Post by Virginia Xythali, psychologist and NGO practitioner in Athens, Greece. She has participated in and led projects on the protection of unaccompanied minors and asylum-seeking children, and she currently works as an educator teaching about gender and gender-based violence.

Review of Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System by Victoria Canning (Routledge 2018)

Amidst EU resolutions and strategic objectives aiming to “protect the rights of migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls” and to “promote gender equality and women’s rights”, women and girls who seek asylum in Europe still face policing of their bodies, gender-based violence and limited or fragmented access to the asylum system and other support systems. From camps in Greece and Italy to Central and Northern Europe, women continue to carry with them long histories of violence and are consistently exposed to new gendered harms. Many of these harms have been caused by the states bound to protect them. While the public eye occasionally focuses on mistreatment and violence against women currently passing through or living in the global south, it rarely, if ever, glances over to Britain. Geographically removed from the “countries of origin of refugees” and from Europe’s eastern and southern external borders, it remains relatively untouched by the so called “refugee crisis” and is still perceived as a safe haven for persons forced to migrate.

Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System makes a point of “contesting the assumption that those seeking asylum in Britain face few challenges” (p. 2) and of demonstrating how the British state has the capacity to cause social, physical and psychological harm to those subjected to its asylum-related procedures. Drawing on interviews, focus groups, oral history and activist participation carried out over the course of ten years, Victoria Canning focuses on the systemic ways in which the British asylum system is designed to impose control over, devaluate and dehumanise asylum seekers in general and women  in particular.

The book as a whole offers a well-written, fast paced guided tour of the British asylum system that is relevant for professionals and scholars working in the fields of migration studies, detention studies, and gender studies. The book also takes a rare, critical stance towards the brutality of the system itself, the policies that inform its processes and the actors involved in it. In mapping out the systemic denial of female asylum seeker existence, Canning dares ask the questions “who has the right to speak?” and “whose narrative becomes a story?” In doing so, Canning does her part to bring forward the voices of those silenced. It should be noted that, without understating the use of oral histories - a tool often associated with feminist research - Canning could have more clearly and consistently brought attention to her use of participatory, qualitative research as a feminist alternative to mainstream epistemology.

Chapter 1 offers a chronological presentation of Britain’s legislative framework and asylum-seeking process. Canning takes us through the procedures, while consistently highlighting the ways in which seeking asylum is in practice prohibited, as well as the impact that border controls, restrictions on personal autonomy, and the lack of an accessible support system have on asylum seekers. Importantly, Canning situates British asylum law and practice within the European constellation of asylum management and immigration control. Chapter 2 introduces the complexities of gendered violence and the ways they relate to migration. It focuses especially on how gender-related persecution, torture and sexual violence are drivers for women and girls to migrate, as well as on how Britain’s protection procedures perpetuate gendered harms. In this context, it also briefly presents the concept of intersectionality to shed light on the different and complicated ways these harms affect female asylum seekers. It is my impression that, beyond the scope of the chapter, the whole book would benefit from a broader use of intersectionality as an analytical tool. This would allow us to considerer the book’s various topics within a fuller set of power relations inter-playing at the different points of the processes discussed and would shed more light on intragroup diversity that is otherwise overlooked.

For me, Chapter 3 is the cornerstone of the book. Canning draws from Galtung’s definition of structural violence to discuss the ways that the British state facilitates suffering and fails to alleviate avoidable harms for asylum seekers. Rather, the state utilises legislation and policies that aim to reduce asylum applications and to increase securitisation and border controls.  Further, Canning calls our attention to forms of state inaction and intentional negligence, highlighting how the state provides asylum seekers a meager weekly allowance of £36.95 that effectively condemns them to poverty; it deploys dispersal policies (i.e. compulsory dispersal of housing asylum seekers who require accommodation across the UK); and it uses detention both as a practice and as a threat. Female asylum seekers, for whom violence might have already been part of their lived experience, are particularly affected by these types of structural violence, claims Canning, and especially when they are detained. Structural violence is also identified in deportation processes which perpetuate a divisive “us and them” narrative that justifies notions of asylum seekers as people who can be removed to countries deemed unsafe for European citizens. Finally, one of the most compelling insights of the chapter is that there is a direct correlation between problematic work conditions for staff in Immigration Removal Centres, the employment of untrained workers, and the decreased standards of care for the detainees. 

Chapter 4 focuses on the everyday impact of the political decisions and legal documents discussed earlier in the book, no doubt one of the book’s significant contributions to securitization and immigration control studies. Canning then introduces us to an asylum seeker named Hawwi in the following chapter and presents Hawwi’s own narrative of her life history of violence, resistance, seeking sanctuary and survival – a narrative that clearly showcases the continuum of violence that women face. The chapter, which is fascinating to read, is also a testament to Hawwi’s perseverance and agency within a hostile environment saturated with state and social strategies of deterrence.           

The two final chapters focus on the state’s use of silencing and exclusion in asylum processes, as well as on non-governmental organisations’ harm-mitigating practices and their limits. Making use of the documented positions of the Home Office and an extensive number of statements by aid workers, caseworkers and asylum seekers, Canning successfully calls attention to realities often overlooked. On the one hand, the state uses a strategy of individualisation and normalisation of suffering that permits it to deny or displace responsibility for the compounded harm that asylum seekers experience when navigating state institutions. Further, the state uses the narrative of “TINA” or “There is no alternative” to deflect any substantial discussion of how to mitigate systemic harm. Support services usually offered by the non-governmental sector do not come close to erasing or alleviating said harm. The book concludes with a call to action and brings forth acts of solidarity by professionals and allies within the community, as well as acts of resistance and agency by asylum seekers. 

Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System certainly makes for an insightful read and offers an important contribution to the literature on migration controls and asylum. It is recommended to anyone interested in the impacts of European policies targeting refugees and migrants. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Xythali, V. (2020). Book Review: Gendered Harm and Structural Violence in the British Asylum System. Available at: [date]