Biography

Helen Machin is a social work academic working on research relating to undocumented migration. Helen is registered with Social Work England (SW96261) and has experience of professional practice with children and families in both statutory and third sector contexts. Helen’s teaching at Keele is focused on ethics, professional values and practice with children and families. She holds an undergraduate degree in English Literature (Durham University), a postgraduate degree in Social Work (LJMU) and a certificate in Chinese Languages and Culture (Jiaotong University, Xi’an). Helen is also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her doctoral research (due for submission in 2022) is focused on the experiences of undocumented Chinese migrants in England. Helen has been successful in applying for external funding and, in 2017, was awarded a British Council Newton Award to complete a fellowship at Fudan University, Shanghai.

Helen is currently Disability Liaison Officer for Social Work at Keele.

Helen is a member of the China Europe Research Platform on Migration. She is also a member of the working group for The Social Work Research Podcast. Helen acts as a peer reviewer for the British Journal of Social Work and the journal Social Inclusion.

Helen is a member of the Keele Institute for Social Inclusion and has acted as peer reviewer for the Journal of Academic Development and Education (J.A.D.E.) and Guest Editor for the student-led postgraduate journal, Under Construction@Keele.

Research and scholarship

The core focus of Helen’s doctoral research is the experiences of undocumented Chinese migrants in England. The study is centred on current national debates about immigration and the treatment of migrants. The research will extend academic and professional discussions about the relationship between social work and marginalised social groups. Helen has also developed research on social work constructions of undocumented migrants and rural to urban migration and social work practice responses in mainland China.

PhD Title: “Hot and bitter tears” (辛酸泪): An inquiry into Chinese migrants’ experiences of undocumented status 

Academic supervisors: Dr Tom Kingstone, Professor Lisa Dikomitis, Professor Steven M Shardlow

Abstract:

Chinatowns across the world evoke images of the overseas Chinese as both culturally static and timeless. Such fixed images have, at times, come into conflict with reports of the tragic deaths of undocumented Chinese migrants during human smuggling operations. Previous studies on undocumented Chinese migration have predominantly examined the factors driving irregular movement from China and the smuggling and criminal networks which facilitate it. Little is known about undocumented Chinese migrants’ everyday lives in their destination countries or the reasons they stay, despite hostile immigration policies. In the light of this gap in the literature, this study examined the experiences of undocumented Chinese migrants in the UK with a focus on three key questions: i) how do Chinese migrants experience the shift to an undocumented status?; ii) how do Chinese migrants navigate an undocumented life?; and iii) how do Chinese migrants experience the status journey over time?

The qualitative study draws on life story interviews, underpinned by ethnographic principles, with 13 undocumented Chinese migrants conducted between January and August 2017. Both purposeful and snowball sampling methods were used to recruit participants from three sites in the North of England; Manchester’s Chinatown, a Chinese community centre, and a Chinese church. I adopted a narrative approach to analysis and attended to the content, the function, the structure and the context of migrant’s narratives. Analysis focused on both the subjective experiences of narrators and the social and cultural contexts, in both China and the UK, within which their narratives were created.  

The shift to an irregular legal status was experienced as a disorientating series of events when the normal passage of time was disrupted. Migrants became suspended in the present; cut off from their previous lives, yet unable to consider their own or their families’ future. Daily life was centred around work in Chinese restaurants and takeaways which was synonymous with low pay, long hours, bullying and exploitation by co-ethnic employers and colleagues. Although employment was a necessity, workplaces were high-risk spaces where stories of immigration raids circulated amongst Chinese workers and the spectre of arrest and detention imbued migrants’ narratives with fear.

After submitting applications for the right to remain, migrants waited, often for over a decade, for a legal resolution. Whilst they waited, mothers missed the childhoods of their children who they had left behind, migrants lost parents and were unable to return to China to mourn, and young people fell out of sync with their peers as their irregular status forced them onto paths that diverged from the ‘normal’ life trajectory they had expected. This protracted period of liminal legality and the resulting losses led to emotional anguish. Some migrants found friendship and belonging in the Chinese church, but the fellowship of other Chinese Christians could not resolve legal status issues, nor could it protect migrants from racist and discriminatory treatment.

Migrants who had obtained the right to remain had carved out more stable lives in which their regular migration status had enabled them to achieve greater autonomy over their work and family lives. However, the sacrifices made to remain in the UK, combined with migrants’ perceptions that they would no longer fit into Chinese society, meant that their migration, originally envisaged as a short-term sojourn, became a one-way journey.

The study offers insights into undocumented Chinese migrants’ pathways into (and out of) undocumented status, the structures and places that sustained undocumented Chinese migrants lives and the reasons why, despite the hardships faced, they remained in the UK indefinitely. The themes of this thesis, including liminality, suffering, silence and perseverance over time, will be of interest to professionals who work to uphold the rights of undocumented migrants in both policy and in practice.  

Teaching

Helen has acted as module lead for the following undergraduate and postgraduate modules on the Social Work programme at Keele University.

Undergraduate

  • BA1 Area of Practice (1) Working with Children and Families
  • BA1 Introduction to Legal Processes
  • BA1 Foundations of Social Work
  • BA2 Area of Practice (2) Working with Children and Families
  • BA2 Social Work Theory and Methods (1)
  • BA3 Social Work Theory and Methods (2)

Postgraduate

  • MA1 Introduction to Legal Processes
  • MA1 Social Work Theory and Methods (1) 

Helen also contributes to the MA in Child Care Law and Policy at Keele and Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s annual Practice Week.

Selected Publications

  • Machin HE and Shardlow SM. The Construction of Character in Social Work Narratives of Practice with Undocumented Migrants. The British Journal of Social Work. doi> full text>
  • Machin H and Shardlow SM. 2017. Overcoming ethical barriers to research with hidden social groups. Research Ethics. doi> link> full text>
  • Machin HE. 2017. A bone of contention: reflections on the experiences of mature learners in social work education. Journal of Development and Higher Education. full text>

Full Publications Listshow

Journal Articles

  • Machin HE and Shardlow SM. The Construction of Character in Social Work Narratives of Practice with Undocumented Migrants. The British Journal of Social Work. doi> full text>
  • Machin H and Shardlow SM. 2017. Overcoming ethical barriers to research with hidden social groups. Research Ethics. doi> link> full text>
  • Machin HE. 2017. A bone of contention: reflections on the experiences of mature learners in social work education. Journal of Development and Higher Education. full text>

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