Building cultural citizenship with women seeking refuge and asylum

Using participatory, biographical and visual methods, we got in touch with women’s ‘realities’ in a way that demanded critical reflection.

Maggie O’Neill
10 June 2015
Women of Barcelona

Committed to exploring democratic ways of doing research with migrant women and taking up Umut Erel’s concept of women migrants ‘enacting citizenship', this article shares some of the results of participatory research conducted with women seeking asylum in the North East of England.

Together with the regional refugee forum and a women’s group we developed a participatory arts and participatory action research project that focused upon women’s lives and well-being in order to do a range of things. We wanted to better understand asylum seeking, refugee and undocumented women’s experiences of living in a city in the North East. We felt the need to challenge and change sexual and social inequalities; and we wanted to stimulate arts-based outcomes to enable us to share what we learned across a wider public in order to impact upon policy and praxis.

The women were from Africa, Asia and the Middle East and they included teachers, nurses, mothers, a former MBA student and a journalist.  Some were fleeing gender-based violence and others were claiming asylum based upon their precarious political situations; some arrived with families and others had left children behind when the time came to flee. During the project one young woman was detained, sent to a detention centre and was subsequently returned to her home country – this was devastating for the group.

The June protests at Yarl's Wood detention centre documented by Gemma Lousely in openDemocracy on 5 June – What will it take to shut down Yarl's Wood? – make clear the issues, contradictions and indeed deep humiliation and suffering of the women detained there.  Understandably, Women for Refugee Women is calling for an end to the detention of women who seek asylum, and an immediate end to the detention of survivors of sexual violence and pregnant women.

Although it is five years since I published Asylum, Migration and Community, exploring the complex relationship between migration, asylum, communities and community formation, and also looking at the situation of women asylum seekers and migrants. Little has changed. There is still a dearth of research on women seeking asylum, the asylum system is still gender-biased, pregnant women, women survivors of sexual violence and children are still detained, and women are still, assumed overall, to be dependents and followers of men. 

In the UK, research and reports by Women for Refugee Women, Detained: women asylum seekers locked up in the UK and I am Human: refugee women’s experience of detention in the UK; Refugee Action's Standing up for women; Is it safe here and the Refugee Council's research such as Making women visible and Dignity in Maternity – all challenge these assumptions and provide important evidence of women’s poverty, exploitation and destitution, their vulnerability and their lives in detention centres as well as the impact of their dispersal to the various towns and cities of the UK.  Women, we find, seek asylum for the same reasons as men as well as fleeing gender-based sexual violence.

The Europeanization of restrictive asylum policy, geopolitical changes, what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘negative globalisation,’ EU enlargement  and ‘Islamophobia’ have all heightened security concerns about unregulated migration and porous borders. In the UK, a ‘race relations framework’ is central to the development of asylum policy and most people come to understand the lived experience of asylum, exile and processes of belonging in contemporary western society through the mediated images and narratives of the mass media. 

Refugees and asylum seekers have become the folk devils of the twenty-first century. Mainstream media representation of the asylum issue, the scapegoating of asylum seekers and the tabloid headlines that help to create fear and anxiety about the unwelcome ‘others’ also serve to set agendas that fuel racist discourses and practices.  As Chitra Nagarajan stated in openDemocracy on 20 September 2013, “Politicians and the press are locked in a cycle of increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric, presented as 'uncomfortable truth'. Yet the problem is not immigration but socio-economic inequality”. 

What is very clear is the conflict at the centre of western nations’ responses to the plights of asylum seekers and refugees. On the one hand a commitment to human rights and the 1951 Convention still exists in the UK, and yet on the other hand powerful rhetoric aimed at protecting the borders of nation states is underpinned by the message ‘Go Home’ (see Nagarajan’s critique of the Home Office ‘Go Home’ campaign).

Processes of integration, belonging and community formation are complex and include structural, agentic, relational and psycho-social aspects. Community is a multi-dimensional concept referring to a sense of place, space, belonging, and the togetherness of shared interests or identities. It is also symbolic and imagined. Deeply implicated in experiencing, defining and understanding community are relational dynamics; community involves the connections between people. We live our lives relationally, and this involves networks of social relations.

To fully grasp and respond to the changing face of our cities and communities we need research that seeks to understand the asylum-migration-community nexus in the local area, as well as at regional, national and international levels, and in a way that includes the usual subjects of research as collaborators and co-researchers, using innovative and creative methods for generating knowledge and understanding. 

This is vitally important: for the production and implementation of evidence-based policy making based on the needs of women refugees, asylum seekers and their children is clearly a major gap. Improving an asylum policy that is based upon equitable and transparent policy-making should be an important focus. As Gemma Lousely states, “Women’s rights are not privileges to be earned or awarded to a few. To have meaning they must be afforded to all women, wherever they are born”.

The images below and film ‘Searching for Asylum’, created by film maker Janice Haaken and the women participating in the project, offer multi-sensory, dialogic and visual routes to understanding their lives and experience. Using participatory, biographical and visual methods we got in touch with women’s ‘realities’ in a way that demanded critical reflection. Walking with women around the city following maps documenting ‘good, not so good and special’ places enabled connection, listening and  ‘understanding’, and allowed us to access what might be ‘unsayable’. In the participatory process, a collective story emerges. We explored ways of seeing women’s lived experiences, well-being and sense of community in the context of their lives in the North East by walking with them along a route that took in the important places and spaces for them; in ‘situational authority’ they shared their stories.


Fig 1. Walking and biographical methods, together with visual methods, help to explore the experience of ‘being-in-place’ among this trans-national group of women.


Fig.2. Empathic witnessing - asylum accommodation: “When you are an asylum seeker, life is everywhere with the least facilities. We just want to be alive.”

Key themes include the tension between human rights, human dignity and humiliation in the lived experiences of women, where public places are often experienced as safer than private places (the housing provided and managed by G4S) and the process of signing on at the police station is deeply distressing, for the risk of being ‘detained’ is ever present.


Fig. 3. Signing on at the police station in St. Pau, Barcelona, June 11-12, 2015: “I hate this place, it is the worst place in this town. It is the police station. Any asylum seeker will not like this any time you go every 2 weeks. I don’t sleep if I go to sign, this stress I have, it is too much for me, it is 50/50 they may detain you, you may be free.”

The film, photography and stories told by the women can be easily shared across a wider population, beyond academic communities, and can help to challenge stereotypes and facilitate understanding, interpretation and action or praxis in relation to women migrants’  agency, mobility and lives and particularly in relation to their sense of belonging and well-being. 

In the wider context of migrant journeys, this project, like the work of The United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM) directed by Parvati Nair, with its focus on cultural diversity and mobility through the lens of migration and media,  shows women building and enacting citizenship and the multi-tiered nature of their transnational mobility and belonging. By creating space for their stories to be told, listened to and seen we can move towards cultural citizenship and social justice for women seeking asylum.


Bourdieu, P. (1996) ‘Understanding’ in Theory, Culture and Society 13(2) 17-39

Erel, U. (2013) ‘Kurdish migrant mothers in London enacting citizenship’ in Citizenship Studies, 17:8, 970-984.

O’Neill, M. (2010) Asylum, Migration and Community, Bristol: Policy Press.

This article is based on the keynote talk to the conference Female Agency, Mobility and Socio-Cultural Change at the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM).

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