Detention and the policing of parenthood

By Melanie Griffiths, an ESRC Future Leaders Fellow at the University of Bristol.  This article was originally published as part of Unlocking Detention in Open Democracy

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The British state has regulated relationships between its citizens and certain foreigners since at least the Colonial era. Today’s border controls continue to police people’s intimate lives and retain sexist and racist assumptions. 

Lou, who I met one windy afternoon last year, knows all too well the devastation that immigration detention can wreak on one’s family. Lou arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied asylum seeking teenager 15 years ago. Vulnerable and orphaned, life was tough. But then Lou met, fell for and moved in with Sam, a British citizen. After a couple of years, she became pregnant. It was an accident but Lou was delighted when their baby girl, Mary, was born. All this time, Lou’s asylum claim languished at the Home Office. Until, one day the authorities realised that the claim had been refused (but never communicated) years before. To the family’s great distress, Lou was taken away to an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) for removal from the UK, leaving Sam and their daughter behind.

The length of time that Lou had lived in the UK, coupled with baby Mary’s British nationality, meant that it was always going to be difficult for the Home Office to remove Lou. But this didn’t stop the Home Office trying. And despite the damage being caused to the family, Lou was kept in detention as they tried. The initial wrenching shock of detention eventually gave way to what Lou called the slow “suffocation” of lengthy detention. In the end, Lou spent an incredible four years in immigration detention, separated from Sam and Mary. Mary was just a toddler when Lou was taken, and so almost all her memories of bonding are based in the visits hall of an IRC.

Parenting from afar

At first Lou was detained fairly close to the family home, so Sam could visit often, bringing their daughter after nursery. Desperate to be a proper parent despite being separated by detention, Lou lived for these visits, and supplemented them with phone calls, letters and drawings that they sent each other. Lou did manual work at the IRC, despite the pitiful ‘wages’, so as to be able to make a contribution to Mary’s care. After a year, however, Lou was transferred, without explanation, to an IRC far away. The strains of detention rose to be ever greater and the visits now required an overnight hotel stay and became less frequent. Eventually the stress became too much and Sam and Lou’s relationship broke down.

Now the hurdles of parenting were almost insurmountable. The visits, which took up a lot of time and money, were dependent upon Sam’s goodwill and generosity. And seeing Mary started to bring Lou as much pain and loss as joy. Lou said that the hardest times were hanging up after a telephone conversation and the days after the little girl’s visits. They were so painful that sometimes Lou thought that breaking all contact might be best for them both.

Lou only got through detention by imagining a future reunited with Mary and finally being able to parent her properly. But they remained separated even when Lou was released from immigration detention. In what Lou considers to be a calculated act of cruelty, the assigned Home Office housing is at the opposite end of the country from Mary. The requirement to remain at this address coupled with obligations to regularly report to the police mean that it’s not possible to travel far. In addition, the tiny amount of money that Lou receives (which in any case is not in cash), will never cover the travel costs. The result is a family that remains splintered, an unhappy little (British) girl, and a parent that is effectively still imprisoned, albeit no longer behind physical walls. It breaks Lou’s heart every time that Mary asks why they still cannot see each other.

A gender gap?

Immigration detention causes enormous damage to parents and children. This is true whatever the gender of those involved, and yet the detention of parents is almost only ever discussed in relation to mothers. But like the vast majority of detained parents, Lou is a father.

The British state has attempted to regulate the relationships between its citizens and (certain) foreigners since the Colonial era, when contact between white British women and colonised men was considered especially problematic and of requiring management. Today, border controls continue to police people’s intimate lives, and they retain (albeit now less explicitly) various gender and ethnicity biases. We see it in the creation of gendered and racialised categories such as ‘immigration detainee’, ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘foreign criminal’, labels which in rhetoric and reality are disproportionately applied to men (about 85% of immigration detainees in the UK are men, as are 89% of people forcibly removed) and ethnic minorities.

A mixture of sexism and racism may explain why quite so little recognition is given to these men’s emotional lives. Many speak of their roles as parents and partners being ignored, devalued or disbelieved entirely under suspicion that they were established merely to circumvent immigration controls. When I ask Lou if he thinks he’d be treated differently if he was a mother he exclaims: “Obviously. Obviously. Obviously!” He recognises that mums are also separated from their children by detention, but believes that they tend to be released more quickly than dads, and are more likely to have the emotional trauma recognised and compensated for.

Lou believes that it is his gender that allowed the system to so easily steal four years of his daughter’s life from him, and that legitimises their continued, pointless separation. He blames his gender for enabling decision-makers to deem his private life sacrificial to the ‘public interest’ of his deportation, and to accuse him of “using this baby to stay in this country”. It is hard to imagine that such a hurtful accusation is put as often to women, nor the argument (also made to Lou) that he could be just as adequate a parent after deportation, parenting by telephone and Skype.

Detained dads

My conversation with Lou is part of an ESRC-funded project at the University of Bristol on mixed-citizenship families affected by immigration enforcement. As lead researcher, I have been talking to UK-based men of various nationalities, all of whom have a British or European partner or child, but whose lack of a secure immigration status puts them at risk of forced removal. Although damaging to all, immigration detention has particular implications for people with family members in the UK. Several interviewees had been detained – and therefore put under the extreme stress of threatened removal – during key life events. They missed pregnancies and births, at best only virtually present. One man heard his baby’s first screams over the telephone, whilst another couple communicated throughout the labour using Whatsapp.

Lou, like many fathers, tried hard to parent his daughter whilst in immigration detention, even after his relationship with her mother ended. But even when contact can be maintained, detention entails an unknown, but often long, period of separation. Travel costs, distance and fear often hinder families from visiting, hurting both children and parents. One NGO employee told me that as detention starts to stretch into the months, the detained men he works with all notice their children regressing and developing psychological problems.

Unlike with prisons, detained parents are not helped or encouraged to stay in contact with families. Indeed, much of Lou’s detention was at an IRC several hours away from his family. He feels that this was a ploy to stop his family from being able to visit, which brings legal, as well as emotional, repercussions. A paucity of visits is used by decision-makers to suggest that detained men are not performing meaningful family roles, and that thus their family life is no bar to deportation.

Detained without walls

As Lou also demonstrates, the impact on families of immigration detention often continues even if a person is released. Men tend to leave detention with stringent conditions such as frequent reporting to the police, evening curfews and electronic tagging. These severely restrict normal life and tie a person to a particular place, which may well be far from their families. Add on a lack of money or right to work, as well as the emotional damage caused by detention, and the hurdles against rekindling family ties can be enormous.

Lou feels that, as an ex-detainee, the Home Office is deliberately splitting up his family in order to “break him” emotionally, and is “playing games” by using his young daughter as bait to tempt him into breaching his conditions of release. Unfortunately for Lou, his legitimate desire to live near his daughter and contribute financially to her upbringing (so as “to see her smile”), would entail illegitimately ‘absconding’ from his accommodation and working illegally. Lou considers it a Home Office tactic: “deprive him! So he’s going to mess up and then we’ll justify detaining him!”

Cruelly, and as Lou is well aware, his continued separation from Mary also has legal implications. Even if the separation is involuntary and an artefact of the immigration system, it undermines his case to remain in the UK on the basis of his family life. Lou is trapped. In order to follow the Home Office’s rules, Lou must accept the pain of hardly seeing Mary and the guilt of being unable to financially support her. But in so doing, not only is their relationship forever damaged, but Lou knows that the decision-makers will become increasingly unlikely to “accept I’m a genuine father.” He tells me that they will ask him: “When did you last see your daughter? Where’s your evidence?”

Final words: “I’m not leaving my child here. How can I? Who does that?”

Lou’s experience of a slow asylum system, of long-term immigration detention, and of continued entrapment after release, not only illustrate the harms that the British immigration system does to families – including British children – but also demonstrates that these harms play out in gendered ways. The immigration system shapes people’s relationships and family identities, including as husbands, boyfriends and fathers. It also judges and values these roles, with the Home Office typically placing far less weight on the ‘husband’ or ‘father’ roles of currently – or previously-detained men, than do the men themselves or their loved ones.

And shamelessly, not only does the immigration system prevent these men from being the partners and fathers that they were or wish to be, it then draws on the diminished contact to dispute the value – or even very existence – of the relationships. We, as academics and activists, must be careful not to contribute to these gendered (and racialized and classed) narratives, however well meaning, by perpetuating the myth that in relation to immigration detention, issues of love, parenting and emotion arise only with women. By emphasising other factors, such as ones of legality or criminality, when discussing detained men we reproduce the sexist assumptions and constraints of the immigration system. In so doing, we risk dehumanising and flattening the identities of both genders.

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