Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK: Punished for being a woman

Most women asylum seekers are fleeing so-called ‘non-political’ violence. Domestic violence, including within the extended family and community, ranks high. So does religious persecution of women and violence against lesbians. Women flee such violence because they know it’s wrong. When women asylum seekers are criminalized for seeking asylum, they are being punished for the knowledge they have as women. That’s a witch-hunt, and that’s what’s happening around the world today.

Last week, world leaders overwhelmingly endorsed the Every Newborn Action Plan, which calls for a global concerted effort to address infant mortality. This endorsement came on the heels of a major report, also released last week, which notes, “Every year, 2·9 million newborn babies die from largely preventable causes, and 2·6 million more are stillborn.” The report argues that every newborn counts, and, implicitly, that every mother of every newborn counts.

Would that it were true.

Around the world, women asylum seekers learn that not all maternities are equal. For example, in the United Kingdom, a recent study found asylum seekers receiving housing and subsistence support from the Home Office are regularly `dispersed’ to areas outside London. Pregnant women seeking asylum are often dispersed very late in their pregnancies or soon after delivery. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has argued that pregnant women asylum seekers have special needs and particular vulnerabilities and need additional and particular support. The Home Office has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that finding. Women asylum seekers have reported the experience of `dispersal’ is distressing. `Dispersal’ interrupted established maternity care. It left women without social and family support. Because of the day-to-day realities of dispersal and of childbirth, many women asylum seekers gave birth alone. Midwives have reported that they do the best they can, but the `dispersal’ system disrupts everything.

A pregnant woman asylum seeker suffered flashbacks from sexual violence in her home country. She was `dispersed’ in late pregnancy. According to her midwife, “She needed some stability and care because she felt confident with the people who were looking after her and felt she could trust them. The best outcome would have been for her not to be transferred especially at that late stage.”

Since 2000, there has been a 9% increase in maternal mortality in the United Kingdom. One of the factors pumping the increase is “poorer access to healthcare, especially in some ethnic minority communities and among asylum seekers.”

The criminalization of asylum seekers is an assault on “mental, developmental and physical health,” and it is part and parcel of global mass incarceration. The criminalization of women asylum seekers inevitably means the pain, suffering and often death of women in childbirth as of their children. And who are these women? Women fleeing torture, seeking justice. Punished for fleeing, punished for remembering, punished for needing, punished for being a woman.

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About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.