Part of the Voices of the Global South series. These articles are written by students and academics linked to the Centre for Global South Studies.

While exploring the impact of the current UK immigration policy on Nigerian women’s experiences of domestic violence, Dr Yemisi Sloane explains how the policy’s legitimisation of differences through bordering not only reflects a historical process of colonial categorisation but also reinforces structural inequalities that disproportionately affect women. She examines the intersection of power, identity and resistance, raising critical questions as to whether the policy, in its current state, safeguards or hinders the security and well-being of migrant women in the UK.

My research looked at the gendered impact of the current UK's hostile immigration policy on sub-Saharan African women residing in Britain and facing domestic violence. It was politically sensitive as it scrutinised and critiqued the UK’s migration policy as a system built on racialised categorisations and settler hierarchies and rooted in dichotomies of belonging and unbelonging, deserving and undeserving, visibility and invisibility. I argued that the policy's legitimisation of differences through bordering resonates strikingly with the colonial logic and dynamics of racial ordering in the way it constructs and situates migrants as deportable subjects confined to a disposable, diminished and marginalised space within the British social structure. Research has shown that women are more likely to migrate for family reasons, and within this context, many women who are marriage-migrants to the UK are simultaneously faced with both gender and exclusionism in the migration process.

My research focused on the gendered relationship between migration and violence against women. With a focus on Nigerian women who are marriage migrants and with a derived right to live in the UK through the Spouse visa category, I examined how the policy presents a double-edged sword for many, creating conditions of both privilege and oppression as intersecting forms of domination. The subjugated space that women have historically occupied in society has also resulted in a disproportionate impact where they are confronted with an overlapping vulnerability to both gender-based violence and border violence.

The UK spouse visa, also referred to as a UK marriage visa, is a category of derivative visa that requires a near-total legal dependency on the resident spouse with settled status, especially for visa renewals and access to welfare resources in the UK. This dependency gives the resident spouse considerable control over the migrant spouse’s legal status, positioning the migrant spouse or partner as structurally and legally inferior to them.

By centering the voices of Nigerian women who have experienced domestic violence while living in Britain under such subordinated contexts, I examined the intersection of power, identity and resistance within these contexts. The ways in which power and domination were reproduced in the women’s lived experiences under the immigration policy were explored, and the patriarchal inheritance of the policy was challenged. Additionally, I challenged the colonial ideological stance of non-Western culture-blaming as the reasons why African women experience domestic violence and argued that such essentialist narratives draw from racialised notions of British national identity and a perceived civilisational superiority of Western culture over other cultures. Consequently, the policy's entanglement with such racialised narratives pushes migrant women to a pathological space of compulsory victimhood created by a false consciousness that assumes that Black migrant women’s experiences of violence are solely a result of their so-called misogynistic, primitive, and violent cultures. In this regard, the fight against domestic violence in Britain is placed within an existing system of discrimination and becomes a colonial selective exercise where the needs of women from minoritised communities are rendered invisible, and the structural factors that marginalise them are ignored.

Some of the key themes that emerged from the data were: the legal consciousness of Nigerian migrant women, defined as how they perceive, understand, comply and engage with the immigration law; the intersection of cultural norms with the precarious immigration status of the women while living in the UK; and the women’s agency and help-seeking behaviours. The data revealed a trepidation of breaking immigration laws among the women, as they felt that it was better to follow the law, even in the face of abuse than live illegally in Britain. As already documented migrants, their legal consciousness in this regard was determined by their understanding of the immigration law as an exclusionary form of social control that trapped them in their abusive marriages as well as an empowerment tool that they could use to feel safe and guarantee their independence from their abusive husbands:

"… It will be very difficult for me if I leave without my papers... and I did not want to complicate my situation by being illegal…then it becomes two problems instead of one…. the abuse and my visa."

The impact of culture could not be isolated from the women’s experiences. In many sub-Saharan African countries like Nigeria, the position of women in the social structure is related to the belief system that regards women as inferior to men. The participants openly discussed how such patriarchal cultural norms overlapped with immigration controls to intensify their experiences. However, their accounts contradict stereotypical dominant narratives that African migrant women’s experiences of domestic violence are caused by culture alone. Such assumptions are set against a backdrop of discrimination that overlooks the broader framework in which violence against women occurs and how it is inextricably connected with other systems of inequality. When the role that multiple social inequalities play in shaping the experiences of violence among migrant women is overlooked, it can negatively impact how abuse complaints are handled and hinder the ability of survivors to access support and safety:

"I did not stay because of culture…culture my foot. I stayed because I needed to have a plan. I knew I needed to protect myself after I left. It will be worse for me if I leave…where would I live? What if I need the hospital? I did not even have a bank account… I heard there are not enough accommodation for women who run away from abuse. I knew to survive meant I had to get my permanent visa and citizenship, or I would have no choice but to go back to him."

These findings prompt us to ask the question of what can be done to better protect these migrant women. A critical first step could be to review the immigration policy, ensuring that it considers the complexities of their situations. Reassessing the visa framework of marriage migrants, particularly for women, should also be considered by introducing gender-sensitive measures that allow them to have independent control over their visa status. This prevents abusive spouses from using their visa status as a control mechanism. Access to equitable welfare for those experiencing domestic violence would further support these migrant women in building a secure and independent life in the UK that can enable them to thrive.

*This article is part of a larger research study titled – “‘I Will Not Leave Without My Passport’: Hostile Environment, Intimate Partner Violence, and Resilience among Migrant Nigerian Women in the UK,” which was the author’s doctoral thesis.*