I chaired and spoke on this panel put together by Southall Black Sisters (I am on the SBS management committee) on ‘Cohesion, Migration and Religion’ at FEM 11, organised by UK Feminista. Here are my notes written up into a post.

The intersection between migration,  women’s rights and what this means in practice for women has always been an important arena for struggle – for black women and for SBS, which throughout its existence has campaigned for family reunification, in anti-deportation campaign as well as for the meaningful right for women to exit the family.

Immigration law and policy is the cutting edge of black communities’ experience of state racism, by its very nature racist and classist, created to prevent certain types of foreigners entering the country. The government pretends that immigration laws affect all foreigners fairly but we know they do not. Conservative and Labour governments have justified racist and draconian immigration laws as the basis for good race relations, reduced the money, housing and services available to immigrants and asylum seekers (even though immigrants actually pay more tax) and whipped up hysteria by talking of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers.

The immigrant experience has always been made problematic by the state. “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” Enoch Powell, Shadow Defence secretary at the time, quoted a constituent as saying in 1968. ‘Enoch Powell was right’ say the far right today: this is the ‘dystopian’ future of which he imagined – a Britain overrun by immigrants.

Extreme as this rhetoric is, it’s symptomatic of a continuous and ever-present strand running through British politics. Immigration policy is about keeping the wrong people out and letting the right people in; about managing the movements of black people and seeing immigrants as the problem. Debates around capping immigration have raged for decades. Papers released a couple of years ago showed Margaret Thatcher complaining that too many Asian immigrants were being allowed into Britain but that she had less objection to (white) people from Rhodesia, Poland and Hungary since ‘they could more easily be assimilated into British society.’ Could this be because of the colour of their skin by any chance?

The BNP may not have won a parliamentary seat in the 2010 election but their popularity in the years before led to the immigration debate moving sharply rightwards in the first decade of the twenty first century. More recently, David Cameron spoke at Munich, on the same day the EDL were marching, lambasting ‘segregated communities’ living ‘apart from the mainstream’ that behave in ways that run counter to ‘our values.’  [For a post I wrote at the time, see here.] The debate has always displayed distinct inequality, not only in policy but in its very discourse. All race relations policy has been predicated around the management of black communities rather than around human rights, safety and the prevention of violence. Migrants have never had equal footing with the state.

Black women, already problematised through the colour of our skin, have been further ignored and pathologised as women. Policies around multiculturalism and cohesion allow self appointed so-called leaders to speak on the behalf of their communities, including where it comes to women’s rights.

The practice of ‘virginity testing‘ in the 1970s has been well documented. Immigration rules at the time did not require women arriving in the UK to have married their fiancés in order to have visas if the wedding was due to take place within 3 months of arrival. Internal Home Officer papers show the practice of conducting medical examinations to see whether a woman entering the UK under this bracket was a ‘bona fide virgin or fiancée.’ At least 80 ‘virginity tests’ or, to give them their proper name, state sanctioned sexual assaults took place, based on racist and sexist stereotypes that south Asian women are submissive, meek and always virgins before marriage and on the biologically false notion that all women have hymens before having sex. The UK state has still not apologised for this.

So, this was in the 70s, right? Maybe it’s gotten better and we all now live in a paradise of gender migration equality? I’m afraid not. The government is now proposing to introduce reforms to family-related migration to ‘bring immigration back to sustainable levels and to bring a sense of fairness back to our system.’ Although they talk about fairness, the purpose of these proposed reforms is really to reduce migration. The government is planning to put in place an additional series of requirements that people will have to meet in order to join their spouses in the UK. These are likely to lead to highly subjective determinations by immigration officers that rely on stereotypical and discriminatory ideas of what is a genuine marriage. What worries us even more is that the proposals are more or less copied and pasted from those of the anti-immigration think tank Migration Watch which campaigns against the ‘rise’ of immigrant populations and advocates the need to stop family migration altogether, conflating forced, arranged and sham marriages as it does so.

This goes to another trend that we find deeply disturbing: the use of women’s rights to justify racist immigration policies. The government banned non-EU spouses under 21 from entering the UK in the name of preventing forced marriage. We argued that this policy was disproportionate and discriminatory and that it would, rather than addressing forced marriage, merely drive it underground.  There is no evidence to show that, in the vast majority of cases, forced marriage and gaining entry to the UK are linked and there are more effective ways to address this issue. Luckily, the Supreme Court, in the Quila and Bibi case, agreed that this policy was an unjustifiable, unfair and disproportionate response to the problem of forced marriage. Although forced marriage is a very real problem, it should not be used in a cynical way to justify the government’s immigration agenda.

Another example: the impact on vulnerable women with insecure immigration status. SBS started a legal challenge recently, this time against the Ministry of Justice about the government’s decision to remove the provision of legal aid from non-detention immigration, especially for women subject to domestic or gender related violence. This put the onus on abused migrant women, one of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in society, to navigate their way around the law and legal processes, in contravention of race, gender and disability discrimination law and the Human Rights Act. We won before we even went to court, thanks to our legal challenge and the lobbying that we and other organisations, such as Rights of Women, did. The government announced they would table an amendment to cover domestic violence cases. It isn’t enough though. SBS is determined to ensure this covers all vulnerable women, including trafficked women and migrant domestic workers.

A last example: that of women claiming asylum. The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are men. Refugees are imagined by international and national law as male political activists persecuted for their protests against the state. Not only do women’s political activities take different forms but the nature of the persecution faced differs and includes that based on their gender. The law marginalises and depoliticises the persecution women face at home and does not go far enough to reflect the reality of women’s experiences. This is just as much the case when looking at the experiences of women seeking asylum due to persecution on the basis of sexuality. Sexuality is viewed through a very Western lens and assumptions are made that, if you do not fit the modes of homosexuality of some in the cities of the UK, then you are lying. I worked on an anti-deportation campaign recently where the woman in question was told that officials did not believe that she was fleeing persecution on the basis of her sexuality because she didn’t look like a lesbian.

The key point is this: you can’t talk about immigration without talking about race, gender and class. A quote from one of the women who uses the services provided by SBS: ‘I don’t feel like I belong in this country. I feel that the minute that I had my first experience of racism at the age of 18 and now I am 53 – and race is always an issue and yet I am intelligent, educated and can speak English. This proves that the problem is major. So someone who speaks English and is not educated – what the hell must they be going through?

We need to drastically reconfigure our thinking; moving immigration from its inherent racism and sexism and towards reflection of human rights, including those of women. Immigration policy has always been filtered through the male gaze – made mostly by men looking mostly at men. Black women have never been at its heart, or if we are, it’s mostly in ways that use the language of women’s rights to justify racist immigration policies. All of this has massive implications on the lives of black women, which is only set to intensify in the light of the cuts to services and legal aid that are currently ongoing. Over the years, we have made some gains – far from what is required – but even they are going to disappear.