Friendships can be an important source of practical, material and emotional support for everyone but especially when moving or migrating overseas away from existing support networks. In contexts of hostile immigration policies and practices which create insecure immigration statuses and financial precarity, friendships can be crucial.
Although widely understood as a matter of personal choice, friendships are largely shaped by structural factors. Gender, life stage, ethnicity, culture and migration trajectory can all contribute to the ways we curate meaningful personal relationships. Spaces and places play an important role too, both physical and online. As a gendered life stage, motherhood opens up new spaces for women – visible in early years settings, family drop-ins and schools – which create new possibilities for friendships. To reduce inequalities amongst mothers with different immigration statuses, it is important to understand how all of these factors intersect to shape opportunities to develop and sustain friendships and access to support.
Since 2012, ‘Hostile Environment’ policies and laws in the UK have seen thousands of families subjected to either temporary or no residency rights and ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF), and many face destitution as a result (Leon 2023). Racially-minoritised mothers with insecure statuses are especially affected by barriers to housing, healthcare, childcare and employment, and risks of exploitation and abuse (Mort et al. 2023, Jolly et al. 2022).
How does all of this affect mothers and their friendships? Through my ethnographic research and subsequent knowledge-sharing workshops with mothers in an inner London neighbourhood, I found that mothers with insecure immigration statuses engaged in three key friendship practices: reaching out, sharing information and resources, and confiding. But mothers also have to navigate the underlying tensions in friendships, which play out in particular ways.
‘[The drop-in] is a good place to go because you find people in your category that [say] “okay, let’s keep hoping because things will turn around”.’ (Afiya, West African mother)
Mothers frequented the local food bank, family drop-ins and advice centres as safe and sociable spaces. These places acted as social infrastructure, facilitating initial and repeated contact with other mothers and children. This enabled mutual recognition of shared experiences and helped to generate trust, allowing friendships to be initiated and sustained.
Interactions in these informal spaces were characterised by tact and discretion. It was an unwritten rule that direct questions about immigration status were not to be asked, which helped the mothers to feel more comfortable. There was recognition of the need for privacy as well as the need for connection.
In spaces where there was less mutual understanding, mothers had to navigate the tension between privacy and connection by ‘holding back’ and ‘just saying hello’. Some mothers steered clear of new friendships to avoid revealing too much personal information. Others – notably those on temporary visas with NRPF who were having to work long hours – lacked the time and spaces to develop friendships, as two West African mothers explained to me. ‘I don’t have friends,’ Halima remarked; Naomi observed, ‘I don’t have anybody. I just have my boys.’
Resources and reciprocity
On the one hand, friendships could facilitate access to food, clothes, accommodation, money, support with childcare and useful information. But on the other hand, mothers were conscious that friends in similarly precarious positions often lacked material resources. This meant they had to make ‘subtle calculations’ (Spencer and Pahl, 2006) in seeking help: what to prioritise, whom to approach, when and how.
‘It’s very hard accepting things from other people because you’ve got to give it back. [At] this time I had nothing to give back.’ (Sihana, east European mum)
Low resources and perceived difficulty in reciprocating sometimes deterred mothers from seeking help which, in turn, led to isolation. Reciprocity was important in building trust and creating social recognition. This could take different forms according to a mother‘s access to resources. For example, financial assistance could be repaid with a plate of food or help with childcare. Emphasising the principle of equality in friendships was used to navigate the tension between affection and instrumentality.
Insecure immigration status coupled with financial precarity posed barriers to confiding between mothers. Tensions emerged between the need for emotional support and its perceived scarcity. Before deciding to confide in a friend, mothers carefully assessed whether the person was likely to respond discreetly and provide the needed support. One mother explained that if friends appeared to be weighed down by ‘their own problems’, it would be both inconsiderate and pointless to bother them with her own issues. This could potentially destabilise friendships, so instead mothers often coped with their problems alone.
Linked to this was the tension between openness and privacy. Mutual self-disclosure over time could build trust, but this meant making oneself vulnerable. Sharing personal information about precarious immigration status could lead to betrayal or exploitation. Some mothers confided in carefully selected friends, and in such cases could build trust and generate mutual access to care, emotional support and hope for the future.
In contexts of hostile immigration policies and legal and financial precarity, friendships are an important source of support. Underlying tensions are often specific to a mother’s structural positioning in society. It is important to consider the emotional burden that can result from ‘holding back’ and carrying problems alone. The provision of diverse sociable community spaces plays a key role in facilitating friendships and access to support for migrant mothers.
Dr Rachel Benchekroun is a sociologist and has held an ESRC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at UCL for the last year. She collaborates with communities to research the impact of hostile immigration policies on mothers and families.
Further reading: Benchekroun, R. (2023). Mothers Doing Friendship in a Hostile Environment: Navigating Dialectical Tensions and Sharing Support. Sociology, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/00380385231184812