How hostile immigration policies affect mothers and their access to support
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 April 2023
Hostile immigration policies in the UK constrain mothers’ personal relationships and restrict their access to different kinds of support. This means that mothers affected by these policies have to be especially creative and resourceful in their everyday mothering. This can create a significant emotional burden.
Immigration policies in the UK have long been regarded as hostile and racist in their effects. However, in 2012 – in its quest to reduce net migration – the Coalition government set out its plans to create an explicitly ‘Hostile Environment’. Primarily targeting people with no or only temporary residency rights, measures have included dramatic increases in Home Office fees for visa applications and renewals, and a minimum income requirement for UK residents who wish to bring their spouse or partner to join them. These measures penalize migrants from the Global South.
The ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition has been expanded, preventing people with precarious immigration status from accessing many public services and mainstream welfare support. More than 1.3 million people in the UK are estimated to be subject to NRPF. Racially minoritized mothers and children are particularly affected. More than 220,000 children are believed to have NRPF because of their visa status.
The ‘ten-year route to settlement’ has made it more complex and costly for families to obtain the right to settle in the UK. Families on the ‘ten-year route’ have to renew their temporary residency rights every 30 months – this causes uncertainty, worry and anxiety. The barriers on this route to settlement increase the risk of families losing residency rights. This affects children. More than 215,000 children living in the UK (many of whom were born in the UK) don’t have residency rights because their parents don’t. Overall, these policies create legal and financial precarity and social marginalisation for many families.
To explore the impact of these policies, I carried out an ethnographic study in a London neighbourhood. I volunteered in several advice organisations and spent time hanging out with 22 mothers with experience of insecure immigration status and ‘no recourse to public funds’, and who were racially minoritized.
I found that mothers faced multiple barriers in their everyday mothering. The legal and financial precarity caused by hostile policies affected mothers’ relationships with their children, partner, wider family, friends and faith groups. In turn, this impacted on mothers’ access to different kinds of support – material, financial, practical and emotional.
For example, mothers were very cautious about sharing information about their insecure immigration status with other people; this made it difficult to develop trust and to ask for support. Moreover, unequal immigration status in different relationships created (or exacerbated) unequal power dynamics, putting mothers at risk of exploitation and abuse. This had implications for mothers’ and children’s wellbeing.
These factors made it difficult for mothers to provide for their children, especially for those who had lost their residency rights. Experiences of ‘sofa-surfing’ were common, which relied on the goodwill of friends and acquaintances. It also meant a lack of privacy and space, frequent moves, and at times being distanced from support networks, including schools, early childhood settings and advice centres.
As a last resort, some mothers turned to the local authority to seek ‘Section 17’ support. This was often a gruelling process, but could provide access to basic accommodation, usually a single room in a shared house. Rooms were small and walls were thin. Living in such conditions led to tensions within families and with neighbours, causing stress.
Mothers in the most precarious situations relied on clothes banks, food banks and/or exchanging items with friends to provide for their children’s everyday needs. Participants felt that providing material resources and access to cultural activities was a crucial aspect of mothering, to help their children to feel they ‘fit in’ with their peers. But it was not easy, requiring constant creativity, resourcefulness and judicious engagement with support networks.
Protecting their children from ‘knowing too much’ about their insecure immigration status was an important aspect of mothering, too. This meant being carefully vague and simultaneously reassuring in response to children’s questions about why they couldn’t go on holiday, visit family abroad, have certain toys, or buy the ‘right kinds’ of gadgets or clothing. Mothers strove to reduce their children’s sense of difference from their peers and to build their self-esteem by cultivating a strong sense of (cultural or faith-based) identity, and by expressing optimism about the future.
As my study shows, mothering in the context of Hostile Environment policies necessitates thoughtful everyday decision-making to build and sustain support networks. This includes working out whom to trust and what kinds of information to share; identifying options for accessing material resources; and creatively finding ways to meet children’s evolving needs. Whilst the relentlessly Hostile Environment erects multiple borders and barriers, mothers continue to resist and enact belonging for themselves and their children through their everyday mothering. Nevertheless, these forms of strategic mothering require significant emotion work. This creates additional emotional burdens for mothers, especially for those who are parenting alone. The intergenerational effects for families living with legal and financial precarity should be considered by policymakers wanting to reduce (often hidden) social inequalities.