Equal access to the asylum process for women

Despite some progress in the treatment of single female asylum seekers in the UK, women in families frequently go unheard, dependent on their husband’s asylum claim. To protect them from persecution and domestic violence women must have their own voice.

Amanda Gray
21 June 2014

This article was first published on 16 May 2014.

Having fled their home due to war, persecution or human rights violations, the family can be a refugee’s key source of strength and resilience. The act of flight can mark hope for a better future for them and their children. Yet recent research has found that in some cases women are silenced and excluded from a process which may be life saving. In contrast to progress being made for single asylum seeking women, where families flee together, gender issues remain frequently ignored.

Refugee families are not only those in refugee camps in Jordan or elsewhere. Families forced to flee also seek refuge in the UK. In 2011, of a total of 20,512 asylum claims submitted by first-time applicants in the UK, 2,768 (14%) were claims made by families. Of this number, women are significantly more likely to be dependents on their husband’s claim.

The presence of family members can determine whether or not the family meets the definition of ‘refugee’ as set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, in particular when assessing risk on return and identifying the grounds of persecution. Yet, despite its relevance to the asylum decision, the concept of ‘family’ and how any asylum process should be adapted for families, has nevertheless been less of a focus for policy-makers, civil society and the courts, with the predominant focus to date on the asylum process for single adults and unaccompanied children.

The coalition government’s commitment to end child immigration detention in 2010 brought to the fore the experience of families who claim asylum in the UK. Following the coalition commitment, the Home Office introduced a new family returns process, which sought to deal with the return of families who had exhausted all appeal rights in a more compassionate way. To ensure the sustainability of any such returns process, the Home Office requested the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to undertake an audit of the quality of decision-making in family asylum cases alongside their own evaluation of the new Family Returns Process.

UNHCR’s consideration of decision-making in family cases inevitably led to the consideration of how all members of the family experienced the process and how their profile and accounts were considered in the asylum decision. Access to the asylum procedure and identification of claims for women dependent on their husband’s claim emerged as a primary concern.

In the current UK asylum process, when a family claims asylum, the claim is brought by the ‘main applicant’ with other members of the family ‘dependent’ on that claim. Refugee status derives - or not as the case may be - from the main applicant’s claim. Critically, it is only the main applicant who receives an independent substantive asylum interview, a key stage of the asylum procedure, where protection needs are identified and evidenced. The only time adult dependents are guaranteed to engage directly with the authorities is during a screening interview - an initial interview that registers the asylum claim, with its contents limited to biographical details and the basis of a claim.

Once the main applicant is designated, at the very outset of the process (and this may be prior to obtaining legal advice), adult dependents will have no formal opportunity to be interviewed, unless deemed appropriate at the discretion of the decision-maker. UNHCR’s research found that in all of the cases examined, this discretion was never exercised. This is not surprising in light of targets and time pressure facing decision-makers. UNHCR found, therefore, that the absence of a procedural requirement for dependents in families to enjoy a substantive private asylum interview was a serious shortcoming in family claims, raising concerns about the ability of dependent family members to put forward evidence relevant to the assessment of the main family claim, as well as to present their individual protection needs.

While there is opportunity for dependents to make a claim in their own right once all appeal rights are exhausted by way of a ‘swap over’ claim, UNHCR found this measure to be inadequate: decision-makers drew adverse credibility findings and were less likely to give applicants the benefit of the doubt or adequately consider new evidence due to the ‘delay’ in bringing the claim. In addition, UNHCR found dependents were given insufficient opportunity to present their individual protection needs, with relevant information about how to present individual protection needs only accessible in English.

These procedural shortcomings, and their gendered impact, were highlighted strongly in one example UNHCR identified in its research. A Pakistani female applicant was suffering domestic violence at the hands of her husband (the main applicant) and, amongst other issues, feared return to Pakistan with him. As she did not receive an individual private interview at any stage in the asylum process, her protection needs were not identified and the family’s claim was refused. When she made a ‘swap-over’ claim to avoid removal to Pakistan with her abusive husband, despite several letters from her solicitor explaining the reasons for her ‘delay’ in making a claim, adverse credibility findings were made and, on that basis, she was refused asylum.

Due to their position in many countries of origin, women will often choose to be dependent on their husbands’ claim. They are likely to come from cultures where they have been confined to the private sphere and may have experienced discrimination or violence. Shame and stigma may make it difficult to disclose details of their persecution in front of male family members, in particular if it includes sexual or domestic violence, or they may be intimated or discouraged by their husband from making a claim in their own right.

According to European asylum legislation, women and children should enjoy equal access to the asylum process. In addition, Member States must ‘take appropriate steps to ensure that personal interviews are conducted under conditions which allow applicants to present the grounds for their applications in a comprehensive manner’. Similarly UNHCR’s procedural standards for refugee status determination make clear that women in families must be given the opportunity to speak confidentially at the beginning of any asylum procedure about any harm they fear or are currently experiencing both in the country of asylum or if returned to their country of origin.

It is vital that we build an asylum process that ensures access for all family members, with a guarantee to be fully heard; one that ensures the identification of all potential risks. Separate asylum interviews with dependent women family members would provide an opportunity without the presence of a husband, to speak about their own personal fears, whether it be fear on return to their home country or any domestic violence they are experiencing in the UK. As in other spheres of society, it is imperative that women have their own voice.

While the Home Office has made significant progress in improving the treatment of women in the asylum process, including through the publication of gender-special guidance and the provision of training, progress has been largely in response to the needs of single women. To date asylum-seeking women in families have received less attention. It is now time to secure equal access to the asylum process for all women, regardless of their status, and ensure their voices are heard.

Refugee Week: Women's Voices: To mark Refugee Week, from 16-22 June openDemocracy 50.50 presents a range of articles written by refugee women authors and refugee rights' activists around the world. All articles are taken from People on the Move, 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.

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