We know two things that are proven ingredients to a healthy pregnancy are early booking and continuity of care (that’s regularly seeing a midwife – and ideally the same midwife). The absence of either of these things is seen as a risk.
Women who have recently arrived in Birmingham, such as those seeking asylum, are far less likely to be able to book quickly, due to them not being able to navigate the system in a new country – so being a late booker makes continuity of care even more important.
But continuity of care during pregnancy is difficult when asylum seekers are moved around so often.
The UK Border Agency’s policy of “dispersal” spreads asylum seekers around the country on a “no choice” basis, often moving people many times.
As well as the medical risks for pregnant women, there are the social risks of being moved away from their support networks. This can be socially isolating, but can also have an impact on their ability to get to appointments and understand what they’re being told.
Winta – a refugee from Eritrea – had only been in Birmingham for six months, but this was long enough for her to have formed relationships and make friends. She had joined a local church and her 11-month-old daughter attended a nursery. Winta had a regular midwife and had been going to antenatal classes, where she’d met other mums-to-be.
She shared a house just north of the city centre with another woman, also an asylum seeker. However, just three weeks before Winta was due to give birth, her housing provider decided to shut the accommodation down and move the two women elsewhere.
Under the policy of dispersal, asylum seekers are accommodated wherever there is “a ready supply of housing”. In Winta’s case, she was told that she’d be moving to Wolverhampton – a place she didn’t know at all.
She would have to leave all the support networks she’d formed – and instead start from scratch, finding a new GP, new midwife, new antenatal clinic and new nursery for her 11-month-old, in a city where she knew no-one and struggled with the language, when the baby could come at any time.
“She was due to move on the Monday, but I only found out on the Friday,” says Winta’s Pregnancy Outreach Worker, Jacqui. “So I had to move fast. I phoned the Refugee Council and explained the situation: she was three weeks from her due date – could they help me to find a way for Winta to stay, at least until the baby was born? They said they would do what they could.
“I explained to the housing provider that we were appealing the decision but, initially, they insisted that the move would still go ahead. It was quite a battle to get them to wait for the process to complete. Meanwhile, the Refugee Council had phoned the UK Border Agency, to be told we’d have to appeal in writing. So the Refugee Council had to write a letter and fax it over to them. Once that was done, we just had to hope the UKBA would take it from there. It was a stressful weekend.”
Why did this happen?
A recent report from the Refugee Council concluded that “the UK Border Agency’s dispersal policies are putting the health of pregnant women and their babies at risk. By moving them to accommodation around the county, women are uprooted from essential healthcare and their support networks, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.”
Guidelines introduced by the UKBA last year already stipulate that pregnant women should not be dispersed within a protected period; normally from four weeks before the estimated date of delivery until four weeks after the birth. However, it doesn’t look like this is communicated in all circumstances.
Luckily for Winta, Jacqui’s intervention meant that the UKBA were able to act quickly enough to save her from a stressful move. The housing provider told her she could stay in the house until the baby arrived.
A few days after the baby was born, the housing provider told Winta that they still wanted to refurbish the house. But instead of moving her to Wolverhampton, they found her another shared house, just a couple of miles away. Winta now lives with another woman who has a baby – and has been able to keep in touch with the support network she already had.
“I’m so pleased for her – they get on brilliantly,” says Jacqui. “I’m glad she was able to get the continuous support she needed.”
The Dignity In Pregnancy campaign
The Refugee Council has produced a short film about the risks facing pregnant women in the asylum system in the UK: Dignity in Pregnancy for Asylum Seeking Women.