Asylum seeker pregnancy: a very sad situation

Photo by Craig Cloutier

By Tania Farias

Pregnancy is a very special state for a woman, one which requires complex and specialist care to assure the well–being of both, the mother and the unborn child. Pregnancy is also a time to share and be cheerful with family and friends. However, not every woman can enjoy such a protective support and some of them are exposed to very unstable situations.

A pregnant asylum seeker under the support of sections 4, 95 or 98 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 will be offered accommodation and financial support but she won’t be exempt from UKBA dispersal policies, meaning that she could be relocated anywhere in the UK as many times as the UKBA considers it necessary. Following the new guidance on pregnancy and dispersal established in July 2012 by the UKBA a “protected period” of four weeks before and after the birth was introduced. During this period a pregnant woman cannot be dispersed.

Yet a 2013 report by the Refugee Council and Maternity Action, When maternity doesn’t matter: Dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum*, points out that the guidance does not take into account pregnant women’s mental well-being and health needs. The report highlights the risks to which this vulnerable group is being exposed. It is the result of exhaustive interviews with twenty women who have been dispersed during their preganancy.

The report shows that sometimes women have had serious health conditions such as HIV and diabetes or other factors such as depression and high levels of stress that put them at risk during pregnancy; frequently when women are relocated they are separated from family, friends, and healthcare arrangements and they are thusforced to give birth alone. In some cases women were dispersed against medical advice and journeys caused additional health and psychological problems; sometimes they were moved several times and accommodation was unsuitable because of lack of space, hygiene, inadequate food and overcrowded spaces. Moreover, interviewees found that they had insufficient money for essential needs such as clothes or food for their new born.

Dana, one of the interviewed women said “It was freezing (December 29th) but if I didn’t go I would lose my money. For £35 I left my baby. Two hours after I gave birth I left the hospital to go to the post office. The nurses said, ‘No you are not allowed to take the baby with you because you are not fine.’ I said, ‘No I have to go because she doesn’t have clothes. I have to buy clothes.’ So when she was born for two hours she didn’t have any clothes so they covered her with towels.”

The report concluded with a series of recommendations aiming to improve the conditions of pregnant asylum seekers, raising awareness about their care needs especially when they have been exposed to traumatic and violent situations in the past.

*When maternity doesn’t matter: Dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum a research report by the Refugee Council and Maternity Action (February 2013)

Prose in Plight, an evening at Poetry Café

by Hasani Hasani

Writers Abol Froushan and Mogib Hassan presenting at the Exiled Lit Cafe. Photo by Álvaro Moliner.

“Apartheid is the period I grew up in and it is the reason I came to the UK,” said Shereen Pandit an exiled writer from South Africa as she took to the microphone at a recent “Exiled Lit” event in London.

Held at the Poetry Café in Betterton Street in London’s Covent Garden each month, the Exiled Lit event, organised by Exiled Writers Ink, has, for the past twelve years, been offering a platform to writers like Shereen to share their experiences through reading poetry and prose.

Founded by Jennifer Langer, the child of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Exiled Writers Ink has become the destination of choice for international writers who face persecution in their home countries because of their writing.

Every first Monday of the month (except bank holidays when it is on the second Monday of the month), the basement of Poetry Café on 22 Betterton Street WC2H 9BX hosts exiled writers from different countries, whether living in the UK or just passing through, to read their work.

At the most recent event, four writers: Shereen Pandit (South Africa), Navid Hamzavi and Rouhi Sharifian (both from Iran) and Mogib Hassan (Yemen) shared the stage. The evening offered prose writers a chance to share their work – a change from other events.

“In the past, our events have focused on poetry, so writers of short stories and novels may have felt excluded over the years. We felt it was high time to give prose writers the chance to share their work, as well as poets,” said Abol Froushan, chairperson of Exiled Writers Ink.

Shereen read from her first novel ‘Burnt Child’, which chronicles the life of a South African exile in London. A lawyer by profession, Shereen came to the UK with her husband in 1987 and has won the Booktrust London Award among other short story prizes. Back in South Africa during the Apartheid era she was political activist; this put her life in danger of the governing regime and she sought sanctuary in the UK.   “I wanted to struggle for our freedom like other young people were doing,” she said.

Navid Hamzavi and Rouhi Sharifian read two short stories, ‘Family Problems’, and ‘Anxiety’ respectively. The massive censorship by the notorious Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran meant half of Navid’s work could not be published. In Iran, a ‘best-seller’ can only hope to sell between 3,000 to 5,000 copies despite a population of 70million, said Navid.

Mogib Hassan was attacked and detained last year in Yemen at the height of the Arab Spring. Born in Yemen and now a citizen of the Netherlands, Mogib came face to face with state brutality when he went back to his home country. “You cannot help to be an activist when you go back, because everything is possible”, said Mogib.

To find out more about Exiled Writers Ink and similar events go to www.exiledwriters.co.uk or email


New student visa rules disadvantage migrants

By Tania Farias


Anita Morales, a 38-year-old Colombian single mother whose real name has been changed to protect her identity, arrived in London on March 2010 to study English as a second language. At the beginning, her Tier 4 student visa allowed her to work 20 hours per week. Then, she renewed it and her new Tier 4 student visa allowed her to work just 10 hours, and from last summer, she is not allowed to work due to changes introduced in the student visa system in July 2011.

With the changes, students such as Morales, who are not sponsored by a higher education institution or a publicly funded further education college, don’t have permission to work while studying in the UK. “At the moment I have a visa, but I am not allowed to work anymore,” said Morales, “The situation is very stressful because London is a very expensive city. I am hoping to find new opportunities here, but I do not know how much time I could be here. I just want to finish my studies and live like a respectable person”.

The government said the changes, which affect non-EU students coming to the UK, were vital to tackle abuses of the system and meet the government’s target of reducing annual net immigration.

“There were certainly some abuses to the system but these measures are not proportional to the situation,” said Juan Camilo Cock, London Project Manager at the Migrants’ Right Network. “You could be hampering economic growth. Even the universities argue that many of their international students come first to the UK to do courses in order to reach a good English level and then enter university. The other issue is that students were filling gaps in the labour market up to a point. There are certain jobs that do not have very good professional futures, but they might be alright to do for one year or two years if you are studying at the same time”.

Many international students in the UK are non–European. In 2010, 181,000 students (77% of arrivals) came to the UK from outside Europe, according to the Identity and Passport Services (IPS).

According to Juan Camilo Cock, the Colombian community in London could be one of the Latin American communities most affected. A recent report conducted by Queen Mary University showed that significant numbers of Colombian students had recently arrived in London.

“Many universities in Colombia ask their students to either take language courses while they are studying or pass a language test, so many people were travelling abroad before graduating to learn English. It was an opportunity to develop their professional skills, to gain an experience, a valuable experience abroad and to comply with certain requirements in universities,” said Cock.

This is the case of Natalia Agudelo, a 23-year-old Colombian student who came to the UK for 9 months, because she wanted to improve her English. She came to London with a student visa, which allowed her to work 10 hours per week. However her minimal weekly wage was hardly enough to cover some of her expenses.

“I went to London because I wanted to improve my English, to know new people, new cultures and places, and gain some experiences, but unfortunately, I could not apply for some jobs. In my country I have a degree as a Business Manager, but in Europe it is not valid, so I had to look for unskilled jobs like cleaner, waitress, nanny, baby sitter and so on.”

Douglas Pereira, a 27-year-old Brazilian student who lived in London for six months, said, “When I went to the UK last year, I got a student visa with the right to work 10 hours per week, which I think is very little to live in London, so I had to come from Brazil with a very good cash reserve”.

On average, student migrants have shorter stays in the UK than those who migrate for family or work, according to the Non-European Students Migrations to the UK study by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

The real effects of the changes in the visa system remain to be seen, but Cock thinks that a lot of people who need to fund part of their stay by working may be either be discouraged to come to the UK or will choose to go to other English-speaking countries that are either cheaper or that allow them to work.

Hiding in plain sight

By: Boucabar Diallo

Photo by Bastian Sander

Many immigrants are living a double life since Prime Minister David Cameron urged the public in late 2011 to report suspected illegal immigrants in order to claim back UK borders.

Saint Dumbuya, a 32-year-old immigrant from Ivory Coast who came to the UK in 2005, said he has never received any help from the government. After claiming for asylum he explains that he was fast tracked and found himself in a detention camp for nine years.

Even after getting out of the camps, Dumbuya has found it tough to make a living and sometimes has ended up being exploited working under the table. Cameron’s speech has only make things worse.

“I am getting paranoid because I cannot trust my friends nor my colleagues, that’s why I don’t want either of the parties to meet for fear it could backlash on me,” he says. “I live a life of lies because I have been forced into it by my friends, neighbours, my colleagues and by the system. I wonder sometimes if this is going to be over,” he adds.

Pati (real name withheld) has been living in London for 14 years. She came to London with a student visa and then got a two-year work permit. When it expired, she kept on working and paying her taxes.

“They even registered me to vote but I am an illegal immigrant,” she says. However, after Cameron’s speech she had to change her routine.

“Getting to work has become a heavy business for me now, I always look around to see if I am traveling with the same people, I need to be alert everywhere, even at the supermarket.”

Over the years Pati got married and has a child but keeping the child is a problem because her husband is illegal as well and they are not allowed to claim for benefits. They take turns in looking after the child.

“Women with children who find themselves in a situation of irregularities are the most vulnerable and there is practically nothing to protect them,” says Anna Dixie, from the Refugee Migration Network in Sutton.

Rasa, a woman from Somalia in her early thirties who lives in north London, explains that from she come to the UK in 2002 to help her brother who was dying from terminal cancer.

“I came with a two-year visa and after my brother passed away I started working,” she said. “I wanted to keep his son from a previous marriage but I was not allowed”. When her visa expired she went through a lot of problems and contracted HIV.

“That was the lowest point in my life,” she says. Nevertheless, Rasa continued to fight and work in order to help her two children back home. She feels very disappointed with Cameron’s speech.

“I’m used to hiding. I don’t dare invite anyone in my flat,” she says. “I recently found leaflets in my mailbox urging me to report my neighbours, it is like living in a police state.”

Fat or fiction?

By: N. N. Dee

English athlete Jessica Ennis. Photo by Adam Kerfoot-Roberts.

English track and field athlete Jessica Ennis’ personal bests and record-breaking heptathletic feat could not have come at a more opportune time. Only last Friday it was revealed that a “high-ranking” athletics official had described Ennis as “fat”. What is remarkable about this is that anyone looking at Ennis would not dream of attributing to her a label that is so grossly inaccurate.  She is not anywhere near overweight or even chubby – two milestones one would certainly have to arrive at before one could be convincingly called “fat”.

I myself am no athletic official so cannot exactly be considered an authority on matters such as this, but I think that the average person would agree that Ennis’ physique more closely resembles “muscular”, “well-toned”, “strong”, “athletic” or any of a host of other words that do not denote surplus deposits of fatty tissue.

Apart from being untrue, the description of Ennis as “fat’ also reveals something very telling in society today: women are constantly bombarded with unfair and downright erroneous messages about their bodily appearance. The official’s inaccurate comment captures with absolute precision the serious body-image challenge that the typical woman faces today. The official’s voice simply articulated the non-verbal message women face on a daily basis – the fictitious message that physical feminine form achieves its pinnacle in “beauty” – a vague notion of some physical proportional dimensions increasingly being promoted as “ideal”.

Some women desperately aspire to this false (and unhealthy) ideal. They go to great lengths to conform as best they can to achieve what others deem to be an acceptable body image. Lamentably, in the process, many self-destruct, falling prey to depression, eating disorders and/or many other unhealthy behavior patterns.

If female athletes who are in peak physical form face such criticism, what hope is there for typically un-athletic women, who often feel ill equipped to cope and respond effectively when inaccurate and condescending labels are thrown at them? While it is a monumental task to surmount given the sheer volume of messages coming through to women from multiple sources, Jessica Ennis has provided an excellent example of how to deal with such messages.

By clever vowel substitution, Ennis proudly declared that she is “fit”, thereby effectively nullifying the label of being fat, not deigning to engage with the inaccurate label. In other words, she defined herself on her own terms. This act of self-determination and self-mastery of destiny, spells ultimate empowerment.

Even if she were fat (which she clearly is not), she is performing (and excelling!) in her chosen field and that is what matters. If actions speak louder than words, then her smashing of Denise Lewis’ heptathletic record, scream that “fit” is indeed the most appropriate word to describe her physical condition. She has indisputably proved that it would be a fiction to think anything else.

Her approach is flawless: pay less attention to how my body looks and more attention to what I am able to achieve once I put my mind and effort into it. This is the important factor – constructive achievement following applied effort and discipline in honing skill in one’s chosen field. Many women would do well to emulate this model rather than preoccupying themselves with societal messages of emphasis on size and image.

Ennis’ triumphs in Götzis this past weekend are being heralded as predictors of Olympic gold for Team Great Britain at the games, a mere 60 days away. That would be the icing on the cake. To my mind however, the a constructive model of effort and determination over preoccupation with size and image that Ennis demonstrates for girls and women everywhere, is conclusive proof that she is already a true Olympian success.

Where there is no sunlight: one worker’s story

By: Khadija Najlaou

A domestic worker from Morocco, Najilaou is now working in London and tells the story of her struggle for rights and dignity.

I am 44 years old but I have only spent seven years at school. My family was very poor and they couldn’t afford to send me to school so I left just after primary school. My father earned 200 DHS/week (approx. £34) as a security guard. I have three brothers and four sisters and sometimes we had nothing to eat.

At the age of 15, I was forced to work in a garment factory 13 hours a day 6 days a week. My salary was less than £4 a week. Life became even harder when my father passed away in 1995. I didn’t even see sunlight in the factory. I felt like a slave trapped in a building with no way to escape because my family would starve if I didn’t work.

In 2000, my mother became very ill. I couldn’t afford her hospitalization, so in 2003 I decided to work abroad as a domestic worker. I went to Dubai because this was the fastest way to secure a job in another country. I worked for a good family there, but the hours were long for only £180 a month. In 2004, I came to the UK but just two years later, my mother passed away. I begged my employer to let me go home, but she refused. She said there was no need for me to go home because my mother was already dead. All I could do was cry.

In 2007, A friend told me that in the UK I had the right to change employer. I found a new job, and then another one, but I was still working long hours. When I became ill the doctor said I was overworked and advised me to rest. But how could I rest? I asked my employer if I could go to a friend’s house and rest. She wasn’t happy. She put all my clothes in a black bin bag and I was fired. Things didn’t get better after that. My next employer accused me of stealing £225 and a very expensive leather jacket. She later found the money and the jacket, but I felt I couldn’t stay after that. I was lucky to find another employer shortly after that so I was able to renew my visa. However, everyday it became harder to work in isolation with no voice, no rights and nowhere to go.

Finally, in 2009 I joined Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW). It’s a self-help, advocacy and campaigning organisation run by migrant domestic workers, representing more than 300 London-based domestic workers from all over the world. We may all come from different countries but we share similar stories of suffering back home and different forms of abuse in the UK. Slavery is very much alive in the life of many migrant domestic workers. We work very long hours for very low salaries trying to support families back home.

At J4DW, we work together to improve our living and working conditions.We campaign to be properly recognized and respected as workers because we contribute to the economy of both our home and host country.

We are now campaigning to reverse the recent changes made to the UK visa conditions of overseas domestic workers. Since April 6th 2012 migrant domestic workers coming to the UK with their employers will be given a 6-month visa and after this time they have to leave the country. They don’t have the right to change employer, even if their employer is abusive. Previous rules allowed us to change jobs and move to a different household without losing our immigrant status.

These changes sadden me because even if I won’t be affected (I was in the UK prior to April 6), they will leave many of my fellow domestic workers open to abuse and exploitation. If their employer doesn’t pay their wages, makes them work 18 hours a day seven days a week or beats them, they won’t be able to access help. And if they leave the house and try to find another job, they will become undocumented and risk deportation. I am fighting along with my fellow domestic workers to stop this unjust situation.

J4DW (along with Kalayaan, Unite the Union, TUC, Anti-slavery International, Christian Aid, Amnesty International, and Children Unite) has been campaigning for the ratification of the Domestic Workers Convention 189. UK was one of 8 countries including Sudan to abstain from supporting an International Labour Organisation convention on protection for domestic workers, claiming there were already good safeguards in place, despite these protections having been removed.