Unfair, unsafe and undignified: the treatment of women seeking asylum in the UK

In breach of the government's pledge to make the asylum system sensitive to the needs of women, officials are asking women to disclose information about sex work and abuse in the earshot of queuing strangers, and in front of their own children. This lack of privacy can have disastrous consequences, says Christel Querton

Christel Querton
24 January 2012
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Last year saw a welcome shift in the way British ministers and government officials talked about the treatment of women who seek asylum in the UK. A pledge to do more to make the asylum system sensitive to the needs of women and girls was included, albeit in a slightly hesitant tone, in the Home Office Action Plan to tackle the causes and consequences of all gender-based violence. This was followed in May 2011 by a pledge from the Immigration Minister to “improve the gender sensitivity of our asylum system”, and a keynote speech from the Deputy Prime Minister committing the Coalition to pay special attention to the way women are treated when they seek international protection.

However, there is little reason for celebration yet. Asylum Aid's gender analysis of UK asylum law, policy and practice – "I feel like as a woman I'm not welcome", published tomorrow, reveals a pressing need for the government to honour these commitments. The report brings together all asylum jurisprudence and policies most relevant to women, and to asylum seekers with gender-related claims, in a single document for the first time, and sets this against first-hand testimony from interviews with women seeking asylum across the UK and with the people who work side-by-side with them. It tests the government against its promises, and maps the work that remains.

There is plenty for government to do. The asylum system is not currently geared to recognise that women seeking asylum can have very different requirements from men, in respect to both the manner in which their asylum claim should be determined, and the specific needs of those who have been victims of gender-based persecution such as rape or female genital mutilation. The failure to acknowledge this and safeguard basic standards in the treatment of women can have disastrous consequences. These consequences were starkly articulated in the stories that women asylum seekers and refugees shared with Asylum Aid researchers. Kim-Ly – no real names are used in this article – was trafficked into the UK from Vietnam, and forced to work as a prostitute. Terrified about her fate at the hands of her traffickers if forced back to Vietnam, she claimed asylum. She found a system that was in turns confusing and intimidating.

When she attended the Asylum Screening Unit (ASU) in Croydon to make her claim, she was required to disclose information about sex work in the earshot of queuing strangers, and was particularly unsettled by the presence of other Vietnamese asylum seekers. Understandably uncomfortable, Kim-Ly was hesitant in her answers; when her interpreter shouted at her to speak more loudly, she burst into tears. Her children were with her throughout, as there are no childcare facilities at ASU to protect them from hearing traumatic details about abuse and persecution. Later, at her substantive asylum interview, her interpreter was a man, despite her express request for a woman. Kim-Ly agreed to proceed with the interview, not least because, after her experience at ASU, she had arranged for her children to be looked after elsewhere. In common with the overwhelming majority of asylum claims, her application was refused.

There was evidence in the research, too, of deeply inappropriate questioning at interview. Emiola, having claimed asylum after bring trafficked from Nigeria to work in the sex trade, was asked whether she enjoyed being a prostitute, and how many men she had slept with. There is no sign in cases like this that officials are following the policy guidance which stresses the importance of establishing trust between asylum seekers and the people deciding their claim.

Natasha Walter has described on openDemocracy how these experiences capture the entrenched problems encountered by women seeking asylum, and the distance still to go before these problems are resolved. The quality of initial decisions in women’s cases, for example, needs urgent attention. The fact that one in four of all asylum refusals are reversed by immigration judges should be cause for concern; the fact that refusals are even more likely to be overturned for women suggests that something is going badly wrong when asylum claims have any kind of gender dimension. This sort of dysfunction surely wouldn’t be tolerated anywhere else in government. “If our criminal justice system had that kind of failure rate”, writes the legal journalist Jon Robins, “it would be a national scandal”. Gender-sensitive reform of the decision-making process – which would give asylum seekers the time and support to disclose details of persecution, and ensure that the Refugee Convention is interpreted in a manner which takes into account the interaction of gender and persecution – is one key step that the government is yet to take.

The women interviewed by Asylum Aid also returned repeatedly to questions of privacy, and the effect when privacy is compromised at the ASU. Even at this first stage of the asylum system, the stakes are considerable. Decisions on whether to route an applicant into the detained fast-track system – which means removing them directly from the ASU into a detention centre for an accelerated asylum decision – are based on information provided at screening. Where privacy is compromised, so is the likelihood of receiving full information about the reasons for claiming asylum, especially where the trauma associated with gender-based violence makes disclosure of that information a long and painful process. It is difficult to imagine anyone for whom DFT could ever be suitable, but it is an unconscionable fate for anyone who has been trafficked or raped or sexually abused.

Even when asylum seekers disclose relevant information they might still be routed into the DFT. I met with Susan, who was trafficked into the UK to work as a domestic servant and subsequently had to survive through prostitution. After escaping from her traffickers she sought help from police, but was instead arrested. From the police station she was transferred to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and placed in the DFT. Officials at ASU have promised changes, but the detail is still to be seen. Much work remains.

Some small steps have been taken in the right direction. New, compulsory training on gender is being rolled-out for all decision-makers, although this continues to advocate an incorrect interpretation of the protection available under the Refugee Convention to victims of gender-related perescution. Statistics on appeal decisions disaggregated by gender have been published for the first time, so government may finally have more of the tools necessary to evaluate the gender-sensitivity of the asylum system.

Yet even this progress could be undermined by continued cuts to legal aid as Chloe Lewis and Azeemah Kola have reported. There is very little consideration of gender in existing asylum legislation, and policy guidance on gender-related claims is not being implemented in practice. This makes it all the more imperative that asylum-seeking women have access to quality legal representation. It is unacceptable that any asylum seeker should be left to negotiate the system alone.

Recent words from government are welcome, but actions must now follow. It isn’t too much to ask that women have access to an asylum system that is fair, dignified and safe. At the moment, standards fall well below that.

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