Guest post by Laurie Lijnders. Laurie is a Doctoral candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London where she explores how experiences of displacement influence women’s lives, mothering and family-making. Laurie’s academic work on human trafficking, asylum, border policies and violence along migration routes from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East and Europe collides with seven years of grassroots activism toward the rights of people on the move. Laurie works at the social policy think-thank ROTA (Race on the Agenda), supporting refugee communities in London. Laurie also trained as a doula. This is the eighth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series organised by Maayan Ravid on ‘Border Control and the Criminalisation of African Asylum Seekers in Israel’.
Women who successfully navigate the complex and treacherous migration route and reach Israel, are exposed to extreme hardship and state-induced poverty. This blogpost explores the ways in which women from Eritrea, seeking asylum in Israel, experience and resist everyday border practices and harms. The blogpost highlights how three interconnected levels of harm – criminalising national policies, racism of host-societies, and patriarchal structures within women’s communities – are lived. It reflects on how various forms of violence, such as structural, state, gendered, interpersonal violence and racism, influence and intrude on gendered realities; and how they are resisted. While the focus of detention and deportation policies in Israel is on men, this blogpost explores how these policies affect women and family structures and how these racialise and politicise women’s bodies.
Insights shared in this blogpost draw on doctoral field research drawing on the biographical narratives of forty women and extensive activism with refugee communities from the Horn of Africa, in Israel, over the last seven years. I conducted multi-sited ethnographic, feminist research with women from Eritrea in Israel, UK, Europe and Canada. My research traces a chain of harm and abuse that women from Eritrea experience or witness over time and space. Starting in Eritrea, continuing along the migration route where women experience human trafficking, torture, sexual violence, extortion and imprisonment, and persisting through women’s lives in Israel, due to border and asylum practices and regimes that intentionally harm them, often exacerbating already challenging circumstances. Our lives are inherently complex and each woman responds differently to violence and oppression, influenced by multiple, ever-changing factors. I make no claim therefore that the experiences shared in this blogpost are representative of women from Eritrea, rather they represent the intimate and individual.
A Criminalising, Dehumanising Policy - Indefinite temporariness
Regulations under the Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954) (formed during early statehood to criminalise those who entered the country from Palestinian territories to carry out terror attacks), are emblematic of state-inflicted harms that seek to dehumanise and create an indefinite temporariness for asylum seekers in Israel. Use of this legal framework facilitates two processes: first, it immediately categorises asylum seekers as criminals; second, it labels them as ‘infiltrators’. Such labelling stirs up feelings of existential fear in the minds of the Israeli public associated with terror attacks and security threat. Eritrean and Sudanese people seeking asylum, are the only migrant group regulated under the Prevention of Infiltration Law. This legal framework officially criminalises asylum seekers based on their ethnic background, creates precarious life situations, and disproportionately affects women and children. As anthropologist Khasram Khosravi argues ‘the female border transgressor, in her violation of the masculine militarized border regime, is seen as a double threat, as both a woman and an enemy’.
Policies under the Prevention of Infiltration Law sanction access to the most basic human rights: exclusion from state services; liminal access to medical and social rights (emergency only); legal precariousness toward employment; salary and employer taxation (cutting nearly 40% of salary – Deposit Law 2017); non-transparent, biased and arbitrary Refugee Status Determination (RSD) system; attempted indefinite detention or forced deportation; exclusion from citizenship; state-sanctioned immobility (Limited opportunities to leave the country, and geographical limitations on residency in it); and no options for family reunification. Harsh policies, which are constantly changed, induce constant anxiety and uncertainty, rendering affected communities in a limbo. This is especially potent for mothers, often left as sole-caretakers, unable to plan their children’s future.
Out of 37,000 people seeking asylum in Israel today, around 7,000 are women. It is estimated that half of these women have children, many more felt forced to leave children behind in Eritrea. Women in Israel live with trauma, injury, a break-down of family structure as well as severe emotional issues, with no support from the state. Policies contributing to women’s poverty, insecurity and instability, form a difficult backdrop to confront personal psychological trauma. Denying women care also sends a clear signal discouraging pregnancy and is an attempt to ‘govern the reproduction of an ‘undesirable population’. In this context, love, sexuality, and reproduction are no longer private/biological issues, but rather belong to the public and political spheres. Eithne Luibhéid, Professor of Gender and Women's studies, writes that undocumented and migrant women’s bodies are ‘sites where sexual, gender, racial, proletarianization and immigration processes all converge’. Ongoing institutional obliviousness towards these mothers and children, exacerbates their distress with increasing numbers of women experiencing gendered exploitation and violence. Since May 2017, when the 20% taxation policy was introduced, the number of women from Eritrea turning to prostitution to support their families, has reportedly exponentially grown.
Racism from the Host-Society
Women are subjected to verbal abuse in the public sphere and racists’ graffities vandalizing their homes fuelled by politicians’ remarks, likening Africans to a ‘cancer’ in Israeli society, terrorists, or economic infiltrators. In such a hostile context, many property owners refuse to rent homes to asylum seekers, or charge abhorrent amounts for rent, exploiting people’s limited options. Because of differential treatment, asylum seekers are forced to rent in impoverished areas of the city, oftentimes surrounded by criminal activity and neglect, rendering women and children more vulnerable.
An additional ramification of geographical separation translates to the systemic level, in the segregation of education. Asylum seekers’ children largely attend underfunded schools in impoverished neighbourhoods. In areas highly populated by asylum seeker’s children, Israeli parents have transferred their kids to other schools (some parents are concerned with a declining education level due to children’s lacking language and academic skills, others have racist motivations). When bused out to schools in other neighborhoods, children are often taught in separate classrooms. Such exclusion and rejection influences children’s feeling of identity, self-worth, and education. Difficulties follow kids to their homes and family dynamics, where many mothers lack the language skills, confidence or cultural understanding to help.
Severe physical attacks have occasionally threatened the safety of the community as well. Nurseries were attacked with home-made Molotov bombs, homes were burned, and in one incident a toddler girl was a victim of racist attack - stabbed with a pair of scissors while in her uncle’s arms. She only just survived and had access to healthcare due to the severe emergency she was in. Two asylum seeking men were killed. Knowledge of past attacks and constant visibility, animates women’s everyday life with a sense of anxiety and fear for personal safety of themselves and their children.
Already at the margins of Israel’s society, women’s predicaments are further aggravated by patriarchal structures within their own society. Restricted access to public health and welfare services, economic oppression and state-induced poverty, and detention and deportation of single men directly affects women’s abilities to make decisions about marriage and family-making processes, as many women are pressured into partnership and marriage as a means for survival. S. arrived in Israel a teenager with no family. With no support, pressured by her family in Eritrea and the diaspora and out of fear of ending up on the streets she agreed to marry: “I did not want to marry. After all the abuse I experienced coming to Israel, I had no intention of ever living with men. But I soon realised I would not survive on my own. Being one of the very few women in Israel I had many men approach me for marriage. My family chose for me. Soon after getting married I became pregnant. I did not want to bring a child into our world. My husband abused me, blackmailed me, and threatened to kill me. One day, after he put a knife to my throat, I left with our child. I had to for my son.” Structural violence perpetrated by the state facilitates further forms of violence such as physical and emotional abuse in the domestic sphere, with new forms of violence and patterns of violence intensifying.
While women’s lives are strictly regulated and interrupted by government policies, they receive little protection from the law, especially when it comes to protection from intimate partner violence, support from social services and access to healthcare. Violence within the community is perpetrated with impunity. A strong code of silence prevents women from reporting spousal abuse. Women are often encouraged by religious leaders, or elders in their community, to remain in abusive relationships. They fear that reports of violence or divorce, will lead their husbands to prison or deportation. In effect, Israel’s policies trap women in a cycle of violence and exploitation.
Within such a complex cycle of abuse and oppression in Eritrea, along the migration route and in through Israel’s policies, as well as feeling unable to provide, at loss with the changing gender roles, with their wives’ changing opportunities, many men turn to substance misuse, financial oppression and intimate partner violence. Others turn to gambling, and lose family funds. While others succumbed to pressures to ‘self-deport’ to Uganda, Rwanda or Eritrea, leaving wives and children behind, and single mother with the responsibility of looking after and providing for their children. At times men leave without informing their wives, sometimes emptying their bank accounts before departure.
Unsupported by state structures, women turn to informal structures for support. Those who leave, or are left on their own, are forced to form new support networks. Some form partnerships with other women, for example several single mothers renting homes together, or moving into each other’s buildings as neighbours. In doing so, they collaborate to support each other and overcome the oppression that surrounds them. M., a young mother found herself on the verge of homelessness after her husband disappeared one day without explanation. She later found out he moved elsewhere in Israel. She rents a small studio near the Central Bus Station in a run-down apartment block with another single mother. As she brushes her daughter’s hair she relates: “We could hardly survive on two salaries, let alone on one. The cuts left me with little money to meet the basic needs of my daughter and me. I have become a shadow of myself. I am surviving for my daughter, for who will look after her if I am not here? I do not want her to grow up like this, but what can I do? We share our lives so that we have a roof above our head, we share our living costs and help each other with our children when we are at work.” Other women have found support from male relatives or neighbours. Some women end up in positions of familial slavery, forced to take on household tasks and at times sexual activities.
In the face of the harms and exclusionary practices described above, women find ways of resistance, through everyday acts of survival, and large scale organising.
In the domestic sphere, women resist through everyday struggles of survival, for themselves and their children. Motherhood, anthropologist Sarah Willen argues, may offer both the mother and her children ‘a space of relative groundedness, comfort, and intimacy… interest and investment in life’. Willen terms this intimate bond an ‘inhabitable space of welcome’, ‘a small zone of familiarity, comfort, meaning, and safety in the shadow of laws, policies, and practices explicitly designed to make people feel unwelcome’. These struggles in domestic and the ordinary sphere do not exist in opposition to the political sphere, but should be considered politically productive realms in their own terms. The mere act of survival amidst dehumanizing policies, and the formation of a family in a context where reproduction is policed, is an act of resistance.
In the public sphere, women remain at the forefront of organizing community and support systems in the public arena. Protests have included mass demonstrations, women’s marches, sit-in’s, sleep-ins and strikes. In these protests, the domestic, mothering and care, enters the political sphere.
As one woman states her motivations:
We live here with no status, no basic rights, no hope and no means to support our children. We are not criminals. Our children are not criminals. Our husbands and our brothers are not criminals. The Government of Israel is separating husbands from wives, children from their fathers. The arrests and imprisonment of asylum seekers is tearing away at the only support system we have - our families and our communities. We came here to be safe but we are trapped in an unbearable daily struggle for survival.
Other women work in and run community centers, like the Eritrean Women’s Community Centre (EWCC), to support their peers. The Center is an initiative designed and run independently by a group of Eritrean women. The Center aims to provide Eritrean women with a safe space as well as access to important services and utilises a grass roots approach to support Eritrean women in a fundamental way.
The state of Israel and its institutions practice forms of sovereign violence and power, oppression and degradation over people seeking asylum in the country. Israel’s ad-hoc policies toward asylum seekers are systematically and consciously dehumanising and have created an indefinite temporariness for asylum seekers in Israel. Policies and everyday border practices are inherently racist, classist and violent and fit into a nationalist agenda to ‘contain’ the border and control the country’s demographics. The interlocking policies serve to criminalise asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, create precarious life situations and impose vulnerability. Policies push asylum seekers to the brink, turning both the public and private spheres to spaces of struggle. This blogpost explored the everyday political, social, economic, and bodily borders, or frontiers, affecting female asylum seekers in Israel, as their bodies and lives are intimately infiltrated by border practices and state actors in Israel, as well as ways in which these are resisted.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Lijnders, L. (2018) Resisting Everyday Border Policies and Practices: Eritrean Asylum Seeking Women in Israel. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/10/resisting (Accessed [date]).