Featured image: Rayan’s accommodation, a small studio flat where she lives with her two children since they were moved to a very isolated area in the outskirts of the city. Rayan is one of Júlia’s participants in this project and the photo was taken by her.
I press Ctrl+F on my keyboard and search for the word ‘care’ throughout the document where I type all my fieldwork notes. The search function returns 120 results, of which more than 50, I quickly realize, belong to the word ‘scared’. Such an altering presence of two additional letters prompts relevant questions when writing about motherhood in the British asylum system. In what ways are ideas and experiences of ‘care’ and being ‘scared’ woven into the same everyday life stories of mothers living in asylum accommodation, and what does it mean to mother along the divides between care and fear?
Eleven months of (still ongoing) ethnographic research on the reproductive experiences of asylum-seeking women residing in temporary accommodation in London have invited me to wonder how ‘care’ and ‘fear’ mobilise different yet interconnected practices and discourses that shape lives -and life-making- in the asylum system. The authors of ‘Revolutionary Mothering’ beautifully capture the care work of mothers as ‘making a hostile world an affirming space for another person’ (2016: 116).
Writing about motherhood in the asylum system, I’ve come to realize, requires thinking about forms of life that survive, resist, and often also thrive in vulnerablizing and harmful spaces; and about the care practices that enable them to do so, even amidst fear.
What is it like for mothers to care when caring takes place in sites defined by ‘habits opposite to love’ (Gumbs, A, 2016: 12)? How do mothers nurture the life of others in sites that facilitate their very own suffering? And how is gender central to the understanding of how forms of violence fold into the everyday practices of care?
I follow Victoria Canning’s criticism of the structural violence of the British asylum system (2018) and approach asylum accommodation as hostile spaces structured by gendered and racialized forms of control, where the perpetuation of violence, trauma and fear is woven into the ordinary lives of unwanted populations. Canning’s work evidences the further gendered harms inflicted by the structures that contain and control migrants on women who have survived persecution. I try to extend her line of analysis to explore the impacts on mothers who care for their children and others in the precarious and uncertain circumstances of temporary asylum accommodation.
Mothers are moved through or stuck in the asylum accommodation system on a no-choice basis, subjected to forms of surveillance and control, and to the enforcement of material and legal precarity. Thereby, they experience minimized autonomy and safety, and higher levels of dependency and vulnerability that extend gendered and intersectional forms of violence into their everyday lives.
As houses witness processes of feeding, nurturance, love, and the continuous remaking of social relations, they also carry wider political significance. Thus, I argue, as extensions of patriarchal control, asylum accommodation structures and the gendered systems of violence that underpin them act as particular terrains for the emergence of specific forms of relatedness and practices of everyday care and support with which mothers, often as lone parents or as primary caregivers, respond to the violence and brutal care deficit of the system and the fears that this engenders.
For the mothers I have met through my fieldwork, fear lives in the subtle, lingering agony of protracted waiting times and in the sudden accelerations of forced mobilities. The persistent threat of destitution silences dissent and complaint among mothers, whose phone calls to the charity Migrant Help are imbued with the fear of being dismissed or of being punished for the insolence of being ungrateful. Fear soaks through that meal illicitly cooked in a hotel room with improper appliances and pervades the air like the smoke that activates the alarms. Fear inhabits unopened envelopes containing unintelligible Home Office correspondence, empty Aspen cards at the end of the week, the return of a husband from an unlawful work day that raises public suspicions about illegal employment. Mothers fear raising a baby on their own in a hotel room and being sexually harassed on their way to the communal toilet. They fear unfavourable forced mobilities and disrupted childhoods that unfold through the course of fragmented memories of temporary housing.
For almost a year, I have observed the day-to-day strategies mothers utilise as they figure out how to mother despite being scared of the various deliberate forms of harm that permeate the British asylum system.
Mothers answer the gendered impacts of structural violence that further marginalise, impoverish, and exclude them with mundane, sketchy, creative, improvised acts of making life possible – often imbued with a sense of not-enoughness. Women respond to poor housing conditions by bathing small children and warming up milk bottles in the sink; composing ingenious sleeping arrangements in a limited living space; cooking chicken soup inside a kettle and warming up pizza slices in a secretly sneaked-in-toaster. They respond to the marginalising and individualising mechanisms of the accommodation system by waiting for the staff shift to bring friends and relatives to stay overnight and by participating in forms of relatedness across sites of temporary accommodation that support them and allow them to care for others. Their acts of care include boundless hugs and kisses to their children and other mother’s children; donating second hand clothes, buggies, and cots to their neighbours; doing hospital visits and helping with childcare; building a den with blankets and pillows and baking a birthday cake for their friend’s child.
The circumstances in which these acts of care take place bestow their mundanity with an extraordinary character that pushes back against gendered systems of violence and nurture the life of others beyond the limits of their fears.
Canning, V. (2017): Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System. Routledge Studies in Criminal Justice, Borders and Citizenship. London: Routledge.
Gumbs, A., Martens, C. and Williams, M. (2016): Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. PM Press.
Júlia Fernandez is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, currently conducting ethnographic research on reproductive experiences among asylum seeking women in London. Her research aims to capture the complex everyday experiences of mothers within the British immigration and asylum system, seeking to understand how the conditions of transiency, insecurity and temporality result not only in particular modalities of mobility but also articulate specific reproductive experiences and subjectivities “on the move’’. Júlia also volunteers as a doula supporting asylum seeking women during pregnancy and childbirth and has social care background working with migrant women experiencing gender-based violence.