Guest post by Anna Beesley, PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology, University of Glasgow. Anna previously worked for Scottish Detainee Visitors, a small charity based in Glasgow that supports immigration detainees in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre. She currently sits on its committee and coordinates the Scottish Detention Forum. In this post, she draws on her on-going ethnographic research into mental distress in the UK asylum system that she is conducting as a doctoral student.

Issues around disclosure have emerged in various ways throughout my PhD research in which I concentrate on the people, systems, connections, and relationships at play, in order to gain a better understanding of mental distress in the asylum system. For asylum applicants, their very existence within the system is inextricably linked to their disclosure of intimate information to the Home Office, solicitors and often many other agencies. In my study, I’m widening the focus to the lived experiences of the various actors involved in the asylum process from asylum applicants to the Home Office caseworkers, including the service providers, campaigners, lawyers, and medics in between.

I’m curious as to what, how, and to whom people disclose their cases (either voluntarily or involuntarily) as well as what remains hidden. I’m also exploring how the (potentially distressing) content of what is disclosed permeates throughout and affects the webs of relationships that make up the asylum system. I’m interested in how and to whom actors listen and respond. In this post, I reflect upon one example of disclosure within the UK asylum system through a story of a woman I know.

Wenda

Image taken from The Guardian
‘Wenda’ is 29 years old and from Zimbabwe. She has two children under the age of eight. They all lived in the asylum system for six years before recently being granted discretionary leave to remain. These years were stressful. Wenda and her kids were troubled with having their claim refused, having to go to court for appeals, and trying to exist on the government’s Section 4 support. This consists of accommodation on a ‘no choice’ basis, and subsistence support of £35.39 a week via the Azure payment card, which can only be used in designated supermarkets and restricts the purchasing of certain items such as alcohol and tobacco. This system the Home Affairs Select Committee found to ‘cause unnecessary emotional and physical difficulties for asylum seekers’ (April, 2013). A similar system is being currently considered by the Coalition government to control the spending power of other ‘untrustworthy’ categories (e.g., people with addiction problems) who receive mainstream benefits.

Forced Disclosure

People in the asylum process are not allowed to work. For Wenda, this restriction meant surviving on the £35.39 a week uploaded to her Azure card. The amount of money is minimal, but for Wenda the greatest struggle, which others have also documented, was that she had no access to cash. She couldn’t give her children pocket money so they could be ‘like the other kids at school.’ A report on the effects of the Azure Card by the British Red Cross found that for people on this type of support getting to essential appointments is hugely problematic. This aspect also troubled Wenda. In order to travel around the city, she had to present evidence of an appointment (for example, with her lawyer or doctor) either to her housing provider or a charity such as her local integration network. These organisations would then arrange a taxi for her or provide a one-day travel pass.

Every fortnight, Wenda and her children attended a counselling session at a medical organisation that provides specialist services for people who have experienced torture. Many of the services offered to people who have suffered torture, or who have specific medical conditions such as HIV, can be identified through the organisations’ names. Whilst on Section 4 support, Wenda needed to present documentary evidence of her appointment in order to access transport to get there. This system of support required Wenda to disclose to the third party that paid for her travel both her whereabouts and information about her previous intimate experiences.

Spaces of Resistance

By no means do I wish to paint the somewhat familiar picture of a passive, suffering immigrant. Wenda is resilient. She employed coping mechanisms that contributed to the disruption of the structure under which she lived, the details of which, I have chosen not to disclose. Nonetheless, in order to resist in this way Wenda was often required to disclose to people in her social network the fact that she is in the asylum process.

The Inequality of Choice
Wenda’s story typifies the experiences of many women, men and children whose everyday lives are under the control of UK immigration powers. Her experience reveals the inequality of choice that surrounds disclosure for some people. In order to access certain services she has little option but to disclose personal information to different organisations, service providers and friends. In addition, it highlights the state control over her body, exemplifying Foucauldian notions of biopower and biopolitics, and speaks to a critical reading of humanitarianism (Fassin, 2012).

‘The street I stay [on], or it is the prison’ – a male asylum applicant describing the control he feels over his everyday life.
Wenda's story reveals a familiar one of forced disclosure.  What it does not capture are those spaces which prevent asylum seekers from sharing information that might be helpful to their case. This aspect of the asylum system has recently been amplified: in April 2014, for instance, the Government contract for asylum advice services was awarded to Migrant Help, to provide a phone helpline based in Dover as a replacement for the face-to-face service previously offered by the Scottish Refugee Council. This change in service provision changes how asylum applicants accessing government funded support service can communicate their story. Tears, facial expressions and other embodiments of distress cannot be shared over the phone and, therefore, potentially go unheard and unnoticed. Such lack of direct contact compounds asylum applicants’ lack of control over the decision-making process.

I end with a reflection on the nature of doing anthropological research in the area of asylum. Part of the process of building relationships of trust between participants and the researcher, getting to know somebody, becoming friends, is the mutual disclosure of personal information through sharing space and spending time together. However, a tension exists between participants’ ability to disclose and the researcher’s ability to discuss, write and represent their accounts. Due to the nature of this study, and the wider implications of making public some personal information, the content of some disclosures will always end with me.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Beesley, A. (2015) Disclosing Life on Section 4. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/disclosing-life-on-section-4/  (Accessed [date]).