Guest post by Melanie Griffiths, Research Associate, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Melanie is an ESRC Future Research Leaders Fellow undertaking a three-year project, ‘Detention, Deportability and the Family: Migrant Men’s Negotiations of the Right to Respect for Family Life,’ about the family lives and Article 8 rights of men at risk of removal or deportation. She’s on Twitter @MBEGriffiths. This post is the second instalment of Border Criminologies themed week on Masculinities at the Border organised by Dan Godshaw

A ‘deportable’ father and his child.

Irregular, or so-called ‘illegal,’ migrants constitute one of the most demonised groups in contemporary Britain. There are no precise figures as to the number or makeup of those involved, but related statistics, such as those of people held in immigration detention or deported from the UK, suggest that the vast majority are men. Perhaps this gender bias goes some way to explain why debates around irregular migration tend to concentrate reductively on questions of legality, criminality, and security. And yet people without a valid or secure immigration status continue to lead multifaceted lives: falling in and out of love, having children, and establishing families.

Drawing on qualitative research conducted with ‘deportable’ men and their British partners as part of a three year ESRC-funded project, this post considers the impact of an insecure immigration status on the family lives of irregular male migrants in the UK. As this post shows, the Home Office looms large in the intimate lives of such families, with (gendered) repercussions for the men and their ability to be the partners and parents they want to be.

Uncertain Futures

Life without a secure immigration status is always tough, but its ‘normal’ hardships and powerlessness are exaggerated by family ties. The uncertainty borne from long periods of limbo is even more taxing when it also impacts on loved ones, and the prohibitions on employment mean extra anguish when there are children to support. Echoing widespread expectations of manhood, all of the men I interviewed spoke of the shame of not being able to ‘provide’ for their families. The ensuing guilt hinders many from feeling able to commit to girlfriends or be adequate fathers. It shakes the internal power dynamics of relationships, with financial dependency on partners in particular experienced as an emasculating ‘role reversal’ of gendered identities (see my previous Border Criminologies blog post).

The ultimate threat of forced removal from the UK also takes on particular gravitas when the repercussion will be long-term or permanent separation from family. The fear of such loss underlies the dilemma faced by Hassan, a refused asylum seeker with an upcoming reporting appointment with the Home Office. With no pending immigration application, Hassan knows that he is likely to be detained if he goes to report. But Hassan recently became a father and is now in an impossible position: torn between loyalty to his infant son and the Home Office’s demands. Although fearing the repercussions of becoming an ‘absconder’ by missing the appointment, Hassan is clear: ‘Babies need their fathers. I have to do right for my son.’

Detained Dads

The men participating in the research have all either spent time in immigration detention or know that they might one day. Men are often detained at critical life stages: missing pregnancies, miscarriages, births, and deaths, as well as the irreplaceable early years of their children’s lives. Most, at least at first, seek to find ways to continue being active family men. Some take on paid roles within the detention centres so to be able to send their families a little money, even though the positions are paid at well below the minimum wage.

Unlike with prisoners, there is little attempt by the authorities to help immigration detainees and their families keep in contact. Allocation to a detention centre is not based on proximity to family, and there are no financial provisions to help loved ones afford the (often significant) travel costs of visits. And yet, a paucity of visits is routinely used by Home Office decision-makers to argue that family ties are weak and that the men are not performing meaningful partner or parent roles, accusations that undermine their immigration applications.

The Ties that Cut

Even when family are able to visit, however, such contact may not be straightforwardly comforting. Kushan explained that at first, his daughter’s visits gave him strength to cope. She would bring him pictures that she’d drawn and her homework for him to help with, allowing him to remain an active father from detention. But as his detention stretched into years, Kushan’s girlfriend found a new partner and his daughter’s visits became less frequent. When she did come to see him, they had less and less to talk about as their lives diverged, and the partings became increasingly torturous. There were times when the despair meant Kushan felt unable to see or speak to his daughter at all.

For both practical and emotional reasons, fathering from detention is extremely difficult. As an NGO employee put it: ‘Not being able to buy your kid a present. Not being able to contribute. It makes the dad not feel like a dad.’ This feeling was sometimes experienced to the point that some eventually ‘feel their child would be better off without them.’ Like Kushan, many long-term detained men isolate themselves as their incarceration lengthens, distancing themselves from friends and family as a means of coping.

Suspect Stories?

Although immigration detention is an administrative rather than punitive power, it has connotations of security and criminality and people outside may find it hard to believe that the British authorities would detain someone if they weren’t dangerous. Partners can start to doubt their boyfriends’ insistence that they haven’t done anything wrong, especially when lengths of detention stretch out and the immigration bureaucracy stops seeming a reasonable explanation for ongoing incarceration.

Such suspicion contributed to the breakdown of Kushan’s relationship. Although his girlfriend stood by him when he was imprisoned, when he continued to be held after his sentence ended, she thought he must be hiding the truth. Why would he still be incarcerated if he hadn’t committed a much more serious crime than he claimed?

Notes written by a ‘deportable’ man for a Court of Appeal case at which he represented himself.

Gendered Implications

The Home Office shapes the inception, trajectory, experience, and, in some cases, outcome of relationships involving irregular migrants. It gets into the heart of these relationships, affecting the migrants and their family members in specific, gendered ways. Through assessments and assumptions of the ‘genuineness’ of their intimate ties, the Home Office tells these irregular migrants how they should be fathers, husbands, and adult men, whilst simultaneously denying them the cultural, social, and practical opportunities to meet these ideals.

As Kushan found, relationships are severely strained by employment prohibitions, lengthy immigration detention, and other sources of forced passivity and emasculation. Even if deportation is eventually avoided, the strain may destroy partnerships, marriages, and parent/child bonds. In addition to the personal pain of this, the men’s gender, ethnicity, immigration status, and (in some cases) criminal records mean that decision-makers are more likely to assess their emotions as being either suspect or sacrificial. Adding insult to injury, accusations of weak or opportunistic family ties may then be used to undermine human rights claims for the right to remain.

In so many ways, then, irregular migrant men are caught between the Home Office and their family. And, as tragically is the case for Hassan, there is often an irreconcilable conflict between being both a ‘good migrant’ and a ‘good father.’ Exclaiming ‘I will die with that pain,’ Hassan pleads for us to resolve his dilemma: should he betray his newborn son by going to report to the Home Office, knowing it will almost certainly mean his removal?

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Griffiths, M. (2016) Love, Legality and Masculinity. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/01/love-legality-and (Accessed [date]).