It may appear odd to have an essay devoted to examining the treatment of migrant and refugee women in a collection of essays on the civility and incivility in Parliament and public life. But few issues expose the conditions of civility and incivility in our public life and our parliament than as in the way our society treats those seeking refuge. When the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote On Hospitality, he examined how in the treatment of the foreigner, or stranger (l’étranger), we gain important insight into our nature (1).
Our identity as a civil, hospitable, society is maintained and nourished when it is open to others, and not just when others cry for our help. It is in the hospitable treatment of the stranger that the host’s home, in its openness and welcoming of the stranger, reveals itself as a home and the host’s identity as host. How our home welcomes strangers is a reflection on ourselves. So we might therefore be invited to reflect further on the question of hospitality by considering the words of Arnudhati Roy, when, in giving her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture, she affirmed that ‘We know of course there’s really no such thing as the “voiceless”. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’ Roy, in making that statement, underscored the extent to which our present condition is largely inhospitable – inhospitable to strangers, inhospitable to foreigners, inhospitable to those coming from beyond our shores pleading for our help. And what she said encapsulates wholly the hostile treatment of immigrants in the UK, and many other countries of arrival.
When combined with systemic misogyny, a new framework of oppression emerges that puts lives at risk and creates even more oppressive systems and structures that make the status and lived experience of migrant and refugee women even more precarious than it is for men, and this, at every stage of their journey. If we think about Roy’s words and how they relate to what Derrida tells us about hospitality, there can be a no more damning verdict on the condition of civility in British society today.
Immigration is one of those issues about which everyone has an opinion, and usually a very strong opinion. But most opinions on immigration are rarely informed by accurate information or facts. Rather, they are sustained by ignorance of the facts and feelings of alienation, vulnerability, powerlessness, and it is these that define the underlying conditions for how immigration is framed. It is depicted as an additional encumbrance on fragile communities, as adding to individuals’ and communities’ sense of precariousness and vulnerability, as a problem, a threat to the ‘national culture’ – as though nations’ ‘cultures’ are uniform, homogeneous, one-dimensional – despite evidence to the contrary. Such depictions of immigration are understandable, but they are without foundation. That governments draft legislation based on these depictions is profoundly worrying and highly problematic. It demonstrates at best a capitulation of leadership and at worst an explicit acceptance of a right-wing populist agenda that is xenophobic and racist.
Immigrants have been systematically dehumanised and demonised by sections of the British media to such an extent that the majority of British people associate the word ‘immigrant’ with ‘illegal’ (2). Immigrants are now systematically seen as dangerous criminals lurking in the shadows. This relentless inaccurate and racist discourse has had a direct impact on people’s lives, evident in the sharp increase of reported hate attacks in recent years, but also in the systemic violence perpetuated by the state through a set of policies and measures (3).
Britain’s current immigration policy has been designed by its architects to be hostile. Its official purpose is to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants and refugees since its inception in 2012 under then Home Secretary Theresa May. As May put it ‘The aim [of Immigration policy] is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment’ for, what she called, ‘illegal immigrants’. The policy’s objective was ‘to make the lives of’, so-called ‘illegal immigrants, so difficult, that they will choose to leave’. To achieve that objective, all public services, banks, landlords, and employers have been effectively turned into immigration enforcement agents.
This practice is especially egregious in the NHS, and during the pandemic frightened people from seeking help. NHS staff are required by law to check the immigration status of patients and to charge them if they are unable to prove their immigration status (4). Although the government claims this policy is aimed at undocumented immigrants, the implementation of the policy seems to consist of targeting people who look and sound ‘a bit foreign’. As we know, proving immigration status is not that straightforward. The Windrush Scandal made that plain for everyone to see. Integral to this hostile rhetoric and its accompanying policy is racial profiling. This is not an unforeseen consequence of UK immigration policy, it is deliberate. Its aim is to discriminate against migrants and to exclude them from society and its legal protections, deliberately exposing them to exploitation and abuse. By actively excluding migrants from society’s legal framework, the logic of UK immigration policy is to force the majority of migrants to enter the ‘grey’ or ‘dark’ economy in order to survive, and, in the policy’s self-fulfilling logic, render them ‘illegal’.
Though the Hostile Environment policy dates from 2012, the UK’s immigration system has, since the Immigration Act of 1971 become increasingly hostile to refugees and migrants. The 1981 Nationality Act and a series of immigration acts that followed were consciously designed to thwart what Mrs Thatcher in a famous 1978 interview claimed: which was that ‘an awful lot’ of immigrants had come to the UK and that ‘I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.’ The result has been a conscious attempt to engineer increasingly aggressive immigration policies, which are deliberately designed to be hostile to people with no power and no representation, to inflict suffering and pain on those individuals, a suffering and pain that is felt acutely by women and children.
These, like many other aspects of the Hostile Environment, are disempowering and for those who are on the receiving end, it is difficult to speak about their experiences. They are forced into destitution, exploitated, fear reprisals by the system if they speak out, and in many cases feel ashamed.
There are, of course, sections of the media that are interested in human stories and facts, but migrants’ voices are fitted in predetermined frames, and difficult experiences don’t get heard beyond a quick soundbite. We end up being one-dimensional victims (5).
When I say, ‘we’, I speak as a former refused asylum seeker from Bosnia, who had to speak out in order to win my right to stay. I speak as a migrant justice campaigner, who over the last two decades, and with thousands of migrants and refugees, has sought to achieve justice and dignity for those in need through the organisation I helped create, Migrants Organise. I speak as a refugee woman with all those additional vulnerabilities that patriarchy and misogyny exposed me to during the Bosnian war of 1992-95, and in my attempt to seek refuge and protection from a conflict that saw anywhere between 90,000 to 300,000 killed, over 2.2 million people forcibly displaced, and nearly 15,000 women raped (6).
While it has been widely documented and acknowledged that rape is a weapon of war, the Bosnian conflict took it to a whole new level (7). Almost from the start of the conflict, it became clear that mass rapes were being carried out under orders in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing. And just over a year later, on 20 April 1993, the UN in the passing of Security Resolution 820 stated that the Serbian military authorities’ use of rape as a weapon of war was ‘massive, organized and systematic’. (S/RES/820/A6) But even with the clear and unequivocal judgement of the UN Security Council, of which the UK is a leading member, UK immigration policy treated those raped Bosnian women who managed to flee the conflict and seek sanctuary in the UK with suspicion and disbelief. UK Immigration authorities denied these women’s trauma and suffering, stripped them of dignity, and added to their pain. Is it any wonder that this should have been the case? Nearly thirty years on from the Bosnian war, Dame Vera Baird, the UK’s Victims Commissioner, observes of UK rape victims that they ‘tell us that not only are they denied justice, but they feel actively re-victimised by the criminal justice system’ (8). If these women feel they are denied justice, actively re-victimised, what is the situation for migrant and refugee women who find themselves in the UK’s ‘Hostile Environment’?
Women on the Move – The Obstacle Course of the Hostile Environment, Racism and Misogyny
In the beginning of the war in 1992, when the battle lines of the siege of Sarajevo were still being drawn, I found a bottle of cooking acid in my mother’s kitchen and kept it next to my bed as my last line of defence. Before the war, I had heard of women who, in self-defence, threw acid in the faces of their abusive husbands, and I thought if the Serbs came to rape me, I would throw the acid in their faces. I knew this would not stop them, but I thought it would provoke them to kill me, which to me seemed like a better fate than a rape. As I have already noted, the UN Security Council acknowledged in 1993 the systematic use of rape in the Bosnian war as being on a ‘massive’ scale. It was a terrifying feature of this war that women who held in camps were raped repeatedly until they became pregnant and then gave birth. But it was some six years after the end of the conflict that the Security Council, in 2001, formally recognised sexual violence as a punishable weapon of war and genocide (9). The legacy of those camps is visible today in the children of those rape victims and the deep and enduring psychological traumas both mothers and children endure. The Forgotten Children of War is an NGO that gives voice to those children, campaigns against sexual violence, and the exclusion of women and children subjected to sexual violence. One of the key aims of this NGO is to help remove the stigma these women and children still experience (10).
As historic as this UN resolution was, the rest of the world is still playing catch up, especially refugee determination and protection systems, such as the UK’s, known for its ‘culture of disbelief’ and onerous burden of proof threshold, a threshold that is far higher than in the criminal justice system (11). At the time if a raped woman from Bosnia managed to flee the conflict zone, and seek protection in the UK, she would have been punished by a system whose default position was, and continues to be, to deny her suffering, to place the burden of proof on the victim, to ask for documentary evidence of a victim’s ordeal or of their possible persecution if they were sent back to the country they fled, evidence many asylum seekers will not have, to focus on apparent inconsistencies in victims’ testimonies, even though victims may be traumatised, is to strip victims of their dignity and to cause them further distress. The situation has not improved. As the Afghan refugee Zarlasht Halaimzai recently recounted: ‘The Home Office demanded that we justify over and over again why we had fled our home. Proving that you deserve asylum is a tricky business. It is not enough that the news is reporting that civilians in Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq are under constant attack – you have to prove that your life was in danger at a specific moment.’ (12)
As it is the case in many wars then and now, most women from Bosnia were not able to leave their war-ravaged country. Apart from a handful of resettlement programmes, refugees then and now, were locked out of safe and legal routes to sanctuary.
Since 2000, over 23,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives in trying to reach Europe. And like the UK, the EU, has, through the funding of sophisticated surveillance systems, fortification of its external borders, and the creation of an agency (FRONTEX) to coordinate a Europe-wide team of border guards to patrol its frontiers, created its own hostile environment. Whereas the UK has relied on the natural mote, in the form of the English Channel, to keep out migrants, the EU from 2007 to 2013 spent over €1.8 billion on equipment and technological infrastructure to control its external borders. In its next budgetary cycle, from 2021 to 2027, the EU plans to spend €34.9bn on border security, in what we, like Amnesty International, see as a move back in time: a securing of Europe’s frontiers behind the walls of a mediaeval Fortress (13). Much of this money, as a 2019 report by the Transnational Institute showed, goes to a small number of European arms companies, such as Leonardo, Thales, Airbus, Indra, Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit, and a host of other companies in the construction, IT, aerospace, and other industries. These companies are increasingly influential in shaping EU and UK border policy in what is a lucrative business for them (14); so lucrative in fact that through lobby groups such as European Organisation for Security, they have been able to recast what is fundamentally a humanitarian crisis into a security threat that requires a militarised response, a response that falls disproportionately on women (15) , not least because such a response, relies on the threat of violence and violence itself. The result is that refugees, and women refugees in particular, are forced into an opaque and unintelligible parallel universe that is the stuff of nightmares. At every stage of their journey from the moment they flee war through their stays in refugee camps and during transits, or now increasingly in the hands of traffickers, and in the countries of asylum, refugee women are subject sexual violence, forced-marriage, sex trafficking, and slavery.
In 2014, the then Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie co-chaired the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London (16). Many Foreign Ministers attended. A series of nicely worded declarations were signed. A year later, 19 June 2015, the UN General Assembly in a bid to raise awareness of and to honour the victims and survivors of sexual violence around the world proclaimed 19 June the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Yet while summits and declarations such as these are important first steps in a culture shift, the power of misogyny, which feeds the militarised response to the refugee crisis and the UK’s hostile environment immigration policy, is so strong that efforts by the UK Foreign Office to raise the issue of sexual violence against women refugees, were rebuffed by the Home Office and its army of private security contractors. To add to the irony, while William Hague and Angelina Jolie were meeting with foreign ministers and signing declarations, millions of people, more than half of them women, were desperately making their way from Syria to Greece via Turkey and then trekking on foot to Germany while being tripped up in Hungary (17). The majority of these refugees, women and children, were in the words of the Women’s Refugee Commission,
‘Single women travelling alone or with children, pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied children, early-married children — sometimes themselves with newborn babies — persons with disabilities, and elderly men and women are among those who are particularly at risk’. It went on to say that ‘Many refugee and migrant women and girls have already been exposed to various forms of SGBV [Sexual and Gender Based Violence] either in their country of origin, first asylum or along the journey to and in Europe. Some of the women interviewed by the mission described being forced to engage in transactional sex to “pay for” travel documents or their journey. Some women and girls are so reluctant to delay their journey and that of their families that they refuse to report SGBV crimes or seek medical attention.’(18)
The hypocrisy of the response to this horrifying situation – well-intended grand declarations followed by inaction – was exposed once again in 2014, when in complete disregard for any moral, humanitarian or legal principles the world’s public was made aware of the suffering of Yazidi people. The dramatic CNN footage of Yazidi people being rescued attacks from IS was not followed by the long-term support and protection (19). Yazidi women who were enslaved and tortured by IS were left to languish in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Iraq. Deprived of proper sanitation, adequate healthcare, these women, despite grand declarations and the designation of an International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, were deprived of the most basic justice, and for the majority, of a future. Germany’s acceptance of a mere 1,100 Yazidi women and children refugees was – and remains – the highest of any Western democracy (20). Three young Yazidi women, still traumatised by their experiences of sexual enslavement, were brought from the refugee camps in Iraq to the UK to speak to their peers in British schools. The UK government did not offer these vulnerable and traumatised women any protection, and no resettlement programme was set up for them. Rather, they were brought to the UK by the AMAR charity, which, in sponsoring their visit, was able to justify it to the Home Office on the grounds that these women would, in telling their harrowing stories, be able to deter young British Muslims from going to Iraq to join IS (21). At the end of their speaking tour the young women were returned to Iraq.
If by any chance women manage to get into the UK and claim asylum they might be detained in prison-like conditions for an indefinite period. The appalling conditions in these detention centres for women have been exposed by the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary in 2015 (22). Staff at Yarl’s Wood detention centre were filmed referring to 400 migrant and refugee women detained indefinitely with no judicial oversight as ‘bitches’ and ‘animals’. Is it any wonder that the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women was denied access to inspect Yarl’s Wood (23)?
People in immigration detention might be released on bail, although no crime has been committed, and put in asylum accommodation on, in the words of the Home Office, ‘a “no choice” basis so you cannot choose where you live.’(24) This accommodation ‘is usually in a hostel-type environment’ (25), that is generally substandard and provided at a huge cost of over £4billion (26) to the taxpayer by one of the private companies such as Serco, G4S, Mears Group, or Clearsprings (27). Once dispersed, and while waiting for their claim for protection to be considered, many are still technically on bail and have to report regularly to one of the Home Office centres around the country (28). They are not allowed to work, study or claim benefits. They receive around £37 per week in vouchers that can be spent at authorised shops on food, clothing and toiletries. They have no cash for travel or mobile phones. Their shared accommodation offers no access to Wi-Fi or television, as accommodation providers will not pay the cost of a TV licence. New arrivals, often traumatised, are cut off from the world and local community and largely depend on local charities to survive both mentally and physically. This situation can go on for years. Many do not receive proper legal advice and end up having their asylum claim refused. They are then moved to another level of purgatory, where in the Home Office jargon, they are subject to the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition (29), denied healthcare or support from refuges in cases of domestic violence. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the children of families subject to NRPF condition were prohibited from accessing free school meals.
Sadly, this comes as no surprise to campaigners for migrants’ rights and those fighting violence against women and girls. The standards of protection offered to migrant and refugee women in the UK are to all intents and purposes non-existent, as the immigration enforcement is prioritised over protection, dignity and human rights.
The degree to which immigration enforcement trumps legal rights and human dignity is laid bare by the way victims of crime and witnesses to crime are treated if their immigration status is insecure. Not only have these individuals been, since the introduction of the Hostile Environment policy, subject in law to an increasingly arbitrary immigration environment, in which one’s immigration status can change overnight through changes in rules and through the increasingly haphazard and rapid change of rules that become so unclear and confusing that those public service providers who have a statutory obligation to refugees and migrants are unable to fathom these changes and by default become so risk averse in their efforts not to fall fowl of contradictory or unintelligible regulations and guidelines that they discriminate against immigrants rather than assist them. The result is that refugees and migrants are increasingly exposed to criminal violence. A good example of this is the 2020 debate around the Domestic Abuse Bill (30). Despite a co-ordinated advocacy effort by charitable and campaigning organisations (31), the passing of the law resulted in migrant women, especially those with a precarious immigration status, being left even more vulnerable, as the law failed to protect these women. Its effect was to give women’s abusers even more power over them. Abusers could now threaten to report a woman’s immigration status to the authorities. With this change in the law abusers were given an additional weapon to use in their abuse and exploitation of women.
Migrant domestic workers, most of them women, have been treated with similar contempt. While the government expends enormous energy in publicising its efforts to stamp out the exploitation of workers in today’s economy’s complex supply chains and to eradicate slavery through the introduction of a ‘modern slavery bill’, it’s been less forthcoming about how it has taken away the ability of domestic migrant workers to keep their visas if they change employers. This has forced many to stay in exploitative and abusive situations or to become destitute and undocumented. During the pandemic, domestic workers, and those who also live in their place of work, had no ability to socially distance, and were completely isolated from their network of support organisations, such as the Voice of Domestic Workers (32).
The list of examples of the horrifying combination of misogyny, racism and the Hostile Environment Immigration policy is painfully long, and numerous reports by campaigners and media provide ample evidence of an immigration system that is intentionally cruel and beyond repair. Even when the Home Office admits failure, as in the Windrush Scandal, it still fails its victims, despite intense media coverage and public outrage. Of the thousands who have lost livelihoods, homes, access to healthcare and community support, fewer than 338 individuals have received compensation with over 1,500 awaiting an assessment of their claims, and many of them continuing to be denied access to healthcare, housing, employment, and other benefits. Only a third of the £12 million set aside for compensation has been paid out (33). The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) report on the treatment of these individuals found that the Home Office operated in a parallel universe, with a complete ‘lack of organisation-wide commitment, including by senior leadership, to the importance of equality and the Home Office’s obligations under the equality duty placed on government departments.’ It went on to add that ‘any action taken to record and respond to negative equality impacts was perfunctory, and therefore insufficient’(34). The Home Office’s unhurried approach to the victims of its hostile environment policies stands in stark contrast with its hyper-efficient and hyper-expensive action on deportations, with it spending in the last quarter of 2020 over £4.3 million to deport 322 individuals – £13,354 per person – on specially chartered flights (35). We can expect more of this under the current Home Secretary and her new plan for immigration under the new Nationality and Borders Bill, a bill that in containing ‘some genuine nastiness’ will according to the NGO freemovement ‘lead to a lot of uncertainty and litigation’ and ‘only worsen the problems with the United Kingdom’s current asylum system’. (36)
All this sounds and is rather bleak and overwhelming, but it is not a complete story. Despite the oppressive hostility, or because of it there is thriving grassroots community of solidarity that is organising support and resistance against misogyny and hostile environment immigration policy.
Attempts to pass and implement increasingly inhumane and degrading immigration policies, also mobilise decent people across the political spectrum, who begin to see it affecting their lives. Let us not forget that one in six of us in the UK are visibly different and as such is treated as ‘foreign’ in the rhetoric of immigration exclusion. Clearly the way forward starts with the reframing of the ‘good/bad refugee/migrant’ discourse from which a new narrative has to emerge, that of a fair immigration system based on principles of dignity, justice and welcome. This is the call for solidarity and migrants and refugees, especially women need it now more than ever. It is what hospitality/welcome demands.
(1) Jacques Derrida, On Hospitality (Rachel Bowlby, trans.)(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).
(2) Mike Berry, Inaki Garcia-Blanco, and Kerry Moore, ‘Press Coverage of the Refugee and Migrant Crisis in the EU: A Content Analysis of Five European Countries. Report Prepared for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (December 2015). https://www.unhcr.org/56bb369c9.html; William L. Allen, Report: ‘A Decade of Immigration in the British Press’, The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, 2016. https://migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Report-Decade_Immigration_British_Press-1.pdf
(3) Ben Quinn, ‘Hate Crime Doubles in Five Years in England and Wales’, The Guardian, 15 October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/oct/15/hate-crimes-double-england-wales
(4) Daniel Button, ‘How to End the Hostile Environment in the NHS’, New Economics Foundation, 16 October 2020. https://neweconomics.org/2020/10/how-to-end-the-hostile-environment-in-the-nhs
(5) Heaven Crawley, Simon McMahon, Katharine Jones, ‘Victims and Villains: Migrant Voices in the British Media’, February 2016. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315516610_Victims_and_Villains_Migrant_Voices_in_the_British_Media
(6) Steven L. Burg & Paul S. Shoup, Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention: Crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1990-93. (London: Taylor & Francis, 2015), 222.
(7) Inger Skjelsbæk, ‘Victim and Survivor: Narrated Social Identities of Women Who Experienced Rape During the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina’, Feminism & Psychology, 16, 4, (2006), 374.
(11) Jessica Anderson, Jeannine Hollaus, Annelisa Lindsay, and Colin Williamson, ‘The culture of disbelief: An ethnographic approach to understanding an under-theorised concept in the UK asylum system’, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, Working Paper Series 102, July 2014. https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/files-1/wp102-culture-of-disbelief-2014.pdf
See too: https://righttoremain.org.uk/credibility-in-asylum-claims/
(12) Zarlasht Halaimzai, ‘We Tried to be Joyful Enough to Deserve Our New Lives’: What it’s Really Like to be a Refugee in Britain’, The Guardian, 20 July 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/20/new-lives-refugee-britain-afghanistan-asylum-uk-taliban?
(13) Amnesty International, ‘The Human Cost of Fortress Europe’, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/EUR%20050012014_%20Fortress%20Europe_complete_web.pdf
(14) Mark Akkerman,The Business of Building Walls (Transnational Institute, Stop Wapenhandel, and Centre Delàs, 2019). https://www.tni.org/files/publication-downloads/business_of_building_walls_-_full_report.pdf
(15) Aiko Holvikivi and Audrey Reeves, ‘Women, Peace and Security After Europe’s “refugee crisis”, European Journal of International Security, 5, (2020), 137.