Asylum, Gendered Harms and Structural Violence

Resisting the Spiral of Silence

At the heart of this book is an aim to address systemic and structural oppressions which facilitate violence against women, but also which socially hinder the wellbeing of people seeking asylum more generally once they have reached relative safety. Ultimately, I am arguing that the British asylum system is structurally harmful in that it is built to regulate, control and dehumanise those who pass through its processes and whose lives depend on its policies.

There is no one aspect that is singularly harmful – not detention, not destitution – but a culmination of procedures which reduce or eradicate autonomy, produce existential banality, and ultimately cause further emotional, physical and relational harms to survivors of violence and persecution. Importantly, many of these processes mirror or are mirrored in the global arena of securitisation and border controls, and expansion rather than reduction is increasingly the main objective of states and nations across the world.

Can we address aspects of structural violence or harm as state crimes?

Defining state crime is complex in the context of asylum in Britain. Indeed even when the state has been found in contravention of its own laws or policies (such as in the case of asylum welfare) it is difficult – but not impossible, as we will later see – to have changes made. There are two points worth picking up on here: the first is that state crime might be viewed as the ‘Infliction of pain, injury or death in contravention of legal or moral norms’ (Green and Ward, 2009: 116). While Green and Ward refer specifically to states which perpetrate physical and mass scale violence such as war crimes or genocide, a broad reading allows us to look critically at the issues developed in relation  to the ‘bystander state’ and the refugee crisis. As Pickering and Cochrane argue, the ‘fatalities of irregular border crossers raise serious questions concerning state obligations, at least in relation to the foreseeability of these deaths, if not also in connection to state culpability in and the legality of border control efforts that directly or indirectly result in deaths’ (Pickering and Cochrane, 2013: 28; see also Weber and Pickering, 2011). It also lets us critically consider what I have called here the deliberate infliction of harm: harms which affect the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of people seeking asylum but that are portrayed as immigration deterrents or by-products of border control. As argued, decisions which have been made over the past three decades at least have developed outcomes that were wholly foreseeable and foreseen, and this continues to be the case even despite the increased documentation of harm, and capacity for challenging denial that we now have. These are intentional, and pain, injury and death are subsequently inflicted on varying scales.

The second point draws us closer to key arguments made by Chambliss more than twenty years ago: that ‘state crime’ should incorporate ‘behaviour that violates international agreements and principles established in the courts and treaties of international bodies’ (Chambliss, 1995 in Canning, 2011: 29). Under this wider definition of state crime, it could be argued that in wrongly refusing protection under the Refugee Convention (amongst others), which is clear in some cases as we have seen, then governmental agencies fit this description. As Webber recently argued, the British state increasingly see ‘human rights obligations as optional’ (Webber, 2016). Since ‘crime is not a rigid legal category but a fluid and contested construct’ (Green and Ward, 2013: 28) there is scope to move toward criminal accountability, something which has increasingly been advocated by critical lawyers and other parties who have brought High Court challenges against the Home Office. Drawing from perspectives such as Chambliss and Webber then we can see that although state harms and state power are the most recognisable elements of the points highlighted earlier, there is still scope to address and challenge some harms as crimes.

Resistance from Within

As with other social movements, such as anti-violence movements and rape crisis movements, much of this resistance has developed autonomously and from within. In the context of Australian detention for example, Grewcock argues that despite the ‘government’s deliberate strategy of physically isolating refugees… the social isolation is not total and the detainees’ humanity is not completely destroyed’ (2013: 63). Although the spatial isolation of which he speaks is markedly different from the British context, the underlying argument is the same: isolation is not absolute. People seeking asylum who are in or out of detention face multiple layers of isolation and exclusion but autonomous acts of resistance have always played out in and out of the gaze of the public eye, and not only in the recent surge of pro-refugee campaigns. Some have ranged from physical protests, such as multiple hunger strikes, including in 2015 in IRC Harmondsworth which spread to IRC Moreton Hall (see Green, 2015), and periodic strikes in Yarl’s Wood over the past 15 years. Yarl’s Wood has seen many other eras of unrest and resistance, which included being set on fire shortly after opening in protest to the maltreatment of a fellow detainee. Other acts of resistance include petitions for individuals to be granted asylum or for structural reform, and the forming of protective barriers between deportees and Border Force or Immigration Officers.  Some have been less public and more sustained, such as campaigning against conditions in IRCs, and localised campaigns regarding inadequate housing in parts of Britain (including Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, all of which are dispersal areas).

Furthermore, and as argued elsewhere in relation to sexual violence in detention:

Survivors of sexual violence are often faced with a wall of silence, be it through social stigma, shame, or fear of reporting. Add to this a perpetrator who has the power to detain, restrain, search or report you, who can exploit a fear of forced return to the country you have fled and you have what some women seeking sanctuary have been made to face’ (Canning, 2014b: 11).

Yet even in the face of this, women have still spoken out. Many women speak out against their own subjections to violence, but also against violence so that their counterparts might not face sexual or domestic violence elsewhere. Organisations such as Southall Black Sisters, Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) and Merseyside Refugee and Asylum Seekers Pre and Post Natal Support Group (MRANG) have spoken, protested, and written their criticisms of a system which facilitates vulnerability to exploitation, which curbs women’s capacities to leave violent relationships, and which undermines the impacts of previous violences that women disproportionately experience prior to and during migration. In the face of expanding controls, such levels of grassroot organising probably face more threats – political and financial – than ever before but they continue, they challenge, they grow and they resist.

Everyday Survival as Resistance 

This brings me then to the forms of resistance which have been the backbone to the women and organisations I have worked with over the past decade. To echo the sentiments of Stanley and McCulloch:

we argue that it [resistance] should include assertive or creative acts… Resistance can be about becoming  or creating something – it may produce alternatives for harmful products or processes… it  may reinvigorate traditions or reaffirm values, such as cultural identity, integrity or sense of self; it can invoke a competing claim of universalism or attempt to set the boundaries of a ‘viable’ or ‘liveable’ life’ (Stanley and McCulloch, 2013:5).

They are speaking specifically of resistance to state crime, but I argue that the same aspects resonate with resisting harm, power and structural or patriarchal violence. For the duration of this research, I have witnessed incredible acts of solidarity which have supported the wellbeing and survival of women and men seeking asylum. A weekly Muslim women’s group at a Mosque which gave food collections to other women who were awaiting asylum or the outcome of an asylum appeal; daily foodbanks at an asylum support organisation which did everything it could to ensure people were not malnourished; birthing partners amongst refugee and non-refugee women so that single pregnant women did not have to face childbirth alone in an unfamiliar country; a woman giving up her own bed so another could sleep in it with her two daughters when Section Four funds did not come through in time from the Home Office; petitions – some successful, others not – to stop the deportation of friends and fellow activists; group phonecalls on loudspeaker to women in detention so they did not feel isolated or forgotten; cookathons to raise legal funds for a member of a mutual aid group who could not afford to have a report produced to documents the prevalence of gendered violence in her country of origin. As with Weber’s arguments around non-compliance amongst custody officers (2005), other forms of support which facilitate survival come from the outside. Health visitors who make sure to prescribe the same standard of vitamins or creams that they would for themselves over cheaper and less effective counterparts; lawyers who spend more and more of their spare time on cases for which they are not paid but that they take on out of a sense of moral obligation – all of these points are creative and facilitate survival.

This is not simply a list of good deeds: it is the recording of acts of solidarity and resistance amongst autonomous groups and in the face of poverty, destitution, and imminent uncertainty on their own behalf. For some, just being here and surviving is an indicator of resistance. As Grewcock said, humanity is not completely destroyed (2013), and nor can it be.

Victoria Canning is a Lecturer in Criminology at the Open University, UK. These excerpts are taken from her new book, Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System (2017, Routledge). You can read a preview here.


Canning, V. (2014), Women, Asylum and the Harms of Detention, Criminal Justice Matters, December 2014, Vol. 98.

Chambliss, W. (1995), Commentary, Society for the Study of Social Problems, Vol. 26, No. 1: 9.

Green, P. and Ward, T. (2004), State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption. Pluto Press.

Green, P. And Ward, T. (2013), Civil Society, Resistance and State Crime, in Stanley, E. and McCulloch, J. (eds.), State Crime and Resistance, Oxon: Routledge.

Green, C. (2015), Harmondsworth: Asylum Seekers’ Hunger Strike Spreads to Second Centre, The Independent,  10 March 2015.

Grewcock, M. (2015), Reinventing ‘The Stain’: Bad Character and Criminal Deportation in Contemporary Australia, in Pickering, S. and Ham, J. (2015), The Routledge Handbook on Crime and International Migration, Oxon: Routledge.

Pickering, S. and Cochrane, L. (2013), Irregular border-crossing deaths and gender: Where, how and why women die crossing borders, Theoretical Criminology, 17(1): 27-48.

Stanley, E. And McCulloch, J. (2013), Resistance to State Crimes, in Stanley, E. And McCulloch, J. (eds.), State Crime and Resistance, Oxon: Routledge.

Webber, F. (2016), Keynote Speech, Sites of Confinement: Confines, Controls and Resistance at the Border, University of Turin, March 17th 2016.

Weber, L. (2005), The Detention of Asylum Seekers as a Crime of Obedience, Critical Criminology, Vol. 13, No. 1: 89-109.

Weber, L. and Pickering, S. (2011), Globalisation and Borders: Death at the Global Frontier, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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