Migrant Mothers: creative interventions into citizenship

We can learn from the way that migrant mothers make a place for themselves and their children in a society which does not always welcome them.

Tracey Reynolds Umut Erel
22 January 2016
Migrant Mothers. All rights reserved.

Migrant Mothers. All rights reserved.Every quarter, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes its statistics on migration and population development in the UK. In a document released on 29 October 2015, the ONS explained the complex ways in which migration affects population numbers in the UK, directly through immigration and emigration and indirectly through the births and deaths of both these groups. This report does not quantify all the effects of migration on UK population numbers, but a key finding is that in 2014 non-UK born mothers had 188,000 children, that is 27% of births in England and Wales.

But we have known little about the mothers who bring up this future generation of UK citizens. However, our recent study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research investigates their experiences. It explores how migrant mothers have made a place for themselves and their children in a society which does not always welcome them.

Moreover, the research identified how migrant mothers make a significant contribution to UK society, benefiting society through their mothering and caring work. These mothers, many of whom are economically active and of childbearing age, counteract the UK’s demographic ageing profile. They enhance the country’s economic potential and their cultural diversity can contribute to developing a future citizenry more comfortable with culturally and ethnically plural identities. 

Yet, despite these apparent economic, social and demographic contributions to the UK, within policy debates that concern migrant mothers there is either silence or they are demonized as ‘benefit cheats’, ‘health tourists’, ‘welfare scroungers’, ‘street beggars’ and ‘thieves’. It is migrant mothers who are primarily blamed for reproducing dysfunctional families and bringing up families with a deficit of cultural values. 

Within this deficit discourse, migrant mothers and their families are mainly positioned as recipients of welfare services - their contribution to providing key services, is largely ignored and undervalued. The cultural diversity they embody, rather than being celebrated, is similarly viewed in terms of constituting a potential threat to social and cultural cohesion.

Countering pathologized representations


Migrant Mothers. All rights reserved.These pathologizing representations of migrant mothers go mostly unchecked, getting taken as statements of fact with little or no evidence forthcoming to substantiate these claims. One reason for this, we believe, is that a holistic framework for understanding the role of migrant mothers in making future citizens is missing from public debate.

Our recent work with migrant mothers, exploring their experiences of migration, family life and public engagement, provides such a framework for a more comprehensive understanding of the salient role of migrant mothers in actively engaging and challenging established understandings of citizenship. Such a framework allows us to observe migrant mothers not only as part of a policy process, but as shaping through their practise the very meaning of the state and citizenship.

‘Migrant Mothers caring for future citizens’, marks a clear attempt at developing this more holistic framework in which to understand migrant families. In this project we explore how, across various social contexts, migrant mothers enact themselves as citizens in their daily lives. Two overarching concepts shape this understanding. Firstly, we looked at how migrant mothers take part, as members of society, in a process that challenges the hegemonic norms and meanings of citizenship. In so doing, we highlight the various ways in which migrant mothers create rights and belonging in the UK, practicing a substantive citizenship, that is a citizenship that includes social as well as legal rights, a sense of belonging and recognition as equal and equally entitled participants in society, for themselves and their children.

We explored how women negotiate their legal status, rights, identity, and sense of belonging within liminal spaces that are produced through gender, migration, and integration regimes.  Building on the notion of ‘acts of citizenship’ as defined by Engin Isin’s work in 2008, we ask how these mothers, regarded as outsiders or ‘other’, and on the margins of citizenship, nevertheless disrupt our understandings of rights, posing the question: What constitutes citizenship and who constitutes a good or bad citizen?

Project and workshops

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The project worked with a group of 20 migrant mothers in London over a period of 12 weeks using the participatory theatre methods of Augusto Boal, and Kaptani and Yuval-Davis, to explore how migrant mothers themselves view their experiences of mothering, family, migration and citizenship practices. The mothers were from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, with differing migration histories and immigration status, together representing the cultural and social fabric of the metropolis.

Working with facilitator Erene Kaptani and professional actors and musicians, we set the workshops up and invited migrant women in the East London neighbourhood  (recruited through the networks of a carers’ group) to attend. We started with two ‘play back’ sessions, where women share their stories, which are then acted out by professional actors, and followed this with six sessions of ‘forum theatre’, where the mothers act out particular stories they themselves have experienced.

While one group enacts the story, others who watch are invited to ‘intervene’, i.e. to take the role of one of the characters and change the course of events. A final performance piece was organised to perform in an international conference, where the mothers were able to share some of the stories enacted during their workshops. Conference delegates primarily made up of academic scholars, policymakers and practitioners, were themselves invited to ‘intervene’ in these re-enactments. 

During these workshops, many major issues were raised about the experience of migration; loss and alienation; the barriers and inequalities that arise in accessing health and social care; and changes to social policy. These themes are presented and summarised below as three vignettes:

Melek’s vignette – loss and alienation following migration

Melek came forward. Having come to Britain over twenty years ago to join her husband, initially she felt very isolated, didn’t know anybody here, or speak any English. While she was a professional in Turkey, in London, she felt she was ‘nothing’.

Of course, this experience of being de-skilled through migration is one shared by many migrants. Their lack of language knowledge, restricted access to re-training and the reluctance of many employers to accept qualifications and work experience gained abroad conspire to effect this deskilling of women who are also caring for family members. But these obstacles to re-skilling are often also exacerbated by their caring responsibilities.


In Melek’s case, her partner also prevented her from gaining the training or experience needed to re-enter her old profession. The social isolation often experienced by young mothers, in her case rendered more profound through her lack of networks, was made worse by her husband’s attempts to control her mobility. With the birth of her daughter, she felt the loss of status and isolation only increase. She was watching the clock, wanting time to move faster, so that her daughter would grow up more quickly - yet, now, looking back she wishes she could stop time to see her daughter young again.


The actor sensitively played back these experiences through images of her feelings of loss, loneliness and the bittersweet contradictions of caring for her child then and now as a grown up. This scene, embodied through the actors and music, moved all who watched. While Melek had a sense of recognition and relief to see her own experiences brought to life, so did many of the rest of us, though we might relate to these in a variety of ways.

Migrant Mothers. All rights reserved.

Migrant Mothers. All rights reserved.

The GP Waiting Room: Interventions vignette – addressing barriers to accessing health services.


Naima recounted her experience of being denied access to a GP with whom she had been registered for many years. Coming in for an emergency appointment, the GP receptionist questions her right to attend this GP surgery, arguing that she does not live in the correct postcode.


This experience of being turned away from health services by receptionists strongly resonated with the whole group, and it became one of the scenes the group chose to work on for a number of sessions. Being denied access to health services has a particular significance for migrants, when receptionists and other NHS staff are increasingly asked to act as gatekeepers, controlling or questioning the right of immigrants to access services. As in most heterosexual families among our participants, it tended to be the mothers who took on responsibility for their children’s health and well-being. These particular encounters were highly gendered.


The scene at the GP surgery started with the woman asking to see the GP and being turned away by the receptionist. Other women then stepped in to take the role of the patient, trying to convince the intransigent GP receptionist to allow them to see the GP. Strategies ranged from asking the receptionist to focus on her job and prioritise the patients’ health, to trying to make a formal written complaint, or attempting to talk to the doctor personally. As the ‘patient’ became increasingly desperate, in one example the mother did not speak at all, but expressed herself only through body language, while another collapsed at the reception desk. In such moments of desperation, the confused receptionist’s response became more accommodating.

In our discussion following these enactments, this raised the question of whether migrant mothers’ needs only become ‘recognisable’ and able to elicit an attentive response when the women conform to the idea of being a ‘victim’. Attempts to reason and claim rights are easier to ignore, by throwing a strict rule book at the claimant. This scene not only showed the particular importance for migrant mothers of access to services, but also demonstrated the participatory theatre method. This method does not offer any simple solutions, but it is a valuable way of highlighting dilemmas, in this case, the failures in effectively claiming rights and the difficulties of stepping up as an entitled citizen when recognition of the migrant mother as equal and entitled is withheld from them. These participatory theatre methods are valuable in raising questions, heightening sensitivity to conflicts, and allowing for collective reflections on such encounters.

Vignette 3 – changes to social policy  

The final sessions of the workshops explored what changes to social policy the mothers would like to see. This was enacted as making a case to a panel of policy makers and practitioners. 

We were able to observe the participants begin to use their shared experiences to make claims and constitute themselves as claims-making subjects, enacting citizenship. 


The women who first step up to the panel start out hesitantly enough, but by the end we observed the mothers formulating clear demands for change. One participant reports that she regularly attends the job centre which provides employment training. “But, there are no jobs, and if there are, they expect you to have the experience. But where are you going to get this experience as a parent?”


Another steps into the scene to suggest there should be a change in attitudes to what skills and training means. “As a parent, we may not have certificates and qualifications, but we develop many skills, which should be recognised in the labour market”. Another takes up a different stance: ‘I don’t want to ask for anything for myself, but for this country as a whole’, she begins, and critiques the way that the ‘cuts, cuts, cuts’ affect all community centres, voluntary sector and public services. “Members of the panel might not need these services, but for someone with little English, these services are vital”.  

Creative interventions transform citizenship

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Migrant Mothers. All rights reserved.Our participatory and interpretive research design encouraged a framework whereby meaning-making in public policy and social relations could become visible. Situated within the migrant mothers’ everyday lived practices of citizenship, we were able to examine how migrant women construct meanings and identities with regard to their histories of migration, their immigration status, and their sense of identity and belonging in UK. As a result, we argue that they are in practise, thereby, not only shaping policies but revising the very meaning of citizenship.

The workshops stories shared, performed and enacted provided many examples of the ways in which migrant mothers actively contribute to the society they live in by raising children who will become future citizens. During these sessions we were able to build up a nuanced and detailed picture of how the mothers contribute through a myriad aspects of daily life, such as caring and working (paid and unpaid), and through their social and political participation in relation to key policy issues: family policy, health, schooling and immigration. Our holistic framework gave us the chance to observe how foregrounding creative interventions (through our participatory forum theatre) allowed these migrant mothers to position themselves as active agents directly responsible for enacting citizenship in their own and their children’s lives:

I think it was good to intervene [at the theatre workshops] because some people never had the chance to intervene [in real life] so the similar thing they experienced - having a bad receptionist at the GP or whatever - now it was like it was their turn. This is what they would have done if they spoke the language or if they were more assertive towards the situation. So, I think it [workshops] was good, I feel like people might have the confidence-maybe- to stick up for themselves after this experience, to speak for themselves and answer back.

This provides a direct challenge to the current policy narrative because it challenges the idea that migrant women are undeserving or passive recipients of welfare services. These mothers were also keen to stress that they should not be regarded as a burden to society, but that their contributions as mothers, enacting citizenship through their mothering and community practices, should be recognized and valued:

as a mother,  we [migrant  mothers] put a lot of work into our kids actually by sending them to homework club and things so even if we don’t physically contribute, then we’re contributing with the kids.

Yes, I go to vote. I’m a parent of children. I do house work. If I see that something happens to a person in the street I will help, you know, or in the bus if I see a young person is seated I always said to give the seat to an old or disabled person standing. I will share my experience and knowledge to people who need it. I will improve the services so kids don’t go to peer groups and get into drugs and alcohol. If I see a mother with a child and something happens I would go and ask.

As the recent ONS statistics show, recent immigration trends do affect population development in the UK. However, and in contrast to commonly-held beliefs, immigration has many positive effects on UK society. Our project on migrant mothers is an important reminder of the way for instance, that these mothers also actively contribute to community, inclusion and citizenship.

While current exclusionary immigration and integration policies continue to cement racialised and gendered inequalities and reinforce allegations of migrant women’s problematic relationship to this country, our project not only reminds us, but celebrates the fact, that many migrant women contribute to society through their mothering. Our findings contest what it means to be part of this society, what rights and responsibilities citizens should have, and who can embody claims to civic participation.

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Migrant Mothers. All rights reserved.Further reading:

Isin, Engin F. (2008). ‘Theorizing acts of citizenship.’ In: Isin, Engin F. and Nielsen, Greg M. eds. Acts of Citizenship. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 15–43.

Kaptani, E, and Yuval-Davis, N. 2008: Participatory Theatre as a Research Methodology, Sociological Research Online

Boál, Augusto (1979) Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press

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