Gendering Migration

Published 26 June 2015 / By Melanie Griffiths

Back to Articles

This is an updated version of a blog originally posted on the COMPAS website under the title Gendering the Irregular (June 2015).

Hope has been living in London without a secure immigration status for nearly 20 years. Much of this time was spent waiting for an asylum appeal that never materialised. It has been an arduous wait, and Hope has struggled on the margins, with neither financial support nor permission to work. A few years ago Hope fell in love with Alex, a white Brit. The relationship has never been straightforward. Whilst Alex is a high-earning professional and home owner, whose life revolves around work, Hope can do little other than stay at home, bored, listless, and entirely reliant upon Alex. Hope describes the ‘pocket money’ Alex provides as being a source of dependency and shame, but one that’s too precious to refuse.

After a couple of years, the couple found out that they were expecting a baby. Still without any immigration status, this wasn’t something Hope would have planned, but nonetheless they were pleased. Raising their daughter fulltime gives Hope purpose and also provides a way to actively contribute to the household, balancing out the relationship. However, Hope remains dependent upon Alex’s money and is frustrated by Alex’s under-appreciation of the difficulties of managing a home and child. Coming home from work, Alex expects dinner at the table and resents Hope for apparently having done ‘nothing all day.’

The Home Office within the Home

Photo: Home Office, Eaton House, by Melanie Griffiths

Photo: Home Office, Eaton House, by Melanie Griffiths

Hope’s story illustrates how the immigration system enters into the home lives of precarious migrants. The effect can be to amplify and entrench a traditional gender (im)balance, with a citizen man supporting a female partner whose immigration status ensures her dependency.

However, Hope is a man and Alex a woman, and as such, the pair has experienced, in Hope’s words, a ‘role reversal.’ This has produced some unexpected benefits, such as Hope’s extremely close bond with his daughter. But it also hinders both of them from exercising their parenthood as they wish. Alex cannot be the stay-at-home mum she wants to be and Hope is prevented from financially providing for his family. Social scientists have long recognised an association between masculinity and work, and precarious male migrants such as Hope experience the prohibition against employment as a fundamental challenge to their identities. Although Hope found alternative means to contribute to the household, he still talks of the shame ‘as a man’ of being financially helpless: ‘She wears the trousers and I wear the skirt. My manhood is being ripped away from me.’

A Gendered System

The immigration system―from the policy level to its everyday operationalisation―is a gendered one. It operates through restrictive, culturally-specific conceptualisations of family and gender, as well as going into the heart of people’s private lives to shape their identities and relationships. In the case given, the immigration restrictions placed on irregular migrants challenges the gendered expectations of Hope and Alex, and influences how both perform their gender identities and family roles.

The gendered implications of the immigration system, however, don’t only exist within the intimate realm of people’s home and love lives. Home Office and judicial decision-makers, politicians, the media, and the general public all have gendered expectations about non-citizens, expectations that produce an immigration system that works through heavily gendered (and racialised) bureaucratic categories. Such categories create and discipline various ‘types’ of migrant, and also influence the treatment of individuals, families and their cases. Recognition of Hope’s emotional ties is coloured by his being deemed an ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘foreign criminal,’ two of the most strongly moralised, racialised, and gendered contemporary immigration labels, as the next example illustrates.

Fathers, Lovers and Foreign Criminals

Kamran came to the UK from Iran as an unaccompanied minor seven years ago. He’s now in his early 20s and classed as a refused asylum seeker. Last year, Kamran and his British girlfriend decided to start a family. He describes the excitement of the first scan: ‘it was just so amazing! It was just so amazing listening to the heart beat!’ His son is now two months old and Kamran is besotted with his young family: ‘First love, first child. I feel like I’ve got nobody except her. She’s my life, my love, she’s everyone to me.’

In addition to being a father and partner, Kamran is labelled a ‘foreign criminal.’ He missed most of the pregnancy due to an 11-month prison sentence. This, in combination with previous, shorter sentences, triggered deportation proceedings. Not realising that this meant he would remain incarcerated after his prison sentence ended, the expectant couple had been counting down the days to his freedom. His heavily pregnant partner was waiting outside the prison gates when he got the news that he was being transferred to immigration detention. Six days later she gave birth, alone and not long out of her teens. Kamran was on the telephone with her throughout and heard his son’s first screams.

‘How can you separate me from my son? He’s British, and his dad is getting deported!’

A few weeks ago the Home Office refused Kamran’s latest asylum and human rights application. They accept that he has a family in the UK (no mean feat in itself), but don’t consider interference with it to be disproportionate. The Secretary of State presented several reasons for the refusal.

Firstly, that Kamran is a ‘foreign criminal’ and as such his ‘departure is conducive to the public good and in the public interest.’ Secondly, that Iran is not only safe enough for his own return, but that Kamran’s partner and baby could move there with him. And thirdly, and most painfully for Kamran, they dispute the strength of his paternal relationship. According to the Home Office, fatherhood goes beyond the biological and should entail a ‘significant and meaningful positive involvement in a child’s life.’ Ironically, not only is Kamran kept apart from his son through detention―even though he agonises, ‘I’m dying to spend a minute with him!’―but this is used to undermine their bond:

‘They are saying already I’ve not been there for him, because my partner has been looking after him so he doesn’t really need me. That’s really horrible to hear that. She needs me!’

As a ‘foreign criminal’ and ‘immigration detainee,’ then, Kamran is not only undervalued as a family man, but is prevented from being the partner and father he wishes to be, and that the Home Office tells him he should be, with life-shaping repercussions for him, his partner and their child.

Missing Men

Migration academics and activists remain peculiarly blind to men and questions of masculinity. This oversight persists despite the striking gender imbalance of aspects of the migration system, with men greatly overrepresented in deportation and immigration detention figures. And yet, an examination of the fraught relationship between intimate lives and immigration enforcement demonstrates that the immigration system is profoundly gendered. It reaches into homes, challenging gender identities and shaping relationship dynamics. But it also operates through categorisations that are not only gendered and racialised in terms of their valuing of people’s families and emotional lives, but that actively produce gendered classes of migrant.

A number of migration labels that are disproportionately applied to men, such as ‘illegal immigrant,’ ‘immigration detainee,’ and ‘foreign criminal,’ simultaneously offer little recognition of the validity and value of people’s emotional lives, and curtail people’s ability to perform their gender identities. Through employment prohibitions, detention, deportation and the like, the immigration system prevents precarious migrants such as Kamran and Hope from meeting the Home Office’s own gendered scripts of fatherhood and partnership, and then judges and punishes them for their failure.

About the author: Melanie is an ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow, leading the project, ‘Detention, Deportability and the Family: Migrant Men’s Negotiations of the Right to Respect for Family Life’ in 2014-17 about the family lives and Article 8 rights of men at risk of removal or deportation. She’s on Twitter: @MBEGriffiths.

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until the end of June.