Women seeking asylum: shame and isolation

“I'd prefer, rather than going to a detention centre ... to be in prison for the rest of my life,” said Cecilia. Debora Singer works with women seeking asylum in the UK and argues that it is high time that the gender sensitive culture developed for women in the criminal justice system is transferred into the asylum system.

Debora Singer
22 March 2010
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Rani escaped Sri Lanka after her husband was murdered and she was raped by soldiers.  She told me that at her asylum interview in the UK  “I was happy with a lady interviewer but not a male translator. ... Because he was a man I felt ashamed. If it was a woman I would have said more.”  Contrast this with a woman who goes to report a rape to the police - she can ask for a female police officer to be present at her interview and will be supported by a specially trained officer throughout the police investigation and at any subsequent trial.

The past ten years have transformed the way the UK criminal justice system deals with domestic and sexual violence.  A number of criminal justice reforms have been introduced, designed to improve the investigation and prosecution of rape and domestic violence cases, to prevent police, prosecutors and judges from using dubious stereotypes relating to a woman’s credibility, and to provide increased levels of support to female victims of such crimes.  While not offering a panacea, there is little doubt that these reforms have brought some benefits.

However, there is a marked disparity between the experiences of female victims of sexual and domestic violence going through the criminal justice process in the UK, and that of women asylum seekers who have experienced the same crimes going through the asylum process.  Whilst the purposes of the two processes are not the same – one is to investigate a crime and the other is to determine refugee status – the sensitivities required are similar.  To rectify this disparity, the gender sensitive culture developed for women in the criminal justice system needs to be transferred into the asylum system.

Cecilia had the misfortune to spend time both in prison and in an asylum detention centre.  When I asked her the difference between them, her answer shocked me.  “I'd prefer, rather than going to a detention centre ... to be in prison for the rest of my life.”  She talked about male staff at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre appearing unannounced, entering her room and searching through her possessions including her underwear.  Having herself experienced rape in Cameroon, this was particularly frightening.  In prison a search was always undertaken by a female prison officer and always after she had been warned that this would take place. In fact UK prison policy states that there should be at least 60% female staff in a women’s prison because “women who have been abused by men may feel safer in a predominantly female environment.”   No such policy exists in detention centres for women such as Yarl’s Wood.

At another detention centre, Tinsley House near Gatwick Airport, there is room for 116 men and five women.  With such a disproportionate number of females to males, women feel intimidated, scared and isolated.  Quite often a woman can be the only female detainee.  Women would never be placed in a men’s prison in this way.  Asylum seekers have committed no crime and, I would argue, should not even be in detention.  Yet the conditions Cecilia describes in Yarl’s Wood and those in Tinsley House don’t even match up to the standards required for women’s prisons.

The cross-government’s strategy “Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls” lists the many reforms brought in through the criminal justice system.  The new policies are still not implemented as consistently as we would all like.  But no one can say there has not been progress and at least their failures are noticed.  These reforms cover the majority of the 100 page document whilst the section on women asylum seekers covers less than a page (paras 56-58)  and includes no plans for future action.

So what’s stopping the UK Border Agency from undergoing a similar culture change?  For a woman in the asylum determination system, the immigration officials have to find out the evidence to determine her refugee status, just as the police and prosecution have to obtain the “best evidence” from a woman complainant of rape.  A woman in a detention centre needs the same sensitivity as a woman in prison.

Firstly, I believe the UK Border Agency needs to acknowledge that there is a problem – a serious, ingrained, cultural problem.  Secondly, the UK Border Agency needs to accept and understand that it’s in its interests to tackle that problem. A truly gender sensitive asylum system will be an efficient system; a system that’s discriminatory and insensitive will never be fair, credible or efficient.

Since June 2008, over two hundred organisations have endorsed the Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum,  including Amnesty International UK, Liberty, Oxfam and Rape Crisis. A new campaign under the Charter, entitled ‘Every Single Woman’, highlights the fact that the criminal justice system has at least 26 laws or policies on working with women victims of crime, whilst the UK Border Agency has just two policies on working with women asylum applicants.  The Every Single Woman campaign recommends that:

  • Women asylum seekers who have experienced rape or domestic violence etc, should receive a comparable standard of treatment throughout the UK asylum system to women victims of rape or domestic violence in the criminal justice system

  • Women asylum seekers detained in Immigration Removal Centres should receive, at a minimum, a comparable standard of treatment and facilities to women in prisons in the UK

A change of culture designed to produce a genuinely gender sensitive asylum system is urgently needed to ensure that women asylum seekers receive a comparable standard of treatment to women in similar situations who are settled in the UK.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel; lessons can be learned from the criminal justice system.

Since the Every Single Woman campaign was launched in December 2009, there has been a very positive response (most notably in the appointment of a member of the senior management team as the “gender champion”) from the UK Border Agency, in terms of engagement on both strategic and operational issues.  Yet the notion that gender-sensitivity needs to go across institutions, that the legislation, both national and international, concerning women’s rights does cover every Government department has still not been grasped.  The UK Border Agency is keen to celebrate the progress it is making (jointly with ngos like Asylum Aid) in relation to addressing gender issues in the asylum system.  But this is against a background of continuing hunger strikes  at Yarl’s Wood IRC by women detained because of their immigration status.  So far the official line given out by Meg Hillier, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Home Office has been to blame the women. It accuses them of lying and, by implication, of ‘asking for it’ by coming here and seeking sanctuary. The hunger strike isn’t an isolated event.  Just last month Human Rights Watch published a report which echoed UNHCR’s findings that women who have experienced gender persecution should not be detained in a fast track asylum procedure because of the complexity of their claims. It is only three months since the Government published its integrated strategy to end violence against women and girls. For the UK Border Agency to develop a genuinely gender-sensitive culture it needs to fully understand what this means and to have the full support of the Government behind it.


A short film featuring Rani and Cecilia can be seen at www.asylumaid.org.uk/charter

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