Recognising structural violence is no easy feat. In his seminal essay, Violence, Peace and Peace Research, Johan Galtung argued that, ‘Violence is here defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is’ (1969: 168). This sets up a tricky task as far as research goes: how can we practicably and empirically evidence the difference between the potential and the actual, if we can never know what the potential could have been?
This is precisely what the book Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System has aimed to do. By drawing together analyses of policy with domestic and international legislation relating to refugee status and torture, alongside the lived experience of women seeking asylum, my research has addressed what is supposed to exist with regard to sanctuary and support, and what actually exists in reality. Using activist participation over a ten year period in the North West of England, alongside scores of interviews, multiple focus groups, and an oral history project, this book challenges the myth that Britain is a broadly ‘friendly’ or supportive environment for people seeking asylum.
Using Social Harm as Social Evidence
As the title suggests, a central argument I am making is that the structural conditions set for people seeking asylum create a harmful environment, and this environment has gendered implications. Hillyard and Tombs argued social harm can be divided into a number of categories – physical harms, emotional harms and economic harms to name but three. As the book argues, these can come in many guises for people seeking asylum and range from a lack of medical or psychological support, specifically for survivors of violence or torture; extreme hunger or malnutrition; or illness induced from poor housing conditions. People seeking asylum receive around £36 per week to buy food, clothes, transport. Every week in a group I work with, women and children seem to arrive worse off – food prices have increased significantly in Britain due to inflation, but welfare allowance remains a pittance. Travel can be a no-go since a bus ticket eats around 2/3rds of the daily allowance, which affects women’s capacity to engage in sexual or domestic violence services. Women regularly walk miles to shop for groceries, prams and children in tow, to make sure their financial scraps can stretch to basics.
For people whose application has been refused and are submitting an appeal and do not receive Legal Aid, this is supposed to cover extortionate legal fees. The most recent quote I have seen for a solicitor to appeal a negative decision was £1600 – around 44 weeks of saving, if you opt out of eating altogether. Whilst this might seem an exaggerated comment to make, it is actually happening – I recently asked a woman awaiting an appeal how she planned to pay her legal fees. She told me, ‘you just eat less’. The alternative option is illegalised and precarious work (people seeking asylum have no right to employment, so are forcibly dependent on state welfare) which, for women, is often sexualised. Housing – one of the biggest problems people face – is usually in the poorest areas of the most deprived cities in the UK (as I have also argued elsewhere). As this book shows quite clearly, xenophobic and Islamophobic abuse is common place and housing conditions range from acceptable to dire, with heating problems, infestation (rats, slugs and cockroaches), and chronic damp being the most common problems research participants faced.
Autonomy harms, relational harms and temporal harms
Whilst these forms of harm are quite visible, they are not all necessarily experiences which are confined to life in asylum. Similar aspects have long been the staple diet of many of the poorest people in the poorest areas of the UK and as Cooper argues, the violent financial decisions taken in the aftermath of the so-called financial crisis have compounded many people’s experiences of hunger, destitution and housing. To consider the peculiarities of asylum, the book expands this lens to include three further harms: autonomy harm, relational harm (see Pemberton) and temporal harm.
The first of these, autonomy harms, affect a person’s self-worth or esteem, and can result from role deprivation and the absence of available opportunities to engage in productive activities. People seeking asylum are structurally limited on what they can do with their lives for the period of time in which they seek asylum. From the offset, people are dispersed to areas of the UK over which they have no choice. Working is legally prohibited, Higher Education is not affordable and the limitations on welfare allowance – half of that of Jobseekers Allowance – means options for most social activities are not actually an option. More insidiously, the threat of detention – a proliferating confinement estate in the UK – or further dispersal hang like a spectre of social control, increasing fear and anxiety amongst people at every Home Office signing.
The second example, relational harms, include enforced exclusion from social relationships, and harms of misrecognition (such as misrepresentations of particular social groups in society, as Pemberton also showed). When women, men or unaccompanied minors leave their countries of origin, many of their relationships and friendships are affected or dissolved completely. Other relational harms are, however, directly the result of policy and practice. Within Britain and the UK more generally, the impact of spatialised controls outlined above is perhaps the most obvious form of relational harm, since the climate of such controls has the capacity to limit an individual’s relationships, friendships or support networks outside of their immediate living vicinity. Relational harms are also strongly connected to emotional harms: support networks, friendships and activist involvement are impeded by some of the many barriers women seeking asylum face and yet each of these can be particularly important for women’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Deportation – a unique aspect of life for immigrants, and one which is central to the control of people seeking asylum – is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of relational harm, holding the potential to pull people from families, networks and communities on a permanent basis.
The final focus relates to the impacts of control over time. Applying for asylum the UK can be an incredibly complex and daunting process. At a port or airport, it is deciding to who or where to tell a uniformed guard that you require refugee status, or – if you are in the country already – knowing where to even go. For survivors of sexual or domestic abuse or torture – disproportionality women – add to that the requirement to disclose instances of abuse. To a stranger. The odds can be stacked from the offset. As the diagram below shows (please click on the image to download a larger, clearer file), it can also be an incredibly long process, regularly taking years:
To give an idea of just how long this can take, in one focus group with five women from four countries in 2014, I asked how long each had been awaiting a final asylum decision. One had been in the asylum system since 2013, one since 2012, one since 2009, one since 2010 and one since 2002. That is an accumulation of 24 years of waiting in only one small group.
It is perhaps then the issue of time which is most difficult for people seeking asylum. Years of life can go by – as one woman told me, ‘the best years of my life are gone’ – and what sits in place of autonomy and rights is restriction and unknowing. The terms ‘languish’ and ‘limbo’ can seem over-used in this context, but the fact is that this is how asylum is experienced. Whilst emotional and physical harms might be experienced by broader groups in society, temporal harm can compound such problems for people in the asylum process: physical and mental illnesses are exacerbated by the constant sense of unknowing, and the multiple structural conditions which limit people’s quality of life can also increase feelings of isolation, fear and even suicidality.
It is between the structural conditions of asylum and the lived realities of those facing it that structural violence and social harm therefore join. To draw from the books’ preface by Mary Bosworth, Current policies are not inevitable, nor are they just. They are instead political choices that could be made otherwise.
Victoria Canning is a Lecturer in Criminology at The Open University. At present she is leading an ESRC Future Research Leaders project examining harmful social practices in asylum processes in Britain, Denmark and Sweden. She is an activist in Merseyside, and is also currently working with Migrant Artists Mutual Aid to develop a collaboratively produced book (with women seeking asylum) relating to mutual aid and resistance.
Her new book Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System, (2017) published by Routledge is available to buy in Hardback or ebook: https://www.routledge.com/Gendered-Harm-and-Structural-Violence-in-the-British-Asylum-System/Canning/p/book/9781138854659