"What happened to me here....that's what broke my spirit"

Women's experiences of the UK asylum system.

Kate Nustedt
31 July 2013

It’s the first time in ten years that the Home Affairs Select Committee has undertaken an inquiry into asylum, and at Women for Refugee Women we are determined to make sure that members of this committee hear the experiences and opinions of those who have first-hand experience of the asylum process, the women asylum seekers themselves.

Our evidence was based on new research of a sample of 30 women asylum seekers, undertaken by women refugees and asylum seekers, and on research we published last year in our report, Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK.

This research revealed that 66 per cent of women have experienced some form of serious gender-related persecution including female genital mutilation, sexual violence or forced prostitution in their home country.  We know from Home Office statistics that 74 per cent of women seeking asylum were refused at first decision in 2010.  76 per cent of those we interviewed who were refused asylum said they were not believed by the Home Office.

These figures tell us that women are here in the UK out of extreme necessity, and yet they are not believed when they get to the UK asking for protection. 

One woman, Saron, who had no option but to flee Ethiopia after violent abuse and rape in prison following her arrest for political activism, was brave enough to give evidence to the committee. She said:

“It wasn’t what happened to me in my home country which broke me.  It was what happened to me here. That was what broke my spirit.”

Saron was asked by the committee if women asylum seekers felt suicidal, and she recounted how she herself had twice attempted suicide as a result of her treatment in detention and the destitution she experienced when her claim was refused. This is borne out by the research. Half of all our respondents said they too felt suicidal.

In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee last month, Natasha Walter, Founder and Director of Women for Refugee Women, gave further examples of the situations that women seeking asylum face in the UK.  She told the committee about “a woman who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation to this country and was refused asylum.  She was eventually recognised as a survivor of trafficking and was given refugee status, but while collecting the evidence to make a fresh claim, she was destitute and was exchanging transactional sex and became pregnant. You just think a woman who was trafficked originally into sexual exploitation, then being put in that situation in this country – it is very upsetting.”

Following the submissions of Women for Refugee Women, Asylum Aid and other organisations working with women asylum seekers and refugees, the committee wanted to further investigate the effects of the asylum system on women. Labour's Bridget Phillipson (Houghton & Sunderland South), a strong supporter of the rights of women asylum seekers, drew emphasis to this dimension with her questioning “you are not arguing for preferential treatment for women; you are simply saying that there is a disparity within the system, and to make sure that decisions are fair the Home Office needs to take measures to address that?”

Debora Singer, head of policy and research at Asylum Aid, and trustee of Women for Refugee Women, gave evidence alongside Natasha Walter and highlighted that “In order to get those fair decisions, you need to have a gender sensitive asylum system.” 

Singer cited Asylum Aid’s influential research in the report Unsustainable”, published in 2011, which uncovered the fact that half the UK Border Agency's decisions to refuse women asylum were overturned on appeal. This rate is way above the average for all asylum cases, which stands at 28 per cent.  Singer said that this research “showed that the reason that women were being refused at the first initial decision making was because they were not being believed, and then when it came to appeal the immigration judges were believing them. We realised that what was happening was that they were using different standards of proof.” 

This lack of belief and the use of too high a standard of proof by immigration officials has a traumatic effect on the women who have fled persecution. Immigration officials are looking for proof “beyond reasonable doubt”, which is the criminal justice standard of proof, when they assess a woman’s asylum claim.  However, as Debora Singer pointed out, “immigration judges were using the lower standard of proof, which is the one that they [immigration officials] should be using; it is the one that the appeal courts have agreed, it is the one that is in the UNHCR handbook, it is in the case owner’s own guidelines.”

Women such as Saron, who fled violent sexual persecution at the hands of her prison guards, may lack papers and hard evidence to prove their case. It takes time for them to pull all of this together, and it also takes time for them to get used to telling their story. 

And therein lies another pitfall for the women seeking asylum. The Home Office’s guidance expects the asylum seeker to be “expressive and include sensory details” and says "It is reasonable to assume, subject to mitigating circumstances, that a potential victim who has experienced an event will be able to recount the central elements in a broadly consistent manner. A potential victim’s inability to remain consistent throughout their written and oral accounts of past and current events may lead the decision maker not to believe the claim."

The Home Office here shows their complete lack of understanding of those dealing with trauma.  Anyone who has experienced any kind of stress, let alone violent sexual persecution and being forced to flee from your home and family, knows that it plays havoc with your mind and your ability to think and speak clearly.  This lack of understanding is destroying lives because immigration officials see a muddled story as a lie, and ground for a refusal.

As David Rhys Jones of the Helen Bamber Foundation wrote here on OurKingdom:  “In real life, it can be difficult for a victim of trafficking to tell her story in rich and vivid detail and a 'broadly consistent manner', given her experiences of violence and trauma.”

Add to this a whole host of cultural taboos.  Whilst they’ve been persecuted, the women often feel deep shame about their situation, and they aren’t used to speaking openly about what’s happened to them – certainly not to an official, often male, and often with a male interpreter.  Whilst efforts are now being made by the Home Office for women to be able to request a female interpreter, this whole culture of disbelief has a long way to go before women seeking asylum in this country get a fair hearing, and the support that we are legally obliged to give them under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.

Meanwhile, the asylum system becomes more and more unwieldy.  The Home Affairs committee recently disclosed that the immigration backlog now stands at a whopping 500,000

Natasha Walter’s aim was to get the committee to empathise with the human impact of this chaos.  At Women for Refugee Women, we support women who have been languishing for many years in a limbo land between being refused asylum but not being able to go back home, for fear of their lives. This is a limbo land of not being allowed to work or claim any kind of benefit, often resulting in homelessness and a reliance on the good will of charity and friends, and a continued life of vulnerability. 

Women for Refugee Women and Natasha Walter’s evidence calls for women to be allowed to work or claim welfare support if their case has not been resolved within six months.  Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council, giving evidence at a later hearing, told the committee that he saw no need for any kind of time limit. He said: “There is no evidence to show that the bar to employment acts as a disincentive to people applying or when people had permission that it was a pull factor into the country – no evidence whatever.”

For those women seeking asylum, this inquiry is a source of hope that finally they are being listened to, that changes to the system will happen. Following campaign training earlier this year, organised by Women for Refugee Women and the Refugee Council, the new London Refugee Women’s Forum was created.  Already they’ve lobbied Parliament and the Home Affairs committee with their evidence and demands, and they have the self-belief and energy to continue campaigning. They’ve invited the committee to visit them and women who are bearing the brunt of our inhumane asylum system so that strong recommendations and a meaningful course of action that will transform how women asylum seekers are treated will come out of this inquiry.  Let’s not lose this once in ten years opportunity.


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