The importance of sexual and reproductive rights for undocumented migrants and their practical inaccessibility in the UK's 'hostile environment'

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Health and Life Sciences


Despite international legislation outlining the importance of healthcare provisions, the reproductive rights of some individuals have always been more policed than the reproductive rights of others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the severely compromised sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) of irregular migrant women residing in the UK (CEDAW Art. 14.2(b), Art. 12.2; ICESCR Art 12.1). These women are more likely to experience birth trauma, premature delivery and maternal mortality, and less likely to access HIV treatment (Higginbottom et al., 2019; National AIDs Trust, 2012; Shortall et al., 2015). The significant disparity in reproductive care and health outcomes for migrant women in the UK indicates that hostile environment policies undermine the legal provision for the highest attainable standard of healthcare for all persons, regardless of race, gender or citizenship.

Formalised through the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, the 'hostile environment' refers to a collection of policies aiming to make the lives of those residing in the UK without documentation as difficult as possible, thereby motivating their 'voluntary emigration' (Button et al., 2020; Goodfellow, 2020; Jones et al., 2017; Oommen, 2020). While attempts to control populations through access to care are not new, the introduction of the National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) Regulations (2017) brought the issue back into the public eye. NHS charging and data-sharing practices have caused access to medical support for undocumented migrants to be the exception, rather than the rule. This is particularly evident in policies concerning access to SRR, with such care being unaffordable and individuals risking deportation in exercising these rights (Greenfield, 2019; Maternity Action, 2017). This inequality is further exacerbated by gender, with women facing greater barriers to healthcare despite requiring more support, as a result of pregnancy and their increased risk of sexual violence. Evidently, UK healthcare policies are punitive of sexuality, mobility and race, especially when exhibited by irregular migrant women (Barclay, 2020).

Despite a steady rise in the migration of young women, the UK's policies concerning their SRR remain unchanged, establishing a need for additional research on the topic (De Jong et al., 2017). While literature concerning the effects of the hostile environment on vulnerable persons is somewhat extensive, my proposed ethnographic research with ProjectMAMA, adds a new narrative to this existing body of work, due to its grounding in mobility studies (Coddington, 2020; Nellums et al., 2021; Weller et al., 2019).

Research Questions:
1) How do the UK's 'hostile environment' policies restrict practical access to the sexual and reproductive rights that are upheld in international legislation?

2) What impact does the restriction of SRR have on the wellbeing, empowerment and autonomy of undocumented cis- and transgender women?

Through an analysis of theories of human mobility, reproductive justice and intersectionality, I will establish the theoretical rights of undocumented women, as upheld in international laws and UK policies. I will then compare this theoretical accessibility to the practical accessibility of SRR, as captured through a series of ethnographic studies carried out within the charity ProjectMAMA, which provides support to migrant mothers in Bristol. Once this dataset has been established, I will be able to create a comprehensive analysis of the importance and accessibility of SRR for undocumented women in the UK's hostile environment. Importantly, my research aims to make largely ignored and marginalised groups visible, by giving them a voice and capturing their experience through ethnographic methods, while contextualising this through an analysis of the legal framework and bureaucracies that undermine migrant women's rights.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2589782 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2021 30/09/2025 Ella Grace Barclay