"We have a deeply unfeminist immigration system"

Migrant women are at a higher risk of violence and abuse, often because of the State itself, explains immigration activist Zoe Gardner.

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

It has been an angry, dizzying and despairing couple of weeks for women who pay attention to the news, which would be me and many readers here. I daresay many men have been sickened too.

In London, Sarah Everard, 33, was killed as she was walking home. One evening, right here in the city, doing all the things we’re told to do to stay safe in a public space that is, ultimately, not quite our own. A serving police officer was charged for her kidnap and murder. The crime unleashed a wave of grief, anger and trauma as women in the UK, then all over the world, shared their own stories – too many, too similar – of feeling unsafe or violated on our streets. Anger escalated when London’s Metropolitan Police violently broke up a vigil for Sarah Everard, based on a hotly debated interpretation of COVID lockdown rules. Then, in the US, eight people including six Asian women were murdered. I’ve heard the arguments, painstakingly made, but I fail to see how the attack is anything but a racist and misogynist crime.

Nearly as fast as it erupted, the anger went back underground. In London at least, and I suspect soon in the US too. It simmers still beneath Zoom calls and school runs, rent checks and gritted teeth. The revolution takes time we don’t have. The news cycle has moved on.

I held onto it though to talk to Zoe Gardner, policy advisor at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. I specifically wanted to talk about the most vulnerable among us, migrant women, but the conversation was a wide-ranging one on the insecurity all migrants must manage. Here’s what we covered:

  • How immigration exposes women to a higher risk of violence and abuse
  • Why policing and immigration enforcement must be decoupled
  • WTF “no recourse to public funds” and the “hostile environment” are
  • How legal migrants are pushed into undocumented status
  • Getting your COVID vaccine even if you’re undocumented
  • The exodus of European migrants from the UK & the post-Brexit settlement scheme
  • How US immigration activists inspire the British movement
  • What a safe and constructive immigration system would look like (see, it’s less bleak at the end)

Listen to the episode

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“We feed the business model of the worst criminals in our society by providing them with the perfect victims”

Below are extremely condensed excerpts of my chat with Zoe Gardner, specifically on migrant women. We cover many more topics in the episode. Listen or read the transcript.

Isabelle Roughol: How are you? How are you taking in?

Zoe Gardner: I think all women understand how all women have felt over the last week or so. We all know the same fear and we all feel the same anger, about how we're allowed to live in fear and how these women just like us have suffered what we fear. I hope that we can take this moment of collective grief to move forward and to recognize our power as women as well.

How does violence impact the women you work with?

We know that women are treated appallingly in our immigration system. Women from minority ethnic backgrounds and women with insecure migration status are treated as though their lives don't matter as much as other women. We have a deeply unfeminist immigration system that systematically puts women at risk of abuse.

Very often women depend for their visas on their partner, so if they leave an abusive partner, they risk losing their immigration status. Women with an insecure immigration status, if they go to the police, are more likely to become the victims of enforcement themselves. We don't have any kind of a firewall between police and immigration enforcement, so nobody who is undocumented can go and report being the victim of a crime, for fear of being torn away from their homes and potentially from their children. Women who have no recourse to public funds can't access most benefits. Migrant women's children can't get free school meals. Migrant women can't access refuges. It leaves people in poverty and vulnerable therefore to exploitative work, to slum landlords, and all these other dangers that are compounded in terms of violence against women.

What’s “no recourse to public funds” exactly?

It is the proof that migrants don't come here to steal your benefits. The immigration system in the UK denies migrants access to benefits at all, until they have indefinite leave to remain. That will take five or in many cases 10 years to obtain.

Migrants are kept in what is called a temporary status for often over a decade. That means obviously that when a crisis such as the pandemic happens and workers have lost their jobs, if you have no recourse to public funds, you cannot access universal credit. You cannot get income-based jobseekers allowance. So basically you're left destitute if you lose your job. Even if you've been working and paying tax and contributing into the system.

In fact, you're taxed for even being a foreigner living in this country. You have huge fees on your visa applications, which are mostly profit for the Home Office. And on top of that, you pay an additional “immigration health surcharge,” which is thousands and thousands of pounds for every visa renewal per person. And then you're denied access to the welfare state, to the safety net that we all rely on in times of crisis.

It’s something I think people who aren’t immigrants here won’t quite grasp: the sheer expense of simply maintaining a legal status...

Exactly. Quite obviously, very often people aren't able to do that and they lose their status. If these are long-term residents in the country with families here, which they so often are, then they're not going to leave. They simply fall into being undocumented and then they are subject to even more risk of exploitation and abuse. They can't go to the police if they're the victim of crime. They can't report their exploitation in the workplace. They can't even rent a flat legally, so they become victims of trafficking and of slum landlords. So we feed the business model of the worst criminals in our society by providing them with the perfect victims who have no escape.

How have migrants here fared during the pandemic?

The hostile environment is basically a collection of policies that are designed to deter migrants from public services. The idea is to make life so unbearable in the UK, that if you don't have a stable immigration status, you'll leave. There's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that that actually works. But there's a whole lot of evidence that it makes people's lives miserable.

During the pandemic we've seen how this has had a serious impact on everybody's health and safety because the hostile environment extends into our NHS. Our NHS doctors' job is to protect people's health. It should not be their job to check where somebody comes from and what entitlements they have. But the hostile environment makes doctors into border guards because some categories of migrants are chargeable for secondary health care. And if you incurred debts with the NHS, then you can be denied an extension on your visa on that basis. The data can be shared from the NHS to the Home Office and then immigration enforcement can come after you as well. That means migrants are afraid of accessing the NHS. And that, you may immediately have worked out, is an extremely big problem for the entirety of public health in the context of a global pandemic.

So it's an incredibly self-defeating proposal. The government has exempted the COVID vaccine from the charging requirements, but they don't seem to have bothered to let the GP surgeries know. You don't have to have a stable immigration status in this country to register with your GP and to get the vaccine. It's important everybody who's listening here knows.

What would an immigration system that keeps migrants and especially for women safe look like?

The key message that we want to get out there is: people move. People move. People have always moved. People will always move. None of the borders, none of the militarization, none of the brutality, none of this awful Kafkaesque immigration system has ever prevented people from moving. It has ruined lives. It has destroyed lives. It has killed. But it has never prevented the basic fact that people move. And we need an immigration system that recognizes and works with that and manages that, rather than one that tries desperately to stop that. Because it will never, ever, ever happen.

My dream immigration system is a long way off, but there is reason to be hopeful. We've seen that in the last few years, immigration control and enforcement has dropped drastically down in the list of the public's priorities. People are not concerned about keeping people out anymore, no matter what Nigel Farage tries to tell you. We have more support than ever.

We're calling to cut the time-to-settlement down to five years with automatic renewal. Reduce fees to the cost price, So you pay how much it costs to administrate your application and not give 10 times that in profit to the Home Office. A five-year route to regularization for anybody who has fallen through the gaps. And scrap the hostile environment, get immigration enforcement out of our hospitals, out of our workplaces. Provide a firm firewall between all police services, all security services and immigration enforcement, so that people are safe to access services.

And then what we'll see is a community that is no longer held back and forced into poverty, and that is able to flourish and do the wonderful things that immigration brings to our lives. The mixed families, the cultures crashing into each other and creating these incredible, new and exciting cultural outputs. London in particular, but the UK as a whole has become everything that it is through this fantastic mixing of cultures, through this relatively open, diverse and ethnically integrated culture that we have. Harnessing the power of that and lifting up people so that they're not held back by their immigration status and can just fulfill that potential is a dream that is actually achievable with sensible common sense reforms of the immigration system.

Stop making it so draconian and so cruel. We need some bravery from some of our leaders, but it can happen. It really can. And everybody needs to raise their voice who wants it.


Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.