Making life possible: mothering and caring in the British asylum accommodation system

By Júlia Fernandez Molina

Reproductive justice frameworks need to include the power of care to reproduce life under the gendered and racialised conditions of asylum accommodation, writes Júlia Fernandez.

Image: Rayan’s accommodation, a small studio flat where she lives with her two children since they were moved to a very isolated area in the outskirts of the city. Rayan is one of Júlia’s participants in this project and the photo was taken by her.

Within the current political climate of intensification of border controls and criminalisation of irregular migration and asylum seeking in the UK, asylum accommodation emerges as an integral component of the punitive landscape of the British asylum system. It is complicit in the violence of the state and responsible for damaging the forms of life it putatively protects and cares for. Hotels and similar facilities are run by the Home Office through the outsourcing of contracts with private, profit-driven providers, and have been repeatedly deemed unsuitable for people seeking refugee protection. They are hostile spaces structured by gendered and racialized forms of control that perpetuate violence, trauma and fear into the ordinary lives of women and their children.

Since November 2021, I have conducted fieldwork in some of these spaces in London. During fieldwork, the mothers I met talked about the challenges their housing circumstances posed to the ways they were able to care. They lived within limited living spaces and a lack of adequate facilities, strict schedules and management of everyday routines, with restricted access to clean water and to proper nutrition, with mould and damp in the rooms; in unsafe environments, subjected to protracted confinement and repeated, unexpected house moves, all of which contributed to the increasing concern of mothers about their children’s wellbeing. These mothers’ experiences evidenced how the everyday stripping of autonomy and humanity that occurs throughout the process of seeking asylum in the UK (Canning, 2020: 4) was in fact condensed in the space of the domestic.

In this context, I realized that writing about motherhood in the asylum system requires thinking about forms of life that survive, resist, and often also thrive in those vulnerablizing and harmful spaces, and about the care practices that make them possible. During my fieldwork, there did not seem to be a moment in the daily lives of mothers that was not employed to provide care to someone else. The conversations I had with mothers were constantly interrupted by theses constant threads of care that sustained and made life possible. In a way, caring weaved into the everydayness of seeking asylum and living in temporary accommodation in ways that never stopped surprising me, as mothers kept caring despite all through improvised, sketchy acts of making life possible.

Mothers bathed small children and warmed up milk bottles in the sink; filled their rooms with second hand toys and composed ingenious sleeping arrangements in a limited living space; they cooked chicken soup inside a kettle and warmed up pizza slices in a secretly sneaked-in-toaster, and invented games and made up stories to amuse their children and to shield them from the dystopian effects of asylum politics.

It was made also evident that experiences of care within asylum accommodation were often troubled by the depriving circumstances that precaritised mothers’ ability to provide their children with as much attention, nurturing, and sustenance as they had expected and as they desired to. For my interlocutors, their ability to care and to reconcile the often conflicting needs of the self and the other was significantly complicated by the everyday work of bearing and resisting the violent conditions of the system, prompting me to ask: What is it like for mothers to care when caring takes place in sites defined by suffering and harm? How do they negotiate caring within an ‘’uncaring’’ and ‘’unfeeling’’ system? How does the folding of the asylum system into the intimate worlds of mothering and caring speak about reproductive justice issues? How can we situate this work on mothering and care in the asylum system within a reproductive justice frame?

Care is a powerful site for articulating how lives are differently valued and how the right to parent, to raise children in what Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger (2017) define as ‘’safe and healthy environments, free from violence” is not granted to everyone. I hope that my work contributes to the issues posed in this roundtable by raising questions about who has the right to mother and to care in dignifying circumstances and how we can bring attention to what is needed in order to sustain the life of others. Studying motherhood in the asylum system demands that we reject the idea of a liberal rhetoric of choice that reproductive justice criticises, and the widespread assumption that that people embody individual rights to make reproductive decisions. Looking at the experiences of the maternal we realize how reproductive decisions and experiences of how to care are articulated through the embedding of reproductive subjects within particular social worlds. Experiences of caring and mothering in the asylum system inevitably map onto broader concerns about unequally distributed forms of precarity and vulnerability, reflecting how the challenges to sustain one’s own life and those of others in the asylum system are shaped and informed by the circumstances of inhabiting those precarious, temporary and uncertain experiences of the home as well.

So in asking how reproductive justice matters for mothers who make and sustain life while navigating the asylum system, we equally have to focus on punitive and restrictive policies that operate through forms of dispossession and precarity, surveillance and control and the management of everyday life, which results in reproductive insecurity, and strips women of autonomy on the ability to decide how to care, what and how to feed their children, when to stop breastfeeding (because if there is not enough food, the continuity of breastfeeding becomes essential for babies to receive adequate nutrition), how to alleviate their suffering when they are ill and there is a lack of resources, or to simply have the ability to play and have fun while struggling to keep themselves afloat.

In that sense, framing migrants and asylum seekers rights in the British asylum system as a reproductive justice issue is making a claim to the need for mothers to have the power and the resources to have and raise their children, and to decide and act on how to care best for themselves and their families.

Author Bio

Júlia Fernandez is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, currently conducting ethnographic research on reproductive experiences among asylum seeking women in London. Júlia also volunteers as a doula supporting asylum seeking women during pregnancy and childbirth and has social care background working with migrant women experiencing gender-based violence.


  1. Canning, V. (2020): Corrosive Control: State‑Corporate and Gendered Harm in Bordered Britain. Critical Criminology, Vol. 28, pp. 259–275
  2. Ross, L. and Solinger, R. (2017): Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. University of California Press