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Slavery, asylum, and the face of social death in modern day Britain

The dehumanisation of transatlantic slaves has strong echoes in the UK’s current immigration regime, which separates families, denies parents custodial rights over their children, and condemns migrants to social death.

Announcing the publication of her draft Modern Slavery Bill in 2013, British Home Secretary Theresa May wrote, “Traffickers and slave masters exploit whatever means they have at their disposal to coerce, deceive and force individuals into a life of abuse, servitude and inhumane treatment. This is simply unacceptable in modern day Britain”.

Talk of slave masters calls to mind transatlantic slavery, an inhumane system that not only treated human beings as objects of property and authorised their violent control, but also tore the enslaved from their kin and community, wrenched apart husbands and wives, parents and children, and stripped them of independence, power, honour and dignity. As sociologist Orlando Patterson famously put it, the enslaved were biologically alive yet socially dead. Is the treatment of some human beings as socially dead “simply unacceptable in modern day Britain”? My research with Zimbabwean asylum seekers in the UK suggests that it is not.

Like many asylum seekers escaping politically repressive regimes, my Zimbabwean interviewees were parents who had not managed to bring their children with them when they escaped to the UK. They imagined that, once in a safe haven, they would be able to arrange for their children to join them. Yet on arrival, they discovered that the UK asylum system treats parents as asylum seekers first and parents later (if ever). As a result, many parents are forced to endure separation from their children against their will as they struggle through the long and torturous process of asylum claims and appeals. As one 45 year old father of two told me:

My children have had these eight years of loneliness… I dread phoning home—calling home has long ceased to be a joy to me… I have failed them, forced into living in exile due to the circumstances.

In addition to separating families, asylum policies deny parents the right to protect and support their children even from a distance. The Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 withdrew asylum seekers’ rights to engage in paid work, a decision made on the basis of the unsubstantiated claim that such a right encouraged ‘bogus’ asylum claims from so-called ‘economic migrants’. For asylum seekers who have had to travel alone, to be refused this right is to become entirely helpless in the face of their children’s often desperate need for financial assistance. To be granted partial rights—that is, the right to continue to live and breathe but not the right to legally belong, to family life, to freely sell one’s labour power, or to support one’s children from afar—looks very much like a condition of social death. In the words of one asylum-seeking mother separated from her children:

Without a job… and a family I have lost my self-worth… My situation is no longer an immigration issue…it is now a death sentence…I am in a prison with invisible walls… It is a state worse than death itself.

The story of Sukai

The same sentiment was even more forcefully expressed by Sukai (not her real name), whose son died in Zimbabwe while she was in the UK waiting for her asylum appeal to be settled, and trying to find a way to bring him over as well. As an asylum seeker, she could not even return home to bury him. Sukai was subsequently granted leave to remain, but the judge’s decision on her case was then contested by the Home Office. As a result she was evicted from her NASS accommodation, and left homeless, destitute, disenfranchised, bereaved and in extremely poor health.

The wrongness of ‘trafficking’ is said to be that human beings are isolated, immobilised, forced to work without pay, locked into dependency with ‘traffickers’ who physically or psychologically abuse them. Victims of ‘trafficking’ are dehumanised and rendered powerless, and the individuals who directly perpetrate crimes against them—the ‘traffickers’ and ‘slave masters’ that Home Secretary May’s recently passed “historic” Modern Slavery Act 2015 will supposedly punish—have faces. But what of those who subject asylum seekers to what they themselves describe as a ‘living death’?

In grief and desperation, Sukai once went in person to the Home Office department in Croydon that was dealing with her case. She hoped that she would be able to speak face to face with the person who exerted such total control over her life to such devastating effect. But, she explained, she was just directed from one office to another, and nobody working there admitted to holding the power over her fate. “I was told that the Home Office is a system and not a person,” she said. The facelessness of the power of the state intensified her experience of powerlessness:

If the Home Office was a person, I could have demanded to see him or her. I would have wanted even to go to where he or she lives and cry out all my anger. I would have demanded to see how ugly and inhumane this creature is. Unfortunately, you cannot get to sit down with this thing called the ‘system’ and have a one-on-one talk explaining exactly what you are going through, asking ‘Can you please do something about it?’

Asylum seekers are not forced to surrender to the will of another human being. Yet their capacity to exercise personal autonomy, or to assert their will to influence even the most fundamental aspects of their lives and those of their children, is so severely restricted that it appears as a modern form of social death. Why is this acceptable in modern day Britain?

About the author

Roda Madziva is a Leverhulme Research Fellow in the school of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Her current research focuses on the use of evidence in immigration policy as part of the University of Nottingham-led ‘Making Science Public’ Programme.


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