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Failing them twice? Why women asylum seekers are being let down in the UK

18th February 2013

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Kedija* quickly finishes a fill-in-the-blanks exercise at the Hinde Street Methodist Church. Just 300 metres from Oxford Street the church hosts the Refugee Council’s drop-in destitution day centre every Monday and Thursday afternoon. Kedija is a regular; she arrived five years ago from Eritrea through the Sudan to the UK. Volunteers offer food and respite: sandwiches, advice, English lessons and friendly human interaction.

While destitution affects many asylum seekers waiting for a decision on their application, for most of the 7,000 women who seek asylum in the UK each year there is another devastating blow to contend with: institutionalised ignorance of their specific vulnerability. Is the asylum system failing them not once, but twice?

The Scottish Refugee Council found that 50-75% of female asylum seekers had experienced violence in their home country, in transit or in the UK. For British women and in overseas aid, the UK’s Violence against Women and Girls Strategy (VAWG) is laudable, but victims of VAWG applying for asylum in the UK are “basically invisible,” according to Anna Musgrave of the Refugee Council.

The UK is committed to protecting those escaping persecution – it was among the first to sign the UN Refugee Convention. Since then, the law has evolved. It recognises that women are more likely to suffer sexual violence as part of persecution and violence in the home that goes unpunished because their government cannot, or will not, protect them. Sadly, it seems practice has not caught up with principle.

We are all Cassandra

Scepticism by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) is the first hurdle for many women. Three-quarters of women are refused asylum, a majority because their cases are not believed. Eve Ensler, author of the Vagina Monologues, told the Guardian she believes the myth of Cassandra is apt: a culture of disbelief means female victims of violence and abuse are ignored.

It starts at the Asylum Screening Units, there are two in England, where UKBA caseworkers interview the claimant in what Ms Musgrave calls “a very combative process.” She explains, “Women asylum seekers are expected to tell, often male, caseworkers straight away about traumatic ordeals.” Women are reluctant to share details, “Some may come from cultures where sexual purity is prized, making it even more difficult for them,” she adds.

“Credibility is a big part of asylum claims,” says Nathan Stevens, Immigration and Asylum Caseworker for Duncan Lewis solicitors. The system is unaccommodating: “Women victims of violence are less likely to remember the details that fit the criteria asylum caseworkers use. Caseworkers get hung up on specific events – when, where, who – that are contrary to most women’s experience where violence takes place over a long period of time.”

Even if she is believed, there is “general ignorance about the severity of harm of gender-based violence,” according to Stevens. Often UKBA caseworkers think relocating women to a different part of their home country is sufficient protection. But, as London Assembly Member Andrew Boff says, this doesn’t guarantee their safety from perpetrators: “I heard cases of women walking through the Sahara to get back to Europe – and who died en route.”

The Government introduced gender guidelines in 2004 in an effort to improve assessment of women’s claims. In reality, UKBA’s poor quality decisions led to 50% of women’s refused cases being overturned by an immigration tribunal. “UKBA are more likely to get women’s cases wrong than men’s because the Refugee Convention is interpreted in a very narrow way,” explains Musgrave.

Utter poverty

If they can’t support themselves, asylum seekers are entitled to ‘no-choice’ housing and subsistence while they wait for a decision. But procedural errors and the complex stages of the process mean it is easy to become destitute – utter poverty. Legally, destitution means no adequate accommodation or support for a period of 14 days.

A Parliamentary report in 2007 blamed widespread destitution on a failed support system that doesn’t allow asylum seekers to work, amounting in some cases to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The support process itself is cumbersome – you can’t claim support until you have been to an ASU; you need an appointment for the ASU; it can take one month to get one. “I saw a 20-something week pregnant woman get turned away because she didn’t have an appointment – she had to sleep in a church,” says Nathan Stevens, “And if you don’t claim asylum quickly enough it can be held against you.”

In the day centre, Kedija practices her English by writing down her likes and dislikes: “I don’t like locusts because they eat crops and then the people cannot eat.” Hunger may have driven her to the UK, but it has followed her here.

“Women are often more vulnerable than men,” says Gerry Hickey at Asylum Support Appeals Project. They rely on churches, charities and their community. Some of the day centre’s visitors sleep rough or stay with other asylum seekers (although this is illegal): “Often the poorest in society are supporting the most vulnerable,” Musgrave says.

Otherwise, they have to ‘pay’: illegally providing childcare or housework in exchange for cash and meals; remaining in abusive relationships; or commercial or transactional sex. While both men and women resort to the latter, women are more vulnerable to violence and sexual exploitation.

“There is nothing similar [to the gender guidelines on the asylum support side for women,” says Hickey. She adds that poor quality decisions are a problem in asylum support claims too: in 55 cases from 2008-2010, 82% of decisions on support applications were overturned on appeal – evidence of applications not being read properly or not applying the law correctly in the first place.

Back at Hinde Street, they are planning a special group meeting in preparation for International Women’s Day. Men and women are invited and women will talk about their experiences. The government is also marking the day: by publishing a review of its action plan on VAWG. As Kedija lines up patiently for her sandwich and fruit, she is among many women asylum seekers hoping that this time the government’s strategy won’t fail them again.

*Not her real name, her name has been changed to protect her identity.

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