Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Masculinities at the Border: Gendering the Debate on ‘Deportable’ Men



Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Dan Godshaw, doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, and member of Bristol’s Migration Research Group and Gender Research Centre. This post is the first instalment of Border Criminologies themed week on Masculinities at the Border organised by Dan.

A retelling of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis by former detainees at Refugee Tales 2015 (© Chris Orange)

Chris is on a plane to the country he left as a young man, over twenty years ago, to seek a new life in the UK. Having recently finished a prison sentence for a non-violent crime, Chris doesn’t deserve to stay in the UK because he has shown a lack of respect for the law. His presence carries a high risk of public harm. Chris’ ties to his partner and two teenage children are weak, demonstrated by their infrequent visits to him in pre-deportation detention, and neither he nor they will be significantly affected by the permanent absence of a foreign criminal.

Although perhaps indistinguishable from the rhetoric of certain tabloid newspapers in Britain, this is the explicit view of the British state towards Chris―a view communicated by Home Office caseworkers and lawyers, immigration judges, and the detention regime. He, on the other hand, has a different perspective.

For Chris, the plane journey is devastating. A hard-working, tax-paying man who deeply regrets the actions that led him to prison, Chris served his time and looked forward to returning to a law-abiding life in Britain with his family. Chris’ daughter is about to go to university. His son is struggling to stay out of trouble in the deprived inner-city area where he lives. His partner is ill, in and out of hospital, and often unable to provide the care that their children need. Visiting Chris in detention was often practically and financially impossible for them. As a father and husband, they need his material and emotional support as much as he needs their love. Britain is Chris’ home. His family have shaped his identity as an adult man. He has no friends or family where he’s going, and he doesn’t know how he, or his family, will manage.

Chris’ story is typical of the men I have visited in Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC), and is just one example of the gendered implications of being a ‘deportable’ man in the UK. As in my forthcoming doctoral research, this themed week of blog posts on Border Criminologies explores border controls through the lens of masculinities―a topic that has received little attention.

Before feminist scholars contended that birds of passage are also women, migrants were assumed to be male, situating migration firmly within the heteronormative world of men and excluding women’s experiences. As well as rendering mobile women visible, the feminisation of the migration debate highlights that gender, as a contextual and relational process that intersects with other dimensions of power, shapes all social relations and thus should be placed at the core of migration studies. This has opened up new terrains of valuable research for migration scholars and practitioners, and current work is revealing that migration controls, as well as those subject to them and those researching them, are gendered in many ways. However, gender and women have tended to be conflated to the effect that until very recently, the gendered dimensions of male migrants’ experiences have largely been ignored. This themed week on masculinities thus represents an important contribution to gendering migration more fully.

As Chris’ story shows, love, emotion, and family relationships are often at the forefront of the migration experience for men without secure immigration status. In the second post of this themed week, Melanie Griffiths draws on her research with ‘deportable’ men and their British partners to explore the ways in which the state polices masculinity. Through assessments, assumptions, and sanctions, the Home Office is shown to sculpt specific ideals of fatherhood, partnership, and adulthood, while simultaneously blocking access to these performativities. Trapped between the state and their family, this creates an unsolvable dilemma for many men.

The role of NGO workers in IRCs is rarely discussed in migration research, let alone the gendered dimensions of their visits. In the third post, Ana Szopa, Advocacy Coordinator for Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, describes a culture of hypermasculinity in detention. Guards both shape and are shaped by gendered practices to varying degrees, and they restrict the ability of male detainees to express emotion. She argues that while operating from a position of relative powerlessness, her contrasting presence as a young woman facilitates safe spaces for emotional support that lie outside dominant terrains of control.

Campsfield House IRC.

In the fourth post of the themed week and at the opposite end of the deportation corridor, Luke De Noronha draws on his research with men in Jamaica who have been deported from the UK as ex-foreign national prisoners (FNPs). Reflecting on his own maleness in the research process, he discusses the difficulties of interpreting, representing, and addressing male violence while simultaneously challenging the racist and gendered stereotypes of ex-FNPs that dominate public discourses. The post stresses the importance of a reflexive, intersectional approach to the study of masculinities, and one that recognises the coexistence of gendered control and subordination for marginalised men.

Because of the relative secrecy of detention and deportation practices, as well as potential risks of speaking out, the direct perspectives of those subjected to border controls are often missing from public arenas. In the final post, Joe recalls his experience of applying for asylum in the UK. Having fled persecution, he expresses the shock and trauma of being criminalised and dehumanised in detention as well as the difficulties of being in limbo since his release. Joe provides a first-hand take on the gendered effects of the immigration system, denouncing the restrictions on working, housing, and liberty that have made being a father extremely difficult.

There are common and interrelated threads in these accounts which have implications for the debate on migrant masculinities. First, these posts show that love, emotional expression, and the maintenance of family relationships are central concerns for men subject to border controls, complicating essentialising narratives about masculinity and migration. Second, they demonstrate that the state helps reinforce these gendered stereotypes through controls which both deny the importance of these concerns and restrict their materialisation. State immigration policies and practices dictate particular ideals and performances of masculinity characteristic of ‘good’ migrant men. Third, this series reveals that gendered processes operate at many stages and spaces of the British immigration system―from detention, to release or deportation, and in the community, the household, and at reporting centres. Migrant masculinities, therefore, may be usefully understood through a multiscalar perspective. Fourth, supporting and conducting research with ‘deportable’ men has been shown to carry its own complexities, calling for future work that is as attentive to gender, ‘race,’ and other social locations as much as it is to power and the positionality of those working with migrant men.

Following these threads could prove useful for those seeking to understand the gendered experiences of ‘deportable’ men as well as for those who support them. They may, however, not be so useful for Chris and his family. His experience, along with this themed week, calls for dramatic shifts in dominant attitudes towards ‘deportable’ men, masculinities, and border controls.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Godshaw, D. (2016) Masculinities at the Border: Gendering the Debate on ‘Deportable’ Men. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/01/masculinities (Accessed [date]).

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