Hand-in-hand with Trump, Theresa May is not merely playing to an anti-migrant populist crowd but helped to create it. This system is working as intended, but it must be disrupted.
On International Women’s Day, 8th March 2017, the UK’s current Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his first Spring Budget. Philip Hammond, who has been in post since July 2016, will carry a scarlet briefcase and hold it aloft outside 11 Downing Street for photographers. This ‘Budget Box’ will accompany the Chancellor to the House of Commons; it contains the speech he will give to announce the government’s taxation, forecast and spending plans for the coming year.
On international Women’s Day, Women for Refugee Women will also be making a presentation to government. Representatives will meet and travel to the Home Office, carrying a large card addressed to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd MP. It is signed by the attendees of the National Refugee Women’s Conference 2017, held a week before, and calls on Rudd to ‘stand up for women who are crossing borders for safety.’ It closes with an ask: of a meeting ‘to discuss how to build a more humane asylum process that gives every woman seeking sanctuary a fair hearing and the chance to rebuild her life.’
Everything about the Budget announcement, lofty red box and all, is a performance – a display of state apparatus. The machinations of government budgets move cogs which, in turn, affect people’s lives. For the past seven years, the government has delivered austerity budgets which have systematically punished women and minorities.
In this time, the machinations of state have also become increasingly hostile towards migrants and perceived migrants, compounded by the EU Referendum vote last June. It may have been less divisive figures who won it for Leave, but it is in Nigel Farage’s image that May is fashioning Brexit. Border control is her red line, dashing even the expectations of many of her own party’s ardent Brexiteers.
Prime Minister May’s obsession with migration is in keeping with her long record at the Home Office. The racism which now flares in the aftermath of the EU Referendum – and which blazes alarmingly in light of our own government’s cosiness with arch-racist Trump – was encouraged, too, by Home Secretary May. Jennifer Allsopp has traced her record for openDemocracy 50.50: from the expansion of detention and destitution of asylum seekers to racist ‘Go Home’ vans. Landlords and NHS workers, like border guards, are now required to profile their clients – invariably, this means racial profiling.
“We are refugees – we are nothing!”
The personal stories carried by refugee women, like the card for Amber Rudd, speak to the trauma of this Britain. At the National Refugee Women’s Conference, held on 1st March 2017, amidst panel discussions, keynotes and performances, one woman stood up from the audience and, through tears, shared her own experience. She told first of travelling from Eritrea to the UK and then, once here, facing more abuse and destitution: trying to make it in a new community, opening a café to support other women, but threatened, raped, disbelieved and left without any support.
“My friends were drowned in the Turkish sea and raped on the Greek border…and now I’m here [in the UK] being told I’m not a refugee.” She cried, “we are refugees – we are nothing!” Women around her blinked back their own tears and knowingly shook their heads as she asked, “we came here to be safe, why is this happening to us here?”
This plea is echoed throughout Women for Refugee Women’s latest report, The Way Ahead: an asylum system without detention. Helen* tells of how she and other women were repeatedly raped by traffickers as they crossed the Sahara, imprisoned and tortured before the families of her fellow prisoners were able to bribe the guards to let her onto a boat to Italy. From there, Calais, where Helen discovered she was pregnant. She lost her baby on the journey to the UK, hidden under the floor of a lorry. “Now,” says Helen, “I live in a house with other women. I am not complaining because I have been in situations that were much worse, but life is hard…The waiting is so difficult.”
Helen explains that she was not offered any guidance or support to understand the asylum system: “The person interviewing me was not sympathetic, but I told my story as carefully as I could. I didn’t know what evidence they needed. I feel l am trying to figure out the system in the dark, I don’t know how they make decisions and who determines what will happen to me.”
Globally we are in the midst of a refugee crisis, with over 70 million people displaced worldwide; but, in May’s Britain, who cares about the lives ruined and the money wasted, if mythical ‘pull factors’ are somehow (also mythically) diminished? In fact, “hostile environment” was the descriptor used by Theresa May in 2013 when she presented the way she wanted Britain to feel for “illegal migrants.” ‘Migrant’ then was a catch-all term for people (like me) who had moved to the UK from elsewhere in the world; now, as exemplified by Irene Clennell, who was deported from the UK at the end of February, it is ‘a term of abuse.’
Cases like Irene Clennell’s – living in the UK since 1988, married and with British children, then suddenly detained and deported ‘like a terrorist’ to Singapore with £12 in her pocket – beggar belief. Almost everything you hear about the immigration system does: pregnant women being detained, guidelines not followed, families separated.
Grace* was initially denied asylum in the UK despite being a victim of torture and rape, and at risk of persecution in Uganda because of her sexual orientation. “The police brought a psychiatrist and he recognised I was a victim of rape and torture, but even so I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre for five months.” On suicide watch, she was taken to the doctor but “they handcuffed me and the officers would stay in the room even during the consultation.”
Some immigration cases have made national news: the case of a Jamaican man told to parent his British children ‘by Skype’ and the new Home Office guidelines which advise LGBT asylum seekers from Afghanistan to ‘pretend to be straight.’ Few have, but most are alarming, like Helen’s and Grace’s and the Eritrean woman at the conference who couldn’t keep it in any longer. These are not exceptions or anomalies: they show the asylum system is working as per its design. The intentions behind the system are not to be supportive, or even fair; the aim is to reduce immigration.
Because 80% of asylum-seeking women who are detained are subsequently released back into the community, it is often said that detention serves no purpose. But if the aim of the asylum system is to create a ‘hostile environment,’ then the purpose of detention is to contribute to this climate. It is inhumane and ineffective – a waste of life and also of resource – but the government, seemingly, would rather have it this way.
At the National Refugee Women’s Conference Noma Dumezweni, currently playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, opened with her own experiences as a child of a refugee woman. She arrived at Heathrow on 17 May 1977 and, she said, were that today, “fast forward and I wouldn’t be here.” Dumezweni spoke about the importance of storytelling: “it might sound romantic, but our bodies are shaped this funny way to hold people…and they hold stories, too.” Sharing personal histories is an act of truth-telling and an act of community, “to make people know you are not alone.”
We must push the stories of refugee women front and centre this International Women’s Day. They are human stories, our communities’ stories, and deserve to be told and to be heard. These thousands of women in the UK – tens of millions worldwide – each provide a fragment of the narrative of the UK asylum system, but also reflect it in full. This system is working as intended, but it must be disrupted. As the system is cold and mechanical, the antidote must surely be human stories and the empathy they inspire.
Theresa May’s legacy of scapegoating migrants is deliberate. From ‘catgate’ to health tourism, she was a purveyor of ‘alternative facts’ some time before Kellyann Conway coined the term. Hand in hand with Trump, May is not merely playing to an anti-migrant populist crowd but helped to create it. If we are to stand up to her, then we must stand with refugee women – and listen.
*Names have been changed