By Kathryn Cassidy, Northumbria University
Increasingly immigration legislation has shifted the policing of the UK’s border away from the margins and into everyday life, transforming ordinary residents into agents of the state who are required to verify the immigration status of others (Yuval-Davis et al, 2018). Recent legislation has de-professionalised checks and enforcement and moved them into the roles of different actors, most recently via the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, whose focus is to create a “hostile environment” for so-called “illegal migrants”. This “borderwork” routinely happens when we attempt to access housing, health care, education, employment, and financial services. While they may not be physically detained, everyday life for those unable to prove their status (e.g. some members of settled populations from Britain’s former colonies) or whose status is not widely understood (e.g. asylum seekers) in the UK is characterised by “unfreedom”.
Especially affected by this are Black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee (BAMER) women, for whom this hostility intersects with the existing gender-based oppression and discrimination that they experience across interpersonal, social, structural and institutional spheres. The situation is exacerbated by the linking of immigration status to relationships through the ‘spousal visa’ issued by the United Kingdom Visas and Immigration (UKVI. Those who are forced to be dependent in this way and experience domestic violence find themselves facing the prospect of losing not only their home, family, work, etc. if they flee, but also their status in the UK. Evidence suggests that the need to access domestic violence support services is not only gendered but also racialised. BAMER women find it harder to leave situations of domestic abuse, yet they are more highly represented among those accessing domestic violence support services (Bowstead, 2015).
For most of the BAMER women who took part in our research, their status in the UK was dependent on a partner or spouse. Loss of immigration status was often used to try to force the women to remain in a violent situation by their partners, families, and communities. One woman said, “My husband’s family they were using my immigration status as a way to make me stay […] They threatened to tell the Home Office about me”.
In leaving a violent and/or controlling domestic situation, women may hope to find new freedoms as a result. However, BAMER women applying for leave to remain in the UK can become subject to new, state-sponsored processes of control, which may be so extensive and multi-layered that they could be described as a form of everyday incarceration. They face not only the possibility of destitution but also the threat of deportation, as they enter the UK’s asylum process. Non-EEA nationals leaving a violent partner settled in the UK may apply for a visa and gain indefinite leave to remain, but this route is often difficult to access, for instance, if a woman does not disclose the violence immediately, or is unable to provide “evidence” of it.
Despite these difficulties, all of the women had left their homes and were forced to, as one woman said, “throw themselves on the mercy of the British state”. For some women, this had led to enforced relocation to different parts of the country, or to specific housing, which was in some cases unsafe. Some women described experiencing intimidation from landlords or housemates. Alternative housing options were limited, partly because of the government’s no-choice accommodation system for asylum seekers, but also legislation which obliges landlords to check tenants’ immigration status, leading some to avoid renting to those without UK passports. Some women had to travel long distances for frequent visits to Home Office reporting centres. Many lived in constant fear of being raided or picked up by Immigration Enforcement teams. All faced financial hardship, being unable to work or access benefits while their applications were processed. If they could prove they were “destitute,” the women could claim very limited cash funds and housing. If their application was refused but they were not detained (known as “immigration bail”), women were issued with an electronic payment card to buy food and essential toiletries. They could only use the card in certain stores, and this was dependent on verification by store staff, who were often untrained and therefore refused them service. Not all of the women were entitled to even this support. These factors combined to heighten feelings of difference and separateness for the women and thwarted their attempts to become or to feel integrated within their communities.
“When you go out on the street, station or bus, immigration people they are checking your status […] you have to show your passport. So, I feel so suffocated all the time […]. I suffered my childhood; my brother was controlling my life. After that my husband and his family they were controlling my life and now […] in this country the immigration is controlling my life. So every time, I feel like, where can I get free?”
Everyday bordering excludes people waiting for leave to remain in the UK from the freedoms of citizenship and subjects them to invasive control over their mobility, finances, and daily lives, even refusing them access to goods and services. Increasingly, we are all compliant in this process, with more and more people being engaged in undertaking “borderwork” on multiple levels. Women like those who took part in this research experience daily social, spatial and material oppression as their uncertain immigration status intersects with racial and gendered ‘micro-aggression’, and the control exerted over their lives by the UK Home Office is often effectively a continuation of the controls imposed through domestic violence.
A fuller discussion of the issues in this blog post can be found in Cassidy, K (2018) Where can I get free? Everyday bordering, everyday incarceration. Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers, 1-15.
A film is available at https://vimeo.com/126315982
 The research includes a focus group that was shot as part of film produced for WP9 ‘Borders Intersectionality and the Everyday’ by Dr. Georgie Wemyss (UEL) and led by Professor Nira Yuval-Davis (UEL/Umea) for the EUBorderscapes project (2012-2016), as well as a collaborative arts project developed by Dr. Kathryn Cassidy (Northumbria), the Angleou Centre and Helix Arts on Tyneside (2015-2017).
About the author: Dr Kathryn Cassidy is Associate Professor in Human Geography in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences at Northumbria University.
Bowstead, J. C. (2015). Forced migration in the United Kingdom: Women’s journeys to escape domestic violence. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40, 307–320. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12085
Cassidy, K. (2018). Where can I get free? Everyday bordering, everyday incarceration. Trans Inst Br Geogr. Advance online publication. 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12273
Yuval-Davis, N., Wemyss, G., & Cassidy, K. (2018). Everyday bordering, belonging and the re‐orientation of British immigration legislation. Sociology, 52, 228–244. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038517702599