The moment I realised that my cold Sunday afternoon in a London theatre would be shared with a group of women asylum seekers singing a cappella, I knew I wouldn’t be leaving unmoved.
The play I had gone to see, How I became an asylum seeker, was written by Lydia Besong. Lydia was also one of the cast, all of whom are women asylum seekers in the UK. When Lydia took her script to her support group, Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, they were keen to perform it. Natasha Walter, a long-time advocate of women’s rights and the founder of Women for Refugee Women, brought the play to a packed house in the Riverside Studios in London.
The script is loyal to the broken English used by the women. “Never you become a destitute,” says Monica, the main character, as the play tracks her life through the UK’s labyrinthine asylum system. The absence of a professional acting background is compensated for by the strength of the women’s own words when they recount their experiences directly to the audience. As Natasha reflected on the day of the performance, it is rare to hear such stories told as refugees want to tell them.
Monica’s story contains many of the themes that recur among those seeking asylum in the UK. These are tales of persecution, flight and exile, of children and families left behind, and then of months and often years lost in the bureaucratic cruelties of the asylum system. It is little wonder that destitute has such a central place in Monica’s vocabulary.
In the days before the play was staged, Natasha wrote movingly in an article on openDemocracy about the difficulty that many women face in talking about the persecution that led them to the UK, and the experiences they have faced since. Feelings of reserve, shame and guilt often conspire with poverty and an adversarial asylum process to keep these women silent. The nature of gender-based persecution means that the details are distressing for many women to disclose; persecution of this kind can also result in highly complex asylum claims. And while Lydia’s play is a compelling demonstration that some women can and will speak out about the trauma to which they have been subjected, Asylum Aid’s work has shown that, too often, vulnerable women go through the asylum process in isolation.
Good quality legal advice is rarely available at the start of an asylum claim, even though this is the very moment that someone needs expert guidance through an extremely complicated process. There is an additional risk that women will be left to negotiate the appeals process on their own, as there is little incentive under the current legal aid system for representatives to help appeal decisions on the most complex and time-consuming claims. There is no trained counsellor or support worker on hand for a woman who claims asylum after experiencing rape and sexual violence - and several studies show that this will be the majority. Local community groups for women seeking asylum are endangered by the spending cuts seen across the board. Three years ago, the UK Border Agency promised to build trust and continuity by ensuring that a single Case Owner handled an asylum application from beginning to end. But many, many asylum seeking women are still left to negotiate the system alone.
After sustained lobbying by Asylum Aid and other organisations that have endorsed the Charter of the Rights of Women Seeking Asylum, the UKBA has made some welcome changes to the guidance and policy that affects women, even if much more remains to be achieved. The UKBA has appointed a Gender Champion to oversee work on gender as a whole. Childcare is now available at four of the UKBA’s seven regional offices, with another facility scheduled to open in January 2011: this is a crucial provision if women are to disclose intimate details about persecution and sexual violence during asylum interviews.
Following a lengthy pilot scheme, access to early legal advice is assured in one UKBA region, for the time being at least. And women who are destitute and in the late stages of pregnancy are now less likely to be separated from the friends and local maternity services on which they rely. These are significant steps forward.
Nonetheless, we need to be vigilant. It is right to recognise that this represents real progress, but also to recognise the intransigence that had to be overcome before this progress was realised. Reform of the way asylum seekers are treated in the UK, where it has come at all, has come slowly. The campaign to introduce childcare during asylum interviews began as long ago as April 2007. It was in June 2008 that the Charter called for an end to the detention of families with children, echoing the call of Women for Refugee Women and other ngos,, and it was two years before a new government committed to ending child detention. On this manifesto commitment, concrete action continues to trail far behind the stated good intentions.
For those of us who want to see additional reforms, it is a stark lesson. The challenges ahead are substantial. Research by Asylum Aid 'Unsustainable: the quality of initial decision-making in women’s asylum claims' suggests that women are still badly let down by the asylum system to which they turn in desperation. The specific protection available to some women under the Refugee Convention is seldom considered by UKBA decision-makers; flawed refusal decisions issued by the UKBA are consistently overturned once scrutinised by independent judges; and some decision-makers demonstrate a striking failure to understand the types of persecution that women might face. The UKBA does not meet its obligation to protect women who need asylum.
The UKBA cannot continue to ignore the sections of the Refugee Convention that can provide protection to women; neither can some of the underlying assumptions that inform poor decisions go unmonitored and uncorrected. Above all, the treatment of women shouldn’t be addressed piecemeal, as and when issues are uncovered – gender should have a place at the strategic heart of the UKBA’s work.
In the meantime, opportunities remain to influence public policy for the better. In November the Home Secretary, Theresa May, outlined the Call to End Violence against Women and Girls and promised to allocate £28m in extra resources to protect women and girls. Constant lobbying led to the inclusion of a promise to uphold the rights of asylum seeking women, and to ensure that the asylum system was appropriate to their needs.
The Home Office has promised a “continuous review” of decision-making, detention and support processes, to ensure they are sensitive to the needs of women. Where the policy document went into more detail, it recognised that asylum decisions needed to be made with a full understanding of gender-based persecution such as ‘honour’ based violence and female genital mutilation (FGM).
In many ways, it’s not asking very much that the Government remembers to extend to asylum seeking women the same rights enjoyed by other women in the UK. Yet cross-departmental strategies like this one, which are implemented to safeguard women against violence and discrimination, almost missed out one particularly vulnerable group of women altogether. The crunch will come when the policies recommended in the document are developed into action plans next Spring. We will be watching carefully to see how far the government honours its pledges.
The importance of these promises couldn’t have been better illustrated than they were through the play How I became an asylum seeker. Lydia’s characters are strong and confident, but their position within British society is underscored by instability and uncertainty. Arbitrary powers of detention and forced removal loom large, casting deep shadows over the women’s every thought and action.
In the panel discussion that followed the play, the emphasis was on the imperative to change an asylum system that continually fails women who need protection. The actress Juliet Stevenson, who introduced the play and has long highlighted the plight of asylum seekers, stressed that the best chance of reform lies in increased pressure from the public.
But the final word went to Lydia, whose positive outlook is undimmed. “If we can have your support,” she told the audience, “victory is not far”.
Asylum Aid’s report, Unsustainable: the quality of initial decision-making in women’s asylum claims, will be published in January 2011