DAY FIFTEEN: Hostile Environments of Gender and Reproduction

In this harrowing piece, Lucy Lowe reflects on the hostile environment and how it impacts pregnant asylum seekers and babies in detention centers.

Lucy Lowe

Featured image: “Yarl’s Wood Protest.” by Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Pregnancy and birth are complex experiences that can evoke hopes and anxieties about the past and future, and illuminate the need for care and community. For migrants, it can also mean a confronting engagement with borders and immigration controls, and regimes of surveillance and management that are defining characteristics of both pregnancy care and immigration in the UK.

In Scotland, people in the asylum system are subject to contradictory policies and political ideologies on immigration, from ‘New Scots Integration Strategies’ that claim to welcome migrants, to the UK-wide ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies that seek to make life as unbearable as possible.

The treatment of pregnant asylum seekers in the UK reveals how the control and enforcement of borders are themselves tools of violence that are frequently used but rarely recognised by the state. Increasingly restrictive access to visas or official pathways to asylum force people to pursue irregular and more dangerous journeys. Such routes put women in particular at heightened risk of violence, including sexual violence.

Taking high doses of contraceptives before their journey is one strategy that women adopt in order to prevent pregnancies occurring as a result of rape. Even if they successfully reach a country where they might seek asylum, persecution that is deemed domestic or even feminised, often fails to meet narrow legal definitions of a refugee. The ‘hostile environment’, which restricts access to basic needs and services including accommodation, healthcare, employment, and financial assistance, keeps people in a state of destitution. This state of precarity puts people at further risk of exploitation.  

Pregnancy is usually presented as an additional challenge and source of vulnerability for people in the asylum system. Their experiences of pregnancy are often complicated by health problems, including poor nutrition and mental health problems. The dispersal policy, introduced under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, was intended to reduce the ‘burden’ of asylum seekers in the south of England by relocating people to key sites across the UK. This forced relocation has resulted in many people experiencing repeated relocations, reducing the possibility of any meaningful sense of community or support.

Such policies can have damaging effects on the health of individuals and their children. These problems are exacerbated when people are housed in poor-quality accommodation, as they were in Glasgow in the Mother and Baby Unit, and still are, in deficient hotel accommodation, where people lack access to cooking facilities and are provided with insufficient nutrition.

This accommodation, run by the private company Mears, has been widely critiqued as unsafe and unsuitable, particularly for pregnant people and new babies. It is therefore unsurprising that asylum seekers often experience a deterioration in health during their first two to three years in the UK. The hostile environment ensures that people seeking asylum frequently encounter poverty, destitution, and insecure housing. These are key barriers to health for everyone.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has emphasised the impact of social disadvantage on maternal health and pregnancy outcomes. It classifies refugee and asylum-seeking people’s pregnancies as ‘high risk’ due to the ‘complex social factors’ they face, and recommends increased efforts to improve access and engagement with maternity services.

This ‘high risk’ categorisation involves a pathway of care led by obstetrics, rather than midwifery, and a more rigorous regime of surveillance and interventions. They frequently experience high intervention births, with notably high rates of inductions and caesarean sections.

Despite this high-intervention care, refugee and asylum-seeking women in the UK continue to be at increased risk of poor pregnancy and birth outcomes. This is part of a wider context of reproductive inequalities, where Black women are four times more likely and Asian women two times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes.

These fatal inequalities exemplify the need for a reproductive justice approach. Reproductive justice was developed as a framework for activism and analysis to conceptualize the relationship between reproductive rights, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression. While reproductive rights movements have often focused on struggles for access to contraceptives and abortion, underscored by the concept of ‘choice’, reproductive justice acknowledges both the right to have or not to have children, and the right to safely and adequately parent children.

Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK are highly restricted in their choices, from what they eat, to where they live, to where and how they give birth. The hostile environment produces and compounds these multiple oppressions among some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The political salience of borders and immigration in the UK is resulting in increasingly violent policies to prevent migrants, including people seeking asylum, entering or remaining in the country.

Borders reproduce and reinforce racialized and gendered violence by categorising people as ‘criminals’, or as unworthy of human rights, which exposes people to further violence and restricts their capacity to receive care and support.

Research on forced migrants frequently emphasises the violent state exclusion of refugees, yet reproduction presents a potential zone of inclusion, where women and their infants are rendered deserving of protection on the basis of motherhood, rather than persecution. Pregnancy and motherhood can allow refugee women to form networks of social and familial support, but the financial, physical, and emotional demands of raising children can risk further isolating marginalized women and exacerbating mental health conditions that are already more prevalent among refugees and asylum seekers.

Although healthcare is provided by the NHS and (minimal) financial support is provided by the Home Office (in the case of asylum seekers and some refused asylum seekers), a plethora of organisations exist to advise, support, and advocate for refugees and asylum seekers. In Glasgow, Amma Birth Companions provide antenatal, birth, and postnatal support for refugees and asylum seekers. Frequently referred to as the ‘Amma Family’, staff and clients frequently use kinship terminology to convey the support they provide and receive. This intimate labour, grounded in opposition to the hostile environment, provides immediate support and advocacy, but also highlights the ways in which new communities of care and solidarity can be produced through universally shared challenges of pregnancy, birth, and parenting.

Author’s Bio

Lucy Lowe is a senior lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. This post draws on her ESRC New Investigator Grant funded project Maternity, Migration, and Asylum in Scotland (MAMAS).

DAY TWELVE: Care, fear and mothering in the British asylum accommodation system

“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” says Júlia Fernandez in this illuminating piece.

Júlia Fernandez

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.

María breastfeeding her newborn baby right before they were moved to another room. Her partner was carrying downstairs everything they had. Image credits: Júlia Fernandez

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.

Author’s Bio

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.