"Even when I came to this country I thought I would survive and make a good life for myself. It wasn’t what happened to me in my home country which broke me. It was what happened to me here. That’s what broke my spirit.” - Saron, Ethiopia
Women who come to the UK seeking safety, have often gone through extremely grueling journeys in order to get here. Just like men, women come here fleeing torture and imprisonment because of their political and religious beliefs or their race and nationality. But women who come here to seek sanctuary may also have had particular experiences because they are women; they are more likely to come here fleeing sexual violence as part of the political or religious or ethnic persecution they experience.
‘Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK’ is a recent piece of research by Women for Refugee Women, in which 72 women from 22 different countries filled out a questionnaire about their experiences seeking asylum in the UK. Some stark figures emerged - 48% of women seeking asylum in Britain had been raped in their home countries. Half had experienced arrest or imprisonment. The vast majority were refused asylum in the UK and of those of had been refused, three quarters said that they had not been believed, suggesting that the culture of disbelief which has previously been observed in UK border agencies is still a cause for concern. None felt able to return to their home countries, because of fear of further violence, persecution or death. Of those refused, more than half were made destitute – left with no means of support or housing. A quarter were detained. And the emotional impact of refusal was also revealed: more than half of women refused asylum had contemplated suicide.
We received a fair amount of press coverage in the UK with the majority homing in on the nearly 50% figure of women having been raped in their home countries. The hard figures in the report are a useful way to grab the attention about what is happening to women within the asylum system. One of the first questions we are asked, be it by a politician wanting to know more or a journalist writing an article or a member of the public, is the number of women there are seeking asylum per year in the UK. Usually, but not always, they are surprised and reassured by being told that asylum was estimated to account for only four per cent of net migration in 2010 and that of the 18,000 people who sought asylum in the UK only 5000 women were doing so in their own right. But to dwell too much on how few asylum seekers there actually are and that these numbers are far less than the Daily Mail would have us believe is actually getting away from the most important point. As is approaching asylum from the economic angle in an attempt to join the Westminster debate about migration, economics and employment when we talk about the cost of appeals (many of which overturn the original refusal), detention and the waste of the women’s skills when they are not allowed to work. All these things are important and true but before these areas are even discussed the most paramount issue and the first consideration must be our international obligations to other human beings in dire situations.
All asylum seekers – including those whose claims have been refused and the Home Office intends to remove from the UK – are still ‘within the jurisdiction’ and therefore beneficiaries of the rights set out in the international human rights treaties that the UK has adopted. They have simply asserted a fundamental right in seeking asylum. Regardless of their reasons for coming to the UK, asylum seekers must be treated with humanity before and after their applications have been decided. As Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, who wrote the foreword to the Women for Refugee Women report says “ If we cannot provide comfort and safety to those who arrive on our shores having suffered torture, the horrors of war and cruelty of the most extreme kind, we have lost a sense of our own humanity".
The UK’s approach to migration – and its treatment of asylum seekers, and women in particular – says something about the society we live in and the kind of country we want to be. Almost all of the women in our sample were refused asylum at initial decision and the existence of problems in the Home Office decision making process has been shown by the fact that so many initial decisions are overturned in the courts when women go to appeal. As one of the women taking part in our questionnaire wrote “I would like to see a fair asylum system. I would like to see the Home Office stop disbelieving women when they talk about their experiences and their trauma.” Asylum Aid’s research in January 2011 found that 87 per cent of their research participants were refused at first instance but that 50 percent of those refused were reversed on appeals.
Any one reading the Refused report looking for stats and facts like these will certainly find them, but we believe that the only way to drive home the particular problems women asylum seekers face, from trying to prove that they have suffered sexual violence when they first arrive, their experiences living on the streets or of being detained or of being separated from their children is to hear from the women themselves. That is why the report also has many quotes from the questionnaire as well as two detailed accounts from three of the refugee women connected to Women for Refugee Women. One question asked ‘ What experiences did you have in your home country?” and the answers such as ‘If I go back they will force my daughter to have female genital mutilation.’ , or ‘ I was held in captivity. The actions I went through were degrading and inhuman drive home the kinds of suffering women seeking asylum have had to endure much more powerfully than graphs and facts. We include the story of Saron in the report which gives a detailed account of the persecution she endured in Ethiopia, her escape, sleeping rough, and being detained. Saron ends her account with the words “ I used to be so full of home. Even when I came to this country I thought I would survive and make a good life for myself. It wasn’t what happened to me in my home country which broke me. It was what happened to me here. That’s what broke my spirit.”
At the launch of the report, the audience were interested in the findings but were visibly moved when playwright Lydia Besong bravely told her own story about the brutality she suffered in her own country and way she was treated in the UK. Telling your own story can be liberation but it can also be extremely difficult because it brings up past horrors and raw emotions. Some women are terrified of being exposed or fear reprisal for their families back home if they speak out. For this reason we sometimes change names or have actresses read out stories in order to protect identities and because reading your own story can be too emotionally demanding. At times asking women to recount traumatic experiences seems too intrusive and even asking to hear an account must be sensitively done and only when there is already an established relationship there. Some are bursting to talk about what has happened to them and what is continuing to happen to them as they wait for a decision about their status in the UK. When you have continuously not been believed it can be extremely empowering even to be listened to, let alone to tell your story to a large audience. As Constance says in the report: “Change will not happen if we don’t try and make a change. We need to empower women. It’s important that women stop feeling that it is taboo to speak about these issues: the things they ran away from and what is happening to them here. I will always encourage women to speak up.”
When a woman has felt able to speak out about what she has gone through those listening are suddenly able to understand that the only thing that separates them from the person telling the story is her circumstances. It is not through reading the stats, facts and numbers that people change from being sympathetic to becoming supporters and are moved to do something to try and change the shameful way women asylum seekers are perceived and treated in the UK.