WAR protests at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, June 2014
When Erioth Mwesigwa came to the self-help group we help coordinate, she said nothing. She said nothing at the second meeting either but she looked a little less wary and withdrawn. But then she started chatting to other women in the All African Women’s Group in North London. By the time Erioth came to her fourth meeting she was standing up to report on the help she had given a woman who was under threat of losing her child. Within six months she was speaking about asylum seekers being denied health care at a meeting to save the NHS in Camden Council’s Chambers — such is the power of collective action.
Erioth was imprisoned and raped by soldiers in Uganda over 30 years ago because her husband was suspected of opposing the president. He escaped and was given asylum in the UK. Erioth didn’t. After she escaped from prison she hid with her godfather until she was recognised. She fled from his home, but her godfather was killed by soldiers who came to find her. She was hidden in an orphanage by a priest where, until she was recognised and had to flee again, she never left the compound. More discoveries and more escapes followed until in 2002 she ran out of places to hide. Erioth was being ordered to trap her husband into returning to Uganda. Friends warned her she would be killed and organised for her to come to England.
After nearly 14 years living in the UK, Erioth was detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Lately — on 10 February — guards came to take her to the airport to remove her to Uganda. She refused, politely, as is her way, and the guards backed off. But they threatened that next time she would be forced onto the plane.
Talking about rape
In one respect Erioth’s case is unusual – the rape she suffered has been believed. Research by Women Against Rape (WAR) found that 88% of victims seeking asylum are disbelieved by the Home Office. But even when women’s accounts are accepted, rape and its aftermath are routinely downplayed as grounds for asylum.
Like many women, Erioth tried to keep her experiences of rape secret. Our research found that 20% of women had not been able to speak about rape before the Home Office considered their case and 14% still had not reported by the time of their appeal hearing. Erioth could not claim asylum because she couldn’t face speaking about the rape she suffered. Instead she again lived “underground”. It was only after she was offered counselling that she felt able to tell anyone she had been raped.
But when interviewed by the Home Office, this reserved, quietly spoken woman couldn’t challenge immigration officials whose default position appears to be one of hostility and scepticism, tinged with not a small amount of racism. So the notes contain damaging inaccuracies which have been used to say she can safely return to Uganda.
The aftermath of rape is at best systematically downplayed, at worst completely ignored, by the Home Office. So-called inconsistencies and late arriving disclosures are interpreted as evidence of lying, rather than symptoms of trauma. Erioth’s experiences, even though they were 33 years ago, continue to have a devastating impact on her life. We see the victims of historic child abuse speaking now still traumatised by what they suffered. Who would dare say that many years have passed and they should “get over it”? But that is what Erioth is being told.
The All African Women’s Group celebrates Erioth stopping her flight, February 2017
Erioth’s case was deemed “manifestly unfounded” so denying her the opportunity to go before a judge and prove the Home Office wrong. No account was taken of the way she was forced to live in Uganda — she was barely asked about this in her interview.
She was said to have “failed to demonstrate systematic failure of state protection” because she should have reported what happened to the police. Amnesty International has documented how hard it is for rape victims in Uganda to get justice; how much harder must it be if your attackers are soldiers. That is common sense, right? But it is a common sense ignored by the Home Office determined to deport at any cost, no doubt fired up by a politician-led witchhunt against asylum seekers and immigrant people. Even the Home Office’s own internal audits have marked its casework records “weak” and “fail”.
Even when evidence is presented to support a woman’s case, it is routinely ignored, disbelieved or wilfully misconstrued. In such circumstances, the right to appeal is vital — WAR found that women with expert evidence, from an organisation such as ours, are six times more likely to win at appeal than those without.
Collective self-help in action
The All African Women’s Group (AAWG) fortnightly meetings at the Crossroads Women’s Centre where we are also based, are now attended by over 90 women. Campaigning and legal cases are discussed using the principle of collective self-help. When a woman speaks about her situation, other women who often have suffered similarly, offer advice. If a woman needs extra help she often gets referred to the weekly work sessions WAR runs with AAWG, Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Legal Action for Women (LAW). Volunteers using LAW’s Self-Help Guide for Asylum Seekers and their Supporters helped Erioth understand her case and write a summary which she used to find a new lawyer. This is “collective self-help” in action.
Many women’s cases are undermined by poor or no legal representation; legal aid cuts have devastated their access to justice. Erioth’s solicitors spent two months failing to reply to her calls, let alone challenge the Home Office. We found another lawyer, but Erioth’s first solicitor was slow to forward her papers so time lapsed before it came to court. Judge Ockleton, then blamed Erioth saying she had deliberately used delaying tactics.
Rape survivors in detention
Legal Action for Women’s investigation found that over 70% of women in Yarl’s Wood are rape survivors. Our dossier (published jointly with Black Women’s Rape Action Project) documented 10 years of systematic sexual abuse by guards including rape, which has been covered up by Serco and the other corporations. A guard is due to go on trial shortly for alleged rape. But other accused guards still work at Yarl’s Wood and some have been promoted. Black Women’s Rape Action Project has been the main support for women inside who have spearheaded protests, including hunger strikes, demanding that the centre be shut down. When a whistleblower corroborated women’s reports he was sacked and blacklisted. We raised the abuse with the Joint Committee for Human Rights and key women MPs, but have seen no action.
The government claims its “Rule 35” procedure triggers release of victims of torture, who should not be detained. Erioth was accepted as a victim but she is still inside. The in-house doctor who spent approximately five minutes with her recorded that Erioth was having “flashbacks of the torture she suffered” since being detained. But the doctor concluded: “I’m not worried that continued detention will affect the lady’s mental health.”
The only action triggered by Erioth’s Rule 35 report was the issuing of her “Removal Directions”. The Home Office could then justify her detention on the grounds that she faced imminent removal.
In Erioth’s case the Home Office accepted that a GP was qualified to comment on a person’s mental health. Earlier this year I attended an appeal at which the Home Office disputed a GP’s competence on mental health— when the diagnosis undermined the Home Office case.
The bigger picture
Hundreds of people from all walks of life, including actor Miriam Margoyles, have now written to the Home Secretary to demand Erioth is released and given the right to an appeal in the UK.
This outpouring of compassion is not unusual. We see it every time a woman is able to describe what she has suffered. But what is rarely heard is the voice of women from Africa who put the responsibility squarely with western governments and corporations for why people have to flee in the first place. For that we give the last word to the All African Women’s Group:
“We are here because we were imprisoned, raped, starved, our children killed or taken from us under dictatorships and corrupt governments propped up by the West. The UK got rich from colonialism — £7 trillion was stolen from Africa and this theft of wealth and the most precious resource — people — continues to this day. When we arrive in the UK we are treated like beggars and criminals. We are made destitute, put in detention, racially and sexually abused. Politicians blame us for the lack of jobs and housing, the low wages, the strain on schools and the NHS. We didn’t cause austerity. We were its first targets.”
For us in Women Against Rape we are motivated by the knowledge that in defending Erioth Mwesigwa we are defending ourselves; we refuse to be divided. Information about how you can write to the Home Secretary to support Erioth can be found here. Please join us at the demonstration outside the Home Office organised by the All African Women’s Group on Monday 20 February between 4.30 and 5.30pm.