective as well as individual ambitions, which are also continually shifting in response to their education, career situation and immigration status. For participants who arrived as refugees, home is a particularly emotional, sensitive topic that sometimes provokes difficult memories of the places and people that they left behind in Vietnam. While some participants feel that their home remains in Vietnam, others express a strong sense of home and belonging in relation to particular areas of London or to the UK as a whole. Son’s description of feeling different senses of home in relation to both Vietnam and London has been echoed by participants who came as refugees and those who arrived more recently. However, cunent political discourses surrounding immigration and their policy outcomes mean that those participants who are without long-tenn leave to remain face greater difficulties in being able to settle in the UK than those who have citizenship or refugee status. For participants who are undecided about where they view their present and future homes to be, this may not present a source of anxiety or exclusion. However, for individuals who have developed a strong sense of attachment or hope to create their permanent home here, the uncertainty of their immigration status and the associated instability of their work, housing and relationship opportunities are constant concerns. Through gaming knowledge of how to navigate the requirements of the immigration system, as well as learning from the experiences and advice of their friends and social networks, participants demonstrate agency and are able to exercise some control over their short-term fritures. Other individuals manage from day to day, avoiding in-depth thoughts about the future or having to make finir plans that might lead to rejection or failure. While participants who came as students often arr ived with a sense of aspir ation, the realities oftransitioning between ‘student’ and ‘migrant’ status have left some feeling frustrated and doubtful that they will ever feel a sense of home in the UK. For those who are determined to stay or feel unwilling to return to Vietnam, a precarious life of irregular work and remaining hidden from the authorities is a frightening but easily realised prospect, particularly when irregularity is viewed as a process that can affect migrants of different backgrounds.

Phuong’s narrative articulates her awareness of the diversity of London and its history of providing refuge, work and settlement to migrants from a range of cultural backgromrds. Phuong draws upon her knowledge of Ho Chi Minh City, another of the many cities around the world that are being re-shaped by mobility. In addition to illustrating her reference to cosmopolitan diversity, Phuong’s comment is another point of connection between London and Vietnam, one of the many that are being forged by the individuals who are dwelling, moving between and contributing to these cities. It is a reminder of the shared challenges that migrants face in arriving in an unfamiliar city, finding their way around and forming relationships with the people and places that they encounter. The experiences of participants in this study indicate that home is an ever-changing, flexible idea and emotional concept, sometimes located in space and at other times connected to objects, relationships or practices. However, while some individuals articulate the possibility of attachments to multiple places that changes over tune, a sense of safety, connection and belonging in their present location remain important. Participants’ narratives problématisé associations between globalisation and mobility. While free movement is available to some within an unequal global system, practices of border regulation have a major impact on migrants in the UK. How participants respond to these policies will influence their future opportunities and possibilities for developing a long-tenn sense of home and belonging here.

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