The Gender of Margins: Shedding Light on Detained Women’s Experiences

A British Academy project carried out by Dr. Francesca Esposito & Prof. Mary Bosworth

Table and benches

This project examines the gendered and racialised experiences of women who are subject to immigration controls in the UK and Italy. Detained migrant women are a marginalised group about whom we know little, notwithstanding a growing body of academic research into border control practices. This project fills a knowledge gap by focussing on women who have served a criminal custodial sentence and are then detained under immigration powers, either in prison or in immigration removal centres. While many people in the UK and Italy were released during the Covid-19 pandemic, people in - or coming from - prison continued to be detained. However, and although this group of people is overrepresented among those in detention, little research so far has been conducted with them. 

From the few studies that exist, evidence suggests that people who have prison experiences are more likely to be detained for long periods (AVID, 2020; Bosworth & Gerlach, 2020), and are considered "difficult to manage" by detention officers (Esposito et al., 2020). Both issues have become particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, when, in contrast to the overall decline in the detained population, the numbers of people entering detention after serving a criminal custodial sentence has remained stable (Esposito, Caja & Mattiello, 2020; AVID, 2020). For instance, the majority of women detained under immigration powers in the UK, at June 2020, were held in prisons (Home Office, 2020). Unfortunately, we do not have similar data from the Italian context, as official statistics are unavailable. However, according to evidence collected from NGOs and civil society groups, a similar trend has occurred there too (Esposito, Caja & Mattiello 2020). This scenario, which highlights the growing convergence between immigration and criminal law – or what Stumpf (2006) has defined as ‘the crimmigration crisis’ – it is likely to be the reality of people entering detention in the near future. This presumption is supported by recent statements by state authorities (Home Office, 2020), as well as by the increasingly punitive stance towards people who violate immigration laws documented by scholars (Aas & Bosworth 2013; Bhatia 2020, 2018; Bosworth 2011; Bowling & Westerna 2020). This scenario is particularly worrisome, especially considering that people subject to immigration controls who are held in British prisons do not have access to the basic protections of the Detention Centre Rules. These people, and women in particular, are therefore, likely to face many additional barriers to accessing justice, contacting their families, accessing specialist supports or seeking release (AVID, 2020).

This project, which will draw on participant observation and interviews with detained women and community advocates/activists, breaks new grounds by employing a comparative, intersectional perspective to examine the lived experiences of time-served foreign national women prisoners who are detained in the UK and in Italy pending deportation. In doing so, it provides a unique insight into the lives of these women, a group we know very little about, and the intersecting processes of gendered and racialised marginalisation and criminalisation they experience. In order to make this knowledge available outside the academy, and have an impact on the views of the general public, the project will produce a short animated film and a related 90-second video to disseminate our findings.


Advisory Board:

Stefano Anastasia, University of Perugia and Spokesperson for the Conference of Territorial Guarantors for the Persons Deprived of their Liberty (Italy)

Francesca De Masi and Carla Quinto, BeFree Social Cooperative against trafficking, violence and discrimination (Rome, Italy)

Gennaro Santoro, Antigone Association and Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights-CILD (Rome, Italy)

Louise (Lou) Armitt, Beyond Detention (Bedford, UK)

Sinem Bozkurt, University of Westminster (London, UK)

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