Refugee women in the UK: Pushing a stone into the sea

From personal experience I know that arrival in the UK for asylum seekers does not signal safety, but reform is a ‘chaser game’: refugee women are pressuring the Home Office to improve decision making and end detention, says Beatrice Botomani.

Beatrice Botomani
23 September 2016

In 2012, 6,071 women came to the UK to seek asylum, representing around one third of total applications. Many of these women, like those who came before them, have suffered unimaginable hardship upon arrival in the UK having been stripped of their dignity. Many have been placed in indefinite detention, a context in which, this weekend, a 40 year old woman died.

My experience as a refugee woman in the UK has taught me many things about injustice, among them, that women need to work together to make change. For as Baroness Helena Kennedy QC said in 2012: “while there is now greater awareness of the problems women face, there remain deep-seated areas of discrimination and there is none greater than in the field of asylum and immigration.”

Thousands of refugee women, in the asylum system, and inside and outside of detention, struggle in the UK each day, their minds filled up, saturated and overwhelmed with questions that have no answers. They ask themselves, why us, refugee women? Why are we treated as animals?  Why are we treated like criminals?  Why are we treated as if we have no feelings? Why, why, why refugee women? Why are they –  and perhaps, why are you, Reader – indifferent?

Our questions correspond to an endless list of hardships. It is estimated that around one third of women who sought asylum from persecution in the UK in 2012 were held in indefinite detention for committing no crime; thousands of asylum seeking women are going hungry as I write; others struggle on around £5 a day. From personal experience I know that arrival in the UK for asylum seekers does not signal safety. We stand amazed and astonished at how our lives have become other people’s property. G4S; Serco; Reliance: private corporations fight to control our bodies.  Detention, destitution, bars on employment: instead of getting answers, the list of questions becomes more complicated as refugee women move through the asylum system in the UK.

While other sectors are looking forward to new developments and to better their lives, unafraid to close their public offices to go outside and strike for more money and against poor conditions, refugee women face constraints mobilising. Yet refugee women are fighting to confront these questions with answers that we have ourselves devised.

Why Refugee Women

Why Refugee Women is organisation that was founded in the UK in 2010 to answer crucial questions that have long fallen upon deaf ears. The organisation represents the voices of and supports dignity and respect for refugee women in the Yorkshire and Humberside region in the North of the UK. Our work is regional, but our message is universal.

Why Refugee Women is not a new idea. It builds on the valuable work of other organisations which are passionate about refugees and asylum seeking women, many of whom have spoken out on openDemocracy 50.50. This work includes Asylum Aid's 'The Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum' and  various campaign work and good practice recommendations from organisations like Women for Refugee Women, the Centre for Emotions and Law, Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST), Refugee Council, Northern Refugee Centre, Rape Crisis and OXFAM. All of this work argues that refugee women should be treated with fairness, dignity and respect.

Why Refugee Women was formed largely in response to regional developments that shaped the lot of refugee women. In 2010, Migration Yorkshire published a key policy document entitled the ‘Regional integration strategy for refugees and asylum seekers’. The strategy notes that “certain groups of refugees and asylum seekers experience further disadvantage, for example due to their gender…and therefore require specific actions to ensure equality.” Though it is officially recognised as a problem, many of us felt that there was not enough mention of women's issues and needs throughout the paper; we felt not enough was being done to ensure women experience the extra care needed by public authorities.

Since 2010, Why Refugee Women has made great progress at the grassroots level. We’re training women to speak out on the radio, have created a Charter, a website and run countless outreach session to make local organisations aware of the situation of women refugees. But the more we strategise to mount the fight, the more new and worse issues emerge. The uphill task of maintaining pressure on the Home Office quality of decision making remains our staple; as does the fight against detention. We know this is a chaser game. It will take strong hearts and a formidable force, united, to push the rock into the sea. You can see this in our work on decision making and detention.

Decision making

In 2012, on 30th November, Why Refugee Women launched a report in which many of our members participated entitled “Refused: The Experiences of denied asylum seekers in the UK”, published by Women for Refugee Women. By launching it in our home area in Yorkshire and Humberside we sought to bring more awareness to the region. After all, this is our community. The issues raised in the report included poor decision making for gender based claims, poor quality legal services and advice provision; high levels of destitution and poverty; detention, deportation and poor health issues, especially in relation to mental health.

Poor decision making is the root cause to all the sufferings asylum seekers go through. There are many factors that contribute to the quality of decision making starting from the day an asylum seeker walks into the Home Office premises to seek asylum.  We outlined the detail in a report submitted to a Parliamentary Committee as evidence of weaknesses in the asylum process in UK (p.681).

Our campaigning on decision making aims to empower women first by giving them the information they need, educating them about their rights and about the whole asylum process, its expectations and outcomes at every stage.  We began this process last year when we conducted region-wide CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) workshops that aimed at unveiling one tool that is not widely known to grassroots women, but which is very powerful. The workshops aimed at informing women refugees and asylum seekers of their rights as human beings; empowering and inspiring them to take their stand against all forms of discrimination; and strengthening their confidence in fighting for their rights. This awareness brought out some strength in women, knowing that there are some international laws, conventions and treaties that protect them as well as children and other vulnerable groups.  The workshops attracted heated discussions of the contrary treatment that asylum seeking women and refugees receive in this country. 

Yet we cannot improve decision making without undermining the culture of disbelief. We will continue to challenge the Home Office’s assumption that asylum seekers are liars. Not many women in our world have the chance to escape the torturous and murderous cultural practices to which they may be subject: FGM; forced child marriage; forced sterilisation. As a result, many women die young. It’s a tragedy to see that those who managed to escape are seen as liars because they cannot evidence their claims, and neither can they prove their persecution. Me and my sisters, we find ourselves asking, why can’t you believe us?  If these things happened to a British woman, what would they say? 

Legal representation

Legal representation is essential for holding decision makers accountable. For the truth is that while asylum seeking women take solicitors as Gods, it is shocking to see that some of them are not keen to assist us.  Many never take us seriously. Worse still, they accept to represent us, only to dump our cases months or even years later if they fear any less than a 50% chance of a positive outcome.  Will they win, they ask. Can they gamble on us?

Most solicitors never communicate with their clients, they expect a client to take a proactive role calling them or walking on foot to their offices.  You can never get through to their numbers and you cannot go to see them without an appointment.  How do they expect a destitute woman to phone or board a bus to go to their offices when she never handles any cash?  Because of poor quality legal representation, a number of women we know have missed their appeal time limit, court dates and some never knew that their cases were refused until they were detained. Our legal representatives need to change their attitudes. They need to ask, like us, why refugee women?

To address this issue we are training volunteer researchers who have the knowledge and skills necessary to help asylum seekers secure adequate legal provision and legal aid.


Now I have this platform I will use it. For Reader you also need to know that things are getting worse for refugee women in detention every single day. This is why Why Refugee Women joined the national campaign on ending the detention of asylum seeking women: #SetHerFree.  A recent research report by our London-based sister organisation Women for Refugee Women revealed the hidden plight of women asylum seekers detained in Britain, as documented by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanm on this site.  It exposed that female rape and torture victims are being locked up indefinitely: beautiful, energetic women end up suffering from depression and being intimidated by male guards. Almost 2,000 women were detained in 2012 and the figures are escalating day by day. 

It is a double torture to suffer rape, persecution and being subjected to account, re-tell and re-tell these experiences in agony to someone who has no sympathy for you.  From the word go, we are paid back with disbelief and marginalisation; and thereafter we’re taken to detention where we are kept indefinitely. We are arguing that these women are not criminals, why can’t they be kept in communities? Detention is costly for the government and extremely distressing for women. What is more, we know our communities love us. This is why our cities are cities of sanctuary.

At the launch of this report on 29th January, 2014, Baroness Helena Kennedy spoke out again that the findings of this report are “a source of profound shame to Britain.”

Moving forward

Our campaigns will be run within the next three years and progress will be reviewed and evaluated annually to see if the rate of positive decision making is improving or not; and whether, quite simply, there are no more women in immigration detention.  We’re committed to staying strong, and to taking a ‘multi-angle’ approach in our research and our work, addressing multiple issues affecting asylum-seeking women, including the patriarchal approach that is the foundation of law.

We’re not going anywhere; we will maintain pressure on the UKBA and other agencies to put the experiences and needs of asylum-seeking women at centre stage in their discussions, procedures and practices in order to improve decision making. Of late, yes, there has been transition upon transition, changes upon changes, movement upon movement, as if asylum seekers are just a parcel that can be thrown wherever one wants to be. Our feelings are never considered. But until this changes, the questions will remain, and we will keep on pushing the rock into the sea: Why? Why? Why Refugee Women?

This article was first published in March 2014 in the series People on the Move, oD 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.

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