Geographies of asylum, welfare, and the state at the margins

  • Alistair Sheldrick

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores how the state is experienced and reproduced through asylum and welfare governance in the UK. Over the past decade, the UK's asylum and social welfare systems have both been transformed by major organisational changes, funding cuts, and privatisations in austerity. With this, asylum seeker dispersals and the impacts of welfare austerity have become increasingly concentrated in already-impoverished, marginal urban areas such as Rochdale, Greater Manchester. Despite these parallels, academic analysis and commentary has tended to consider welfare and border regimes in isolation. In this thesis I address this gap by developing an empirically rich, geographical understanding of the everyday practices, performances, and lived experiences of governance that non-citizens and citizens negotiate at the margins. The original empirical material was gathered through a twelve-month ethnographic study conducted in Rochdale and was focussed on two charity drop-in centres; one serving migrant communities, the other non-migrant clientele. Whilst catering to different groups, both organisations provided crucial assistance in dealing with the state's bureaucratic practices relating to housing, immigration and benefits applications and appeals. My role at the drop-in centres was one of both researcher and volunteer and the observations discussed here were based on my experiences shadowing service staff as they interacted with claimants. As well as participant observation, I also conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with service staff (n=14) and service users (n=11). In addressing this topic in this way, I seek to document the experiences of people and places that are too often overlooked in public and academic discourse. The main findings are presented in five chapters. Chapters 5 and 6 concern lived experiences of asylum and welfare governance respectively; detailing how, under intentionally hostile regimes, both asylum and welfare claimants are subject to disciplinary expressions of sovereign power and systematically exposed to poverty and destitution. Chapter 7 concerns the actors involved in reproducing a 'peopled state' (Jones, 2012) and the outsourcing of asylum and welfare 'services' in austerity. Whilst the organizational and moral distance (Gill, 2016) of such bureaucratic arrangements aided the implementation of hostile governance, I also consider here how outsourcing and discretion created scope for important forms of contestation and subversion in these systems. Chapter 8 concerns the material-spatial dynamics of the state, arguing that - as well as bureaucracy, discourse, and people - state effects are negotiated through the presence and agency of various 'technical devices' in service encounters. Here I explore the governmental implications of the technological shift from paper-based to digital state bureaucracies. The final two chapters reflect on the many parallel governmental practices and shared spaces that exist between border and welfare systems. Whilst the border is reproduced through informal and formal modes of segregation, I draw attention here to everyday acts of solidarity and connection that exist across asylum and welfare systems. By deconstructing statist categorizations of citizenship, the thesis critiques the discursive and ontological separation of 'national abjects' (Tyler, 2013) according to immigration status as a potent but fragile instrument of statecraft. In recognizing different forms of incoherence and contingency in the everyday reproduction of welfare and asylum regimes, I draw from poststructuralist state theory (Abrams, 1988; Mitchell, 1991; Painter, 2006) to challenge the widespread reification of states as monolithic political realities. Instead, I portray the state to be a product of shifting assemblages of governmental discourses, technologies, people, materials, and affects; arguing that the state is better treated primarily as a symbolic entity that is inherently uneve
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorKevin Ward (Supervisor)


  • The state
  • Governance
  • Asylum
  • Welfare

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