Agents of Their Own Abuse

Jacqueline Rose writes about the treatment of migrant women

In February 2018, 120 women detainees at Yarl’s Wood Immigrant Removal Centre began a one-month work and hunger strike. Several received letters from the Home Office informing them that their deportation would not be delayed by their action, in fact it was more likely to be brought forward. Serco, the private company that runs Yarl’s Wood, denied that the hunger strike was taking place. (Despite being fined £6.8 million for its various failings in housing asylum seekers, its contract was renewed by the Home Office in June.) The women were demanding an end to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, minors, pregnant women, and survivors of torture, rape and trafficking, a practice that is sanctioned in no European country apart from the UK; in the US, it was introduced under the post-9/11 Patriot Act and signed into law under President Obama. The women were also protesting against the conditions in which they were held. In 2015, Women for Refugee Women had published a pamphlet describing those conditions under the title I Am Human.

It asked why, for example, women in detention were being watched in intimate situations – in the toilet or the shower, or in bed – by male guards. Why were they being routinely touched and searched by men? ‘Men touch your knickers’ while searching your room, one of the women quoted in I Am Human said. ‘A man touches your knickers and leaves them on the bed.’ Given that detention is expensive – it costs an estimated £35 million per year – and that asylum claims could be processed just as easily if the women were living in the community, why were they being detained at all? Today legal entry for refugees, asylum seekers or unskilled workers has been made virtually impossible in the UK. The cases of 31 asylum seekers were examined in 2012 for a report issued by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, with the outcomes known in 14 of them: all but two of the women had been refused asylum. Although most of them had been trafficked, they were treated as illegal migrants, not as victims of abuse.

When one woman was moved to Yarl’s Wood after seven months in prison on charges that were dropped, she said that it felt as if she were being punished ‘for being a foreigner’. Since conditions at the centre include being watched by men – there have also been reports of sexual assault by guards – the sense is that the detainees are also being punished for being women. This reality is by no means specific to the UK. In July, the New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the object of sexually explicit social media posts by border guards after she described the horrifying conditions in US border detention centres: detainees had reported being abused by officers, and women were being forced to drink out of toilets. The posts also questioned the authenticity of the images of the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his small daughter, Angie Valeria, who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande.

The politics of migration, which is purportedly founded on reason and utilitarian logic (the need to get numbers under control for the benefit of all), reveals itself in all its sexual hatred. In the Ocasio-Cortez story, the scorn for women and for migrants fuelled each other. At Yarl’s Wood, a woman from Kenya, beaten by her family and forced to undergo genital mutilation as a punishment for being lesbian, was dragged across a room by guards: ‘They were taunting me … they were pulling on my legs.’ When she took refuge in the bathroom, they laughed at her, put her in a headlock, bound her wrists and feet ‘like a goat’. A 15-year-old, who had been visiting the UK from St Vincent since she was nine, was raped at gunpoint by three men as a way of settling financial scores with her father. Disowned by her grandfather, who had brought her to the UK, she ended up at Yarl’s Wood as part of an immigration crackdown: ‘I thought prison was bad but Yarl’s Wood pushed me to the point of wanting to commit suicide.’ Male officers would enter her room when she wasn’t there, go through her bed, her underwear: ‘I felt raped all over again.’

Anyone in indefinite detention enters a hallucinatory, interminable world: you never know how long you will be held for. Although there has been some reduction in detention times in the past couple of years, Home Office data going back to 2010 record cases in which people were held for as long as four years (cases of detention and re-detention, which was routine for opponents of South Africa’s government under apartheid, are known but not reflected in the statistics). No point in etching the number of days on the wall if you might be deported at any moment. In the literature on migration, the technical term for the returning of migrants to their country of origin is ‘refoulement’ (to push back or repulse) which also happens to be the French word for the psychoanalytic concept of repression. As if somewhere it is being acknowledged that returning a migrant to the country from which they fled is not only inhumane (and most likely illegal under international law), but also straitjackets their mental access to their own experience, makes it impossible for them to take the measure of their world. It goes beyond repression. What these women experience is closer to a wipeout of identity in which all self-knowledge or self-recognition is lost: ‘I did not know who I was any more’; ‘I do not appear to exist’; ‘It is as if you are inside a grave.’

For the migrant woman, as she tries and fails to make sense of an impenetrable, gratuitously unjust, foreign law, everything seems arranged to ensure the maximum degree of befuddlement. ‘I didn’t know where I was going.’ ‘They don’t explain anything to you.’ ‘Can you tell me what is happening?’ – this last addressed to one of the Cambridge researchers who had been given access to a detainee in the course of her investigation (normally, anyone visiting a detention centre isn’t allowed to bring pen and paper into the building). Communications from the UK Border Agency’s Criminal Casework Directorate, to which many of these women are referred, is almost uniformly in English. Access to interpreters is minimal or non-existent, and notification of hearings is rarely given far enough in advance to allow time for preparation (twenty minutes with a barrister is typical). Women who have been trafficked, and whose papers and passports have been confiscated by the traffickers, find themselves arrested on arrival for false or missing documentation, or for fraud. The sentence for false documentation is usually 12 months’ imprisonment, which also happens to be the period after which deportation is automatic, which means they may just as well have been turned around at the port of entry. The Cambridge report records the story of one victim of trafficking who was sentenced to two consecutive periods of 12 months for using a false document with intent and making a false statement for the purpose of marriage. Although eventually a decision was made confirming her victim status, two weeks before her release date she received a letter from the UKBA stating that her crime was considered ‘particularly serious’, and that she constituted ‘a danger to the community in the United Kingdom’ and would not be granted asylum. (Her sentence had been reduced on appeal, so she wasn’t automatically deported.)

‘Serious crime’; ‘a danger to the community’: as if such women were the agents of their own abuse, and also, in a senseless twist, a threat to the presumably law-abiding citizens of the UK. At any given moment the number of victims is likely to exceed the numbers of convicted traffickers in UK prisons. Most of the traffickers get off scot-free. In the UK and US prison systems, women are being incarcerated at an ever increasing rate – since 1978 the number of women and girls locked up in the US has been growing at double the rate for men and boys. Most often, the prison sentences are being handed down for low-level non-violent offences. This is especially true when the women are foreign nationals. Figures released in 2011 showed a 27 per cent growth in the number of women in UK prisons, but the growth in female foreign nationals was 49 per cent. There isn’t the slightest evidence that this increase reflects the increasing seriousness of the offences involved. The fact is that women seeking asylum are immediately treated as culpable, even when, as in the case of trafficking, it is their handler who has committed the crime. ‘Why did they not try and arrest the man who had stolen my passport?’ asked a woman asylum seeker from Iran, handcuffed at the airport and taken to a police holding cell. ‘Why did they do nothing about it?’ She had been trafficked after her father had got her a temporary release from a notorious prison, where she had been held in solitary confinement, abused and subjected to daily threats of rape.

Yet what is expected – indeed, legally required – of these women if they are to have the faintest chance of being granted entry is the fullest co-operation with a system rigged to oppress and exclude them. When a migrant is referred as a potential victim of trafficking, a mandatory 45-day period of ‘reflection and recovery’ follows, which may result in a decision accepting that status, but only if the migrant agrees to assist the police. ‘Reflection’ in this case has nothing to do with the idea of mental freedom or the capacity for independent thought. It implies something along the lines: ‘If you think about this, you will do as we say, which will be in your interest.’

No one, including visitors (rare) or investigators (even rarer), is spared. ‘We will do as we are told,’ the writer Ali Smith thinks to herself as she makes her way through the four security checks on the way to the cell of the detainee she has been given permission to meet. When one trafficked woman refused to respond under questioning, her failure to do so was treated as evidence that her claim was probably false. ‘What you’ve told me today,’ an investigator said to another trafficked woman, ‘does not make a great deal of sense.’ A woman who had been arrested for cannabis production refused to disclose the names of the people who had trafficked her into the UK. There is no recognition that to name names puts the person who has been trafficked, together with their entire family, at mortal risk: ‘If you tell, pool of blood.’

There seems to be an assumption that the asylum seeker is never acting under duress (she is a criminal manipulator, not someone who might have been manipulated). One trafficked woman was asked if she had wanted to come to the UK, and when she replied that yes, she had, was told she must therefore have come ‘willingly’, so no trafficking could have been involved. Another had been given a false passport when she was thrown onto the streets after being held and made to work as a prostitute for seven years. The judge concluded that she had ‘knowingly’ used a false document and imprisoned her for six months (he remarked that he presumed she was also guilty of illegal entry, and had to be reminded that this wasn’t one of the indictments in the case). ‘Willingly’, ‘knowingly’: the law moves in on the foreign defendant on the grounds that they acted with volition, knowledge, awareness, consent, although they lived in conditions that make such states of being and mind impossible. (‘Knowingly’ might in any case give us pause. One of the hardest things in law is to prove that a defendant’s actions pass the test of intent needed for a criminal charge.) As a consequence, many of these women are advised to plead guilty so as to avoid the sentence of 12 months or more that would mean automatic deportation.

There is no tolerance in this system for an asylum seeker who may be confused in their narration of events. The minutest inconsistency between one version of their story and the next will disqualify their case. One woman whose case was included in the Cambridge report first stated that she had been separated from her companion before she was raped; subsequently, she said that it was after. Her claim was refused on the basis that her conflicting accounts made it ‘difficult to accept that this is a true account of a real event’. Nor is there any sympathy when, as is often the case, an asylum seeker cannot find their voice at all. Some will have nightmares and flashbacks, as detention itself comes to be lived as a trauma. In this world, the idea that silence might not derive from a deliberate withholding of evidence, but may instead be an expression of trauma – a phenomenon that should by now be beyond dispute – seems not to register. Before the law, trauma is a troublemaker, like a stubborn, wilful child.

Before the law, or outside it? ‘How is the institution of the removal centre legal?’ David Herd asks in his afterword to Refugee Tales (2016), a collection of stories gathered from refugees by campaigners. ‘Since, in conventional terms, it plainly offends legal principles, what relation does such a site have to the law?’ There are for the most part no legal, let alone human, grounds to justify UK asylum policies, or most legal decisions concerning disqualification, imprisonment or deportation. Migration has today become a tipping point for the law’s relationship to itself. The more the system turns asylum seekers into criminals, the more the law flounders, as it runs the risk of exposing the criminality of the state. ‘Criminalisation by the state,’ Michael Grewcock writes, with reference to equally dire migrant policies in Australia, ‘is integral to legitimising criminal activity by the state.’

The political philosopher Howard Caygill goes so far as to argue that violence at the borders of the modern nation-state has been the chief means by which modernity has contained and denied the violence of its own civility: ‘The possibility of feats of extravagant and unrestrained violence at and beyond the border [have historically] contrasted with the constraints of rational management of violence within the borders of nation-states.’ To put it simply, violence at the border serves a purpose, and so does the shock it provokes. It obscures the violence of the internal social arrangements of modern nations, which fight to preserve the privilege of the few over the many. ‘The rational management of violence within the nation-state,’ Caygill continues, ‘was only possible when potential and actual violence had been displaced to the border.’ We should recognise violence against migrants at the border not as the exception but as the rule. There is a long history here too. Christian moral freedom, Caygill observes, after Hegel, could ‘only become certain of itself and its inner spiritual possessions by means of the violent subjugation of the infidel at the borders of Christendom’. ‘Become certain’ is crucial: what is being enacted through these policies is the futile attempt of unjust regimes to justify themselves. And who, exactly, decides what we are allowed to understand as violence? As Judith Butler has long maintained, the exercise of such decisions is in itself a form of violence. Binding migrants into the legal process with no hope of exit (other than prison or return) obfuscates the violence of the state. It is the perfect way to distract the rest of us from the corpses lying on the shore.

One thing seems clear. For a migrant to be successfully criminalised, they must, at each stage of their perilous journey, have acted with full knowledge of the consequences, even when these were unknowable in advance and therefore beyond the bounds of their consent. Which amounts to saying that, contrary to the testimony of any and every refugee, they only wished the worst for themselves. In this perverse logic, we can see the traces of a central feminist demand – that women should determine their own destiny – which the system twists and turns against itself: ‘You knew what you were doing. You asked for what you got. You are dispensable.’

Across the contemporary terrain of crime and punishment, women are either assigned punishing forms of human agency or deprived of agency altogether. In British prisons, a relatively new ethos of ‘responsibilisation’ is ostensibly intended to give women a greater sense of control over their lives. But it also serves to make women – rather than inequality, poverty or domestic violence – accountable for petty, low-level, non-violent ‘survival’ crimes, crimes for which most, if not all, of them should never have been incarcerated in the first place. At the same time, an increased focus on trafficking, which in a just world should secure a woman’s right to asylum, makes alleviating women’s situations conditional on their being ‘rescued’. According to a similar logic, the surest way to get a woman acquitted of, say, killing an abusive partner is ‘diminished responsibility’. This robs women of the capacity to argue that they may have had rational motives for their actions: that, provoked beyond endurance, they acted with due consideration, under duress or in self-defence. In the words of the feminist criminologist Hilary Allen, it has the dubious advantage of rendering such women, and by implication all women, ‘harmless’, never the fully conscious agents of their own deeds: ‘What is potentially oppressive to women – criminal or otherwise – is for the frailties and disadvantages that do tend to characterise their position in society to be treated as exhaustive of their condition as social or legal subjects.’ Either women are handed the keys to mental freedom, only to find themselves stranded with no moral or legal recourse to justice; or they are turned into subjects with no control over their own lives. Women are always guilty, of having too much agency or not enough.

Most of the cases I have described are the logical outcome of Theresa May’s call for a ‘hostile environment’ for so-called illegal migrants, which she made as home secretary in 2012. The instruction was then translated into government policy in the Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. Of course hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Europe long predates this, indeed it has been one of Europe’s hallmarks. In the second half of the 20th century, such inhumanity, which was supposed to have been assigned to the past after the Second World War, quietly and then unquietly festered. Hatred of migrants can even be seen as a consequence of the war. As Tony Judt describes it, the relative ethnic purity that settled over Europe after 1945 was the surreal fulfilment of Hitler’s legacy. Today’s migrants gathering at Europe’s door are its ghosts (exactly the return of the repressed). In 1994, the lawyers Jacqueline Bhabha and Sue Shutter described the dire record on migration of ‘Fortress Europe’: 1.3 million refugees were living in Europe at a time when there were two million in Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world. In May 1993, the German Parliament voted to amend the constitution and revoke the right of asylum in response to a dramatic escalation in xenophobia and racist violence, coupled with a resurgence of the far right, which had followed an influx of migrants over the previous 18 months. The betrayal by Western governments of the postwar commitment to human rights was, Bhabha and Shutter wrote, becoming ‘increasingly harsh, not to say hysterical’.

In August 2015, Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to a million migrants by saying ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘We will handle this’). To many, this felt like an act of atonement, or at least the sign of a wish for Germany to appear humane. Merkel has never explicitly made the link to Germany’s past, but there is surely an inverted echo: making room for the wretched of the earth as the opposite of Hitler’s land seizure policy, which sent millions on the move. She must also have been aware of the political danger she was courting. In 2017, the far right entered the Bundestag for the first time since 1945 in the form of the AfD (Alternative for Germany), which is calling for the country’s borders to be closed – its supporters have cited the arrival of the refugees as their top concern. In June, one of Merkel’s allies and cabinet members, Walter Lübcke, was found dead with a gunshot wound to his head, and several others who have stood up publicly for refugees have received death threats. The AfD is also demanding an end to Germany’s preoccupation with public memory and arguing for a restoration of national pride. Memory and borders shut down. Such panicked entrenchment suggests that it is the vulnerability of migrants that makes them an object of hatred. They are a reminder of the most shameful moments of European history, and also of the fragility of all human subjects, regardless of nation, race, wealth or status. Just as it seems to be the vulnerability of the women at Yarl’s Wood that provokes the touching, the taunts, the jibes.

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In October 2018, months after Trump announced that he was ending his policy of forced separation, a five-year-old Honduran girl called Helen, was seized from her grandmother, Noehmi, who had fled along with several other relatives after her teenage son was threatened by gangs. Helen’s mother, Jeny, had moved to Texas four years before. Arrested at the US border, the family passed through several detention centres, at the last of which the child was taken and placed in a cage. ‘The girl will stay here,’ the border guards told Noehmi, ‘and you will be deported.’ It took months for Noehmi and Jeny to track her down. Eventually they traced her to a Baptist shelter contracted by the federal government. Although she had known enough, even at such a young age, to assert her legal right to have her custody reviewed, when it came to filling out the requisite form, she ticked the box withdrawing her previous request for a hearing (officials helped her fill out the form).

The UK does little better. The average age of the ten children separated from their asylum-seeking mothers in the Cambridge investigation was three: ‘They came at six o’clock in the morning. There were five, four police officers and one woman from DWP [Department of Work and Pensions]. They were not nice. They gave me no time to say goodbye to my children [aged four and two].’ Two women were separated from their babies while still breastfeeding; by the time they were reunited they had stopped lactating. Another woman, after being arrested, heard nothing of her children for three weeks. Her ‘manager’ told her she wouldn’t be allowed to see them until she had been to court.

Until 2005 Ireland granted citizenship rights to anyone born on Irish territory. The provision was overturned after a large number of immigrants arrived – mainly seeking work – in the 1990s. Ireland had entered the global economy, rapidly changing from a country of emigration to one of immigration. The atmosphere started to shift. Pregnant asylum seekers, or those who gave birth in Ireland, especially African women, were now characterised as parasites and scroungers. ‘Pregnancy rates and childbearing patterns became the primary form of knowledge about migrant women,’ the historian Eithne Luibhéid writes, and the resulting information ‘produced and disseminated in ways that reduced them to their sex organs’. In 2002, a woman became pregnant while the state was trying to deport her. Her right to remain relied on Article 40.3.3 of the Irish constitution, which guaranteed the right to life of the unborn. ‘It is obvious,’ the Supreme Court of Ireland stated in its ruling, ‘that the rights of the born, in this context, cannot be less than those of the unborn.’ The ‘rights of the born’, here, was a euphemism for anti-migrant voters and for the state’s right to enforce its deportation policies as it saw fit.

In such cases, a barely concealed revulsion towards migrant sexuality comes close to revealing itself. This too has a long history. Among the earliest ‘undesirable’ immigrants to the US, listed under the Page Act of 1875, were Chinese women suspected of being prostitutes. During debates over the British Nationality Act of 1948, which remained in force until 1983, it was argued by MPs in both major parties that alien women were entering the country ‘for immoral purposes’ or as spies, and that they were paying British men to marry them so that they could qualify as British subjects. ‘We do not want people in this country who can do a great deal of harm by being British citizens,’ the Labour MP Barbara Ayrton-Gould said in the House of Commons in 1948, ‘and who have no loyalty at all to Britain or to the things in which we believe.’

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There is a risk in recounting these stories. To describe what is being done to these women may seem to reinforce their status as victims, embedding them further in an unjust world with no – or only a forced, one-way – exit. Yet not to do so is to be complicit with the women’s invisibility, to cultivate the ‘cultural production of ignorance’ which helps keep national identity in place. Strange undercurrents of fascination pulse through the worst stories of our time. Think of the images of the little girl wailing at the US border; or of three-year-old Alan Kurdi cradled in the arms of the stricken man who in September 2015 discovered his body washed up on a Turkish beach. Or the image of Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, not yet two years old, drowned as they tried to cross into the US. The Guardian headlined one of its reports about Alan Kurdi: ‘Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees.’ ‘Tragic’ and ‘plight’ should give us pause: they make the agony timeless, turn the drowned child into an object of raw pity, obfuscate the human agency, historical choices and wilful political decisions that lead to such outcomes. We must be wary of the lure of pathos.

When Trump announced in 2018 that he had ended the practice of separating migrant children from their families at the border, it seemed for a brief moment that these images might have had an effect. Trump wasn’t exactly lying. Rather, he knows that everyone understands only too well that the idea of ending the practice never truly entered his calculations (the nod and a wink to his followers is a hallmark of his presidency). The problem isn’t so much, or isn’t only, that he is a liar. What is far more sinister and dangerous is the extent to which he can be trusted to do the worst. He has granted new freedom to trample on the vulnerable, which, in the final analysis, all human subjects, including – or perhaps especially – Trump himself, fear themselves to be. The unspoken contract is to give licence to the shared unconscious pleasures of hatred. Rage against women and migrants never fails. Targeting women refugees and asylum seekers, turning them into criminals, lays bare the violent forms of inequality for which women have always been punished. As if they were the cause of it all.