On Friday Imogen and Ceri went to a meeting organised by Leeds City of Sanctuary, which aims to set up a network of people working in maternity services to support asylum seeker and refugee pregnant women and mothers. The meeting was led by Rose McCarthy, an inspiring activist and advocate, whose work as a National Childbirth Trust teacher with migrant women inLeeds has led to her involvement with the Sanctuary movement.
City of Sanctuary
To quote their website, “City of Sanctuary is a movement to build a culture of hospitality for people seeking sanctuary in theUK”. So it’s not an organisation as such, but a ‘movement’. Its central aim is to build public support for Sanctuary- in other words to counter myths, and public hostility to migrancy fuelled by news media and Government rhetoric.
For cities like Leeds, which are working towards City of Sanctuarystatus, the aim is to get existing organisations and networks to actively work towards making their activities welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers. Four cities (Sheffield, Swansea, Coventry and Bristol) have achieved full City of Sanctuary status, and many more across the UK, are `Cities with City of Sanctuary Movements’ Bradford,Chester, Glasgow, Hackney in London, Huddersfield, Hull, Ipswich,Leeds,Leicester, London,Manchester,Nottingham,Oxford and Wakefield) which are working towards City of Sanctuary Status.
Whilst the City ofSanctuarymovement was designed to create hospitable cities and towns, but the model is one that is now being applied to other organisations and entities, such as Universities. This adaption of the sanctuary model has led to the call by McCarthy for a maternity stream within the movement.
Maternity Services of Sanctuary
The aim of the meeting we attended was to bring together a range of individuals and groups providing maternity services (including midwives, health visitors, obstetricians, NCT teachers, breast-feeding counsellors, migrant network organisers and community workers) to think together about how to make a difference to pregnant women and mothers newly arrived in the City of Leeds. Around 20 people attended this first meeting, the room was packed and many ideas and existing examples of good practice where shared. The hope is to create a maternity strand within the Cities for Sanctuary Movement, which might create a national network of hospitality for migrant mothers and those who care, assist and advocate for them.
At the inaugural meeting we attended the goal was to think about how to create a maternity sanctuary network within Leeds, with a view to a national network –a ‘maternal sanctuary’ strand, under the umbrella of the Cities of Sanctuary movement. This strand is important because according to a report from one of the meeting participants: although numbers of maternal deaths are decreasing, women in the category ‘newly arrived migrant, refugee or asylum seeker’ still face a higher risk of maternal death (even when underlying conditions are controlled for) (for more see the reports of CMACE). Health Services have a legal responsibility to provide services, such as translation services, to women accessing their care. In many ways this meeting was attempting to think through the failures and the possibilities of better practice in this area of provision. There are significant contradictions here, on the one hand NHS trusts have a responsibility to everybody in the community, on the other hand migrant mothers are often a target of immigration and border controls and `failed` asylum seekers are barred from legal access to many front line services. Furthermore, as well as the ongoing detention of pregnant women and mothers, there has been a raft of legislation aimed at managing (and excluding) the reproductive bodies of non-citizens within the state by, for example, refusing pregnant women access to free medical care.
Creating a maternity strand within the Sanctuary Movement is a significant opportunity for the sanctuary movement as a whole, as often those associated with maternity services such as Health Visitors, Midwives, Mother and Baby groups, are well-placed to be a conduit of welcoming hospitality to newly arrived migrants.
What was so admirable (and interesting from the point of view of integration) about the City of Sanctuary movement is the focus on making the most of existing services and networks and a) encouraging them to actively welcome asylum seekers and refugees rather than starting ‘special’ groups; and b) the way in which the activities they promote emphasise the participation of non-migrants as strongly as the participation of refugees and asylum seekers. In doing so, they’re making an important contribution to efforts that aim to counteract the idea of asylum seekers as ‘other’, as beings somehow separate from ‘mainstream society’ and everyday community live.
Speaking Back to Stereotypes and Terminology – asylum or sanctuary?
One important question raised at the meeting, was that of terminology, including the negative connotations of terms such as asylum-seeker or ‘failed’ asylum seeker, and the thorny issue of those migrant mothers and their children who are in theUKwithout a documented immigration status, but nevertheless require support and access to services. Many pregnant migrants without status, for example, are afraid to access services, such as GP and midwifery services, as they are ‘billed’ by Health Trusts. They might not go to hospital until they are in labour, at which point treatments, which are sometimes critical and life-saving, can be adminstered too late to make a positive impact on the health of mother and child.
The Cities for Sanctuary Movement tries to negotiate the issue of legality, and negative stereotypes, by employing a broad-based language. A quick ‘find text’ request on their home page shows four mentions of seeking sanctuary and only one mention of the term asylum seeker. As Jonathan Cox (of the Independent Asylum Commission) points out in his article on opendemocracy, there are many issues regarding the refugee regime in the UK that are more important than terminology. However, there’s no denying that the term ‘asylum seeker’ carries with it many negative connotations, and the Independent Asylum Commission have campaigned for a change in language to the more positive term `sanctuary` which has a long history in the UK (see their action suggestions here).
What do you think? What term is better, asylum or sanctuary? Does terminology matter, or are there more important things to worry about?
For research on the specific vulnerability of Migrant mothers see:
Bail for Immigration Detainees (September 2007) Refusal Factory:Women’s experiences of the Detained Fast Track asylum process at Yarl’sWood Immigration Removal Centre
Clarke, N and L. Nandy (2007) living on the edge of despair: destitution amongst asylum seeking and refugee children. The Children’s Society.
Cutler, S. And Ceneda, S. (2004) They took me away: Women’s experiences of immigration detention in theUK. Asylum Aid.
Luibhéid, E. (2004) Childbearing Against the State? Asylum seeker Women in the Irish republic. Women’s Studies International Forum. 27, 335-349.
McLeish, J., Cutler, S. and Stancer, C. (2002) A crying shame: Pregnant asylum seekers and their babies in detention.London: MaternityAlliance, Bail for Immigration Detainees & London Detainee Support Group.
The Maternity Alliance(2002) Mothers in Exile: Maternity Experiences of Asylum Seekers in England.London: The MaternityAlliance.
The Maternity Alliance. (2002) A Crying Shame: Pregnant Asylum Seekers and Their Babies in Detention.London: The MaternityAlliance.
Tyler, I.(2010) Designed to Fail: A Biopolitics of British Citizenship. Citizenship Studies. 14 (1). 61-74.
Waugh, M. (2010) The Mothers in Exile Project: Women Asylum Seekers’ and Refugees’ Experiences of Pregnancy and Childbirth inLeeds.