When nowhere is safe

No woman, no matter what her immigration status, should have to choose between violence in her country and violence in Britain, says Anna Musgrave

The theme of this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign, ‘Challenging militarism and ending violence against women’ - seems particularly fitting in the case of women refugees. Many of those we work with at the Refugee Council in Britain have fled horrific violence at the hands of government and non-state forces, as well as violence within the home that in many countries is not just tolerated but accepted. In Eritrea, for example, as well as facing the risk of torture, arbitrary arrest, and forced conscription at the hands of the government,  up to 90% of women are reported to be victims of domestic violence. Perpetrators are only prosecuted if the injuries are life threatening.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the UN says that refugee women are more likely to face violence than any other group of women in the world.  Even after they escape violence in their country, they often experience violence in their journey to safety. Those on the move are particularly vulnerable to harm: often forced to leave their family behind and travel alone, they are at risk of abuse or coercion at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. Women with children may be at even greater risk, forced to go to extreme lengths to protect and provide for their family.  A study that explored women asylum seekers’ experiences of violence found that 70% of the women interviewed had experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

What is most shocking is that their suffering does not stop once they get to the UK. A fifth of the women who attended our therapeutic services in 2011 had faced violence since coming here.

It is not just a coincidence that many of these women had also been refused asylum, and that a number were destitute. When a single woman is refused asylum, she is asked to leave her UKBA accommodation within three weeks. Not allowed to work, not entitled to public funding, she has few options.

Destitution is a horrible fate for both men and women and at the Refugee Council we believe that it should not be part of the asylum process. But women face additional risks when they are made destitute. A report by Oxfam exploring how destitute asylum seekers survive found that women were more likely than men to resort to commercial sex work, putting them at risk of sexually transmitted diseases as well as sexual violence. The report found that both men and women exchanged sex or entered into transactional relationships for a place to stay but that women were at a much greater risk of coercion, entrapment and violence. It noted that many of those women were physically abused, sexually exploited or manipulated, or forced to stay against their will.

I was recently talking to a client adviser who confirmed this. Liz Maddocks from our Leeds office told me how desperately she wants to help women who come to the Refugee Council looking for support, but how powerless she often feels. She told me about a woman who broke down on her, reluctantly explaining that she’d avoided homelessness by going home with men who said they would look after her. As a result, she’d gone from one abusive relationship to another. She would meet a man who seemed kind, who said he would help her and that she could stay with him. He would soon demand sex and start threatening her. When she could bare it no longer, she would return to the street – only for the pattern to repeat itself.

Our staff who support women claiming asylum day to day tell us that as well as asking women, “Do you have a place to stay tonight?” they also, in some cases, feel compelled to ask,  “Are you safe to go home tonight?”

Liz worries that the cases she has come across are likely just to be the tip of the iceberg: “How many other women are in danger but don’t feel they can come to us for help?” she said. “As a client adviser, you want to empower women. But there is very little we can do for destitute women who’ve been refused. Women say to me they have no choice but to go home to the persecution they fear in their country, or stay in the UK in abusive relationships or become street destitute. It seems too often they are right – where can these women go?”

We know that it isn’t the UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) intention to put women at risk, but if a woman has been refused asylum their response is that they should return to their home country. This is the reality for the majority of women claiming asylum in the UK. Last year 64% of women’s claims were refused, often as a result of an asylum system that is unwelcoming to women. A major part of the problem is that women are simply not believed by UKBA staff, research has shown. We hear of women from Democratic Republic of Congo who have had their asylum claim refused because UKBA officials did not believe that they had been raped - even though DRC has repeatedly been called the "rape capital of the world", including by the then UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

While steps have been made to address these problems, there is still a lack of support for women who need to disclose traumatic and personal information to back up their asylum claims. The UK’s criminal courts have recognised that the trauma of rape for any woman can cause feelings of shame and guilt which might inhibit her from going to the police. However, an asylum seeker is expected to immediately tell a stranger (a UKBA representative) of any violence, including sexual violence she has experienced as soon as she claims asylum. If she doesn’t, her credibility may be questioned later on.

While the government is taking important steps both here and abroad to address violence against women, its harsh asylum policies are leaving around 7,000 women a year exposed to unacceptable levels of violence. Their Violence Against Women Strategy is in danger of simply ‘missing out’ this vulnerable group: a strategy that contains 100 actions to stop violence against women includes only one point about protecting women who are seeking asylum in the UK.

When the government reports back on their progress on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2013, they must show they have recognised that women in the asylum system are at particular risk of violence. That’s why we are supporting the Women’s Asylum Charter’s  ‘No woman should be Missed out’ campaign led by Asylum Aid, to put pressure on the government to ensure that asylum seeking women are not missed out from their strategy. We’re urging those who believe no woman should face violence to support it.

The government must guarantee that the asylum system will be sensitive to the needs of women. Most of all, that destitution plays no part in the asylum system for women seeking safety here. No woman, no matter what her immigration status, should be forced to exchange sex for a roof over her head. Women should no longer have to choose between returning to violence in their own country, or staying in a violent situation in this one.

Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.

About the author

Anna Musgrave is the Women’s Advocacy and Influencing Officer at the Refugee Council. She works with colleagues in the Advocacy and Influencing team to advocate for a more humane asylum system. Anna leads on women’s issues and manages Influencing Women, a Comic Relief funded project that supports refugee and asylum seeking women to speak out about the policies and practices that have such a profound impact on their lives.