UK migration: a hierarchy of injustices

The social cohesion and inclusion debate does not even begin to touch the lives of those invisible migrants who toil all hours of the day working out ways of pleasing their employers / traffickers / husbands. It is the existence of this population, more than any other, which exposes the myth of democratic universalism

Rahila Gupta
1 May 2012

There is a divide at the heart of the migrant community in the UK between visible and invisible migrants, the documented and the undocumented. Some of the good work done by activists trying to open up immigration controls so that migrants have space to live and breathe has had the perverse effect of damaging the position of invisible migrants – no accident as the interests of these two populations have been posited as antagonistic by the State.

I am using the term ‘visible’ not only in its more commonly understood sense of skin colour but also in terms of being visible to the state i.e. being documented. At the same time, there is no necessary correlation between the invisible and the undocumented because paradoxically the undocumented are both visible and invisible. Judith Shklar, the American political theorist, described the divide as ‘a symbolic glass floor – citizens exist above the floor and can look down on those beneath who are excluded from citizenship and are thus the most deprived in society’. If only it were as clear cut as that – If you take a walk on a Sunday in Hyde Park, you will spot many a family with a domestic worker in tow, someone of a Filipina or South Asian background, poorly dressed and lagging behind with a sense of deference. She may be a domestic worker on a visa with satisfactory working conditions. But her passport may be in the hands of her employer, her visa may have run out and she may be an overstayer, technically undocumented and very vulnerable to exploitation such as working a 14 hour, 7 day week with minimal wages. And then there are the migrants who are truly invisible: African children imprisoned by families who depend on their domestic labour; Vietnamese children smuggled in to grow hashish; women kept in flats to service men or brought here as wives who are beaten, raped and imprisoned.

Being invisible is paradoxically both safe and dangerous: ‘safe’ from the state, the police, the UK Border agency and therefore, safe from deportation to the horrors they hoped they had left behind. But that safety may come at a high price – starvation, violence, slavery and lack of access to beneficial services provided by the state like health (although this is highly circumscribed) or the support that could be provided by unions or migrants’ organisations. We really need to set up alternative neighbourhood watches – not to criminalise outsiders but to sniff out those in need of support. There are plenty of heart warming stories about neighbours coming to the rescue of ‘failed’ asylum seekers but no systematic network for those locked away in homes who may be known to their neighbours.

We are faced with the paradox of having to surmise the existence of the ‘invisible’ populations of London from the ‘visible’, those who have crossed the dividing line and come to the attention of state and civil society organisations. Denise Marshall of the POPPY project relates a horrific story of a Chinese woman who had been sold by Chinese men to other Chinese men and had lived undetected in a flat for some years until her trafficker tried to murder her and she was found on the pavement below the flat with several broken bones where she was left for dead. It was only when she ended up in hospital on a life-support system that the POPPY project found her and was able to help her.

Enslavement is an inevitable consequence of ‘invisibility’; this makes it particularly hard to tackle unlike the transatlantic slave trade when slaves were a visible ‘badge’ of success, pride and prosperity of the slaveowners. The social cohesion and inclusion debate does not even begin to touch the lives of those who toil all hours of the day working out ways of pleasing their employers/ traffickers/ husbands and trying to avoid a beating. It is the existence of this population, more than any other, which exposes the myth of democratic universalism. The central paradox faced by organisations working for the benefit of migrants is that the advocacy for greater rights for migrants does very little to improve the conditions of the ‘invisible’ populations. By definition, they are out of reach. It is not possible for benefits to trickle down to them. And sometimes, the liberalisation of controls can have the unintended consequence of invisibilising migrants.

Take the campaign against the one year rule (OYR) initiated by Southall Black Sisters. The OYR was the probationary period for all marriages to non-British spouses. If the marriage broke down within that period, the woman would be deported. Twenty years ago in 1992 SBS launched a campaign against the one year rule because it found that many of the women they were seeing were faced with a stark choice between domestic violence and deportation. In 1999 the Domestic Violence concession was introduced as a result of successful campaigning by SBS whereby a woman who could provide evidence of violence could apply for leave to remain but would have no recourse to public funds, that is, no access to benefits or refuges, even if it took months for her application to be decided. Women were now faced with destitution or domestic violence. To balance this ‘concession’, the government increased the probationary period from one to two years – which lengthened the period in which the non-British spouse would be tied to the British spouse, would have no status in their own right and therefore be invisible. While the husbands hold their passports, they are able to exert total control over the women. Those women who become visible by applying under the domestic violence rule for leave to remain condemn the ‘invisible’, possibly hundreds of other women to violent marriages for longer periods. They are not to blame, of course. It is the way the system is set up.

Forty thousand marriage visas were issued in 2010 and approximately 500 women escape violent marriages every year. To enable 500 women to exercise their human right to live free from violence, 40,000 couples have to make sure that their marriages last for two years before they can make an application to regularise the status of the non-British spouse. How do you square that circle? What do you do when winning the battle against one injustice gives rise to another? Which injustice is greater? And why should we have to deal with a hierarchy of injustices? Gender justice for women facing violence is achieved at the expense of the community as a whole.

Meanwhile, destitution forced women into unsavoury and exploitative relationships in order to find a roof over their heads. No refuge can afford to take women who cannot pay rent. Although SBS fundraised successfully for a pot of money to put women up in B&Bs, this was sticking plaster that didn’t cover the wound. In such a situation the responsible thing for SBS was to continue to campaign against the No Recourse to Public Funds. Since 2007, SBS formed a coalition of 27 women and human rights groups including Amnesty, Women’s Aid, Eaves Housing and Women’s Resource Centre, to fight this battle. Their efforts have paid off: on 1 April 2012, the Destitute Domestic Violence (DDV) concession came into force. It will allow women to apply for three months’ leave, giving them access to benefits while they apply for indefinite leave to remain.

But this victory is soured by the current proposal to extend the probationary period for marriages to non-British spouses from two to five years! The reasoning behind these extensions is that they are a test of genuine marriages. Really? One in seven genuine marriages break down between two and six years anyway. The British state has long been concerned with the institution of marriage within its migrant communities as the Trojan horse though which further migrants may be smuggled into the country.

A consensus has grown around the notion of a ‘managed’ migration policy with those on the left emphasising fairness and justice while the government’s emphasis falls on the ‘robustness’ and ‘integrity’ of the system. A ‘fair immigration policy’ is a contradiction in terms. The holy grail of trying to tease out fairness from a system designed to exclude and control entry to this country which has so engaged our energies is doomed to failure. We claim little victories which smooth out the sharp edges. But the massive, unyielding block of injustice cannot be shifted. Since the introduction of the first immigration law, the Aliens Act 1905, what we have seen is an ongoing entrenchment of draconian laws which undermine our commitment to human rights.

Campaigners believe that success relies on appearing reasonable in their demands. This is how they hope to have a monopoly on the government’s ear. The campaign against the two year rule, formerly the one year rule, and possibly the five year rule, had started off with the demand for the abolition of the rule itself. While they have succeeded in getting important concessions on domestic violence, what about those women whose relationships simply break down and there is no evidence of violence. They too face the same cultural pressures of having brought shame to their families if they have to return to them. What about those women who are not on spousal visas? Or those who become overstayers because their visa ran out, often unknown to them? If there was no rule, there would be no artificial divisions between these women, all of whom need protection. The demand for the abolition of the rule, an eminently reasonable demand, has fallen off the edge over the years – it was deemed too unlikely to succeed as a demand. If every victory is clawed back and the overall system is more entrenched than ever, surely it is time for activists to review the usefulness of the strategy of appearing reasonable.

For a time, in the middle part of the last decade, there was a head of steam building up under demands for regularising undocumented workers in Britain. There were the Strangers into Citizens campaigns; Boris Johnson has famously supported it on the basis that the London economy will benefit from the increase in taxes. All these calls are conditional on the number of years that migrants have been here, employment history and good behaviour, which is problematic. Unconditional regularisation of all migrants, allowing the invisible to become visible, is the only rational way to remove the divide at the heart of the migrant community.

This article is based on a paper given at a conference, London:City of Paradox, organised by the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging (CMRB), University of East London.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData