Show Hide image

Home is where the heartbreak is

Asylum-seeking women are especially vulnerable to persecution, but the British immigration system do

"Maybe I should just go back and die," says Esther. "It happens all the time. People go to sleep and just don't wake up." If she returns to her native Kenya, Esther will be under threat of murder and rape. But the UK has refused her asylum. Her situation is typical of the plight of vulnerable female refugees, trapped in a system that does not recognise their needs.

Esther, a born-again Christian and activist, was forced to flee Kenya after breaking the traditions of her tribe, the Luos. At the prompting of her husband, a warrant was issued for her arrest. The Mungiki terror cult also put up posters in Nairobi naming her as a target for her church activism. Her house was burned down, and she does not know the whereabouts of her children - something she finds too painful to discuss. "Luo women have no rights," she says. "The husband paid money for you, so you are their possession and must do what they tell you."

The UN Refugee Convention, written in 1951, defines a refugee as someone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", with no protection from their own state.

Debora Singer, policy and research manager at the charity Asylum Aid, explains that lone women often have a distinct set of reasons for seeking asylum. "Women might flee for the same reasons as men, such as political persecution, but they tend to be involved at a lower level," Singer says. This doesn't mean that they are at less risk, but it can be perceived this way, and the danger is harder to prove.

“Women also face persecution that is not perpetrated by the state, but by their families or communities, such as rape, domestic violence, honour crimes and female genital mutilation."

This presents the problem of evidence. Political persecution is one thing, but how can a raped woman prove that her family will murder her because of the shame she will bring? A good lawyer can argue that a woman is part of a certain social group with unchangeable characteristics - a divorced woman, for example, will be a social outcast in many countries - but this is the legal point on which women's cases often fail.

The Home Office accepts that Esther is in danger, but recommends "internal flight", meaning returning to another part of Kenya. To do so, she will have to pass through Nairobi. "They will hack me," she says, fearing death by machete at the hands of her persecutors.

Meena Patel, joint co-ordinator of Southall Black Sisters, which provides support for female asylum-seekers, explains. "The Home Office now quite consistently says that a woman can't return to her particular area but can return to another part of that country. But women such as these in countries throughout Asia and Africa will struggle to survive. They will be targeted, vulnerable and ostracised. It will be very difficult to get jobs, especially if they are single, leading to poverty and destitution. It doesn't matter if you're from the Punjab and you go back to Gujarat - you are a single woman, therefore you may be seen as a loose woman or a prostitute. There are no systems in place to protect lone women from the risks they face."

Persecution in Pakistan

Salma was sent to England at the age of 18 from a village in Pakistan, for an arranged marriage with a British citizen. Kept as a slave in his house, she suffered physical and sexual abuse. She is strikingly small and speaks quickly, rocking back and forth as she describes how she escaped to a women's refuge after finding guns in the house, and then called home in Pakistan.

“My mother kept saying I couldn't go back," she says. "Then my brother snatched the phone and said if I came back, he would kill me because I would bring shame on the family." Brutalised and terrified of being removed from the UK, Salma tried to throw herself under a bus. Although she survived this suicide attempt, she says she will try again if her application for asylum fails - "then I can choose how I die".

A landmark case in 1999 ruled that divorced women in Pakistan did qualify as a persecuted group, and that the women in question should be granted refugee status. Lord Steyn, adjudicating, said that "discrimination against women in Pakistan is partly tolerated by the state, and partly sanctioned by the state". He accepted that there was strong discrimination against divorced women, who are viewed as licentious and potentially contaminating. But subsequent cases have overturned this, leaving the ground uncertain for women, a legal grey area dominated by case law. As human-rights cases often relate to men, the boundaries are even further blurred. It might be viable for a young man to flee within a country, but it is impossible for a lone woman such as Salma because of her precarious social position.

In this minefield, it can be hard to find good representation. With cuts in legal aid funding, solicitors can work only a prescribed number of hours on each case. "Cases involving women often take more time," says Jonathan Bishop, an immigration lawyer. "All asylum cases are complex, but for women, solicitors must find evidence of violence or abuse and often rely on expert testimony on the risks the woman will face upon her return, which costs money."

Gender guidelines

Yet another problem is a lack of existent female-sensitive procedures. This year's Vulnerable Women's Project by the Refugee Council found that 76 per cent of the women it supports have been raped, giving some indication of the high prevalence of sexual violence suffered by female asylum-seekers.

The UK Border Agency does have gender guidelines - this is one of just five countries worldwide that does - which state that a female interviewer, and child care for the duration of the interview, must be provided if requested. However, at present, only half of the UK's regions provide this, and caseworkers report that gender guidelines are rarely enforced.

Singer expands: "It's difficult for women in this country to talk about rape or domestic violence, let alone those from a very conservative society. If they later pluck up the courage to disclose that they were raped, it often goes against their credibility, and is seen as being made up to support their case . . . A major problem is women not being believed. For a rape victim, that is very, very traumatic."

While the treatment of rape victims in the criminal justice system is far from ideal - and the subject of separate campaigning - 16 gender-sensitive provisions exist, such as allowing victims to give evidence by video link. For women seeking asylum, there are just two. The lack of gender guidelines in the legal asylum process, or adherence to guidelines by the UKBA, leads not only to distress for women, but also to a waste of public funds as many cases go to appeal. No one is arguing that all women claiming asylum should be granted automatic refugee status. But it is equally impossible to say that the current system treats them fairly.

Samira Shackle is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

Bordering on ignorance

The plight of female asylum-seekers is unfashionable. Although it attracts attention from the charitable sector - in particular, with a Women's Charter by Asylum Aid, endorsed by 160 organisations - the media and government remain largely uninterested.

I spoke to the UK Border Agency, where a spokesman defended the status quo, given that "asylum applications by female applicants may well be considered under the heading of 'Particular Social Group'".

I asked about the UKBA's gender guidelines, which women and front-line workers claim are often not enforced. The spokesman stressed that requests for same-sex interviewers and interpreters are always met, "where operationally possible". With the inherent difficulty of providing evidence of persecution by family or community, cases often rest upon the woman's own credibility as a witness; yet few provisions are made to assist her in telling the full story.

What about the disjunction between the treatment of UK rape victims and victims who are asylum-seekers? "We do not accept that there is a direct analogy in the way women who are victims of crime in the UK are treated in the criminal justice system and the way that the UK considers those seeking asylum." No reason was given.

The UKBA says that it is working to ensure that women asylum-seekers are treated fairly, but these answers do not give a real sense of engagement with the complexity of the issue.

Samira Shackle

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge