‘For women entering the asylum process as a result of leaving a violent domestic situation, the control that the UK Home Office exerts over their lives is often a continuation of the controls imposed by a spouse/partner or other abuser.’ So concludes new research conducted by Dr Kathryn Cassidy, an associate professor at Northumbria University.
Her research, published in Transactions Of The Institute Of British Geographers, documents the experiences of 16 BAMER women from West Africa and South Asia who were fleeing domestic violence and either seeking or had recently sought asylum in the UK during the period being studied. For the majority of the women, their immigration status was dependent on a partner or spouse and they had become undocumented as a result of the breakdown of the relationship.
Throughout her research, Cassidy argues that aspects of UK immigration policy mirror the abusive control previously imposed on these women. She says that the controls and lack of freedoms have become so extensive that they amount to a form of ‘everyday incarceration’. Particularly problematic are those rules that constrain movement and finances. While awaiting the results of their applications the women were not allowed to work or access social security payments. Some identified this as a continuation of their previous lives with a controlling partner who forbade work or confiscated wages.
In addition, Cassidy says that the UK government’s policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for so-called ‘illegal migrants’ – as enshrined in the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts – has had a profound impact on those seeking asylum, as well as the government’s stated immigration targets. ‘The “hostile environment” is supposed to focus on a particular group of people,’ says Cassidy, ‘but it has impacts on asylum seekers as well because it creates a huge amount of doubt.’
One of the main ways this state control manifests itself is through constant checking of applicants’ immigration status in a myriad of everyday situations. Cassidy says that due to a combination of ideology and Home Office budget cuts, much of this work has been pushed into the hands of normal professionals who are co-opted as agents of the state. Checks on immigration status are now undertaken by a wide range of actors from employers to landlords, bank employees, health service administrators and even traffic police. She points to the ‘right to rent’ scheme which she says pressurises landlords into becoming immigration officials who must check the status of their tenants. Research into the pilot scheme showed that many landlords began to avoid renting to those without UK passports for fear of getting it wrong, a practice that can push women into the hands of less scrupulous landlords. One woman said landlords had used her status to intimidate her into sexual activities.
Several of the women likened the constant checks to their previous experiences of control and abuse: ‘When you go out on the street, station or bus, immigration people are checking your status. When you go to NHS, you have to show your passport. I feel so suffocated all the time. I suffered in my childhood; my brother was controlling my life. After that my husband and his family were controlling my life and now in this country the immigration is controlling my life.’
Cassidy says this cycle of abuse was a feature of several of the women’s lives. ‘For many it was a continuation not just of the partner, but of a more long-standing control exerted by their own family. Women became suicidal because they left this family background to go into a new home with a partner who turned out to be controlling and abusive, and then they found themselves in the same situation while seeking asylum.’
Other women spoken to identified an atmosphere of suspicion which made it hard to build relationships in the communities they moved to: ‘They look at you in a way… they just look at you as if to say “you are already down there”, as if to say you are classed as an outcast in a way, or lower and that kind of breaks my heart.’
More than anything else, it was the constant status checks that Cassidy identified as pushing women fleeing violence over the edge. ‘The pushing of immigration checks into everyday life is so disruptive and so invasive into our communities and is really stressing social relations,’ she says. She wants to see better funding for the Home Office so that these checks can be brought back in-house, meaning that applicants can be dealt with on a more humane level. ‘An immigration lawyer told me that in the past, if you were applying for asylum, you would have a caseworker who would work with you throughout that process. The Home Office doesn’t do that anymore and one of the reasons is potentially because during that time more people were gaining asylum because their cases were better understood. I think that’s more to do with the hostile environment. I think that’s intentional.’