‘Because I am a woman and women in my country don’t have rights, don’t take decision, can’t express themselves, so therefore all decisions are made by men.’
This is an asylum-seeking woman’s answer when asked about why she was persecuted. In the Women for Refugee Women report on refused asylum applications, 70 women were interviewed and the most common reason they gave for the persecution they had experienced was the fact that they were women. According to the report, it has been recognised that women experience human rights abuses across the globe in different ways to men. Even if a woman is persecuted for her religion or ethnic background and not because of her sex, that persecution is more likely to take the form of rape or sexual violence.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) recognises the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. As a response to this, in 1951 a total of 144 countries signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, a treaty that defines who is a refugee and sets out the rights for individuals seeking asylum. Since then, if an individual crosses a border and fears persecution in their country of origin on the grounds of nationality, religion, race, political opinion or social group, they should be granted asylum status by those nations that are signatories.
The UK was one of the countries that signed the treaty more than 60 years ago, committing to giving asylum to those fleeing persecution in other states. Most women who come to the UK seeking asylum are escaping forced marriage in their country, extreme violence in marriage, trafficking, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation (FGM) of themselves or their daughters, honour-based crime or claims based on their sexuality.
Two out of every three women seeking asylum in the UK under their own name and not with a husband are rejected refugee status on their first application. According to Natasha Walters, founder and director of Women for Refugee Women, this is often because they don’t have sufficient, hard-copy evidence to prove the persecution they have suffered. ‘With cuts to legal aid as well [in the UK], [women] are often not getting very good advice, so they don’t know what would be good evidence or what would be helpful to their case,’ says Walters.
In an interview, Walters explains the story of Angelique, a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who, in retribution for the political activities of her father, saw her family home attacked and her parents killed by soldiers, who then imprisoned her. While in prison, she was repeatedly raped, but then managed to escape with the help of friends of her father. She consequently fled to the UK to seek refuge, but was denied asylum and was locked up in detention, which brought back memories of what she had gone through.
Barriers to receiving refugee status
When asylum-seeking women arrive to the UK, they have to go through a long and, in many cases, traumatic process to build their case to get refugee status. From being interviewed by officials upon arrival to being locked up in detention.
Debora Singer, Senior Policy Adviser at Asylum Aid, explains that when an individual claims asylum soon after entering the UK ‘the process is likely to last a good few years.’ In this country, like in many others, the process to grant asylum is long, tedious and it can create a state of great uncertainty in individuals seeking protection.
The process starts with an initial interview with the Home Office to determine if the asylum seeker falls under the Refugee Convention criteria. If they do, the Home Office then considers whether the individual could be safe in a different part of their country of origin. Singer explains that this particularly affects women because ‘if the persecution they have suffered is something like domestic violence, then [the Home Office] might say that's something to do with their family, and therefore if they went somewhere else in their country, they’d be safe.’ However, the underlying problem is that in many countries, women can’t go anywhere on their own and would need the protection of their family. ‘The Home Office is supposed to take this into consideration,’ says Singer, ‘but it varies as to how much they do.’
In the UK, about 30 per cent to 35 per cent of asylum seekers are granted refugee status at the initial stage, which means that they can stay in the country for at least five years. Those who are refused refugee status at this stage, can appeal, but they often face a number of barriers and need good legal representation to prepare all of the information to put forward a case. As Singer explains, ‘Women who have faced traumatic situations have difficulty disclosing all of the details and don’t have documentary evidence from the start. You don’t get a certificate for domestic violence.’ And, in many cases, ‘they disclose the whole situation during the appeal process, and the Home Office would then argue that, since this information was not disclosed during their first interview, they must have been lying,’ she adds.
The anguish of not-knowing
At appeal stage, 40 per cent of asylum seekers get refugee status. Those who don’t, have to check in at the Home Office on a monthly basis, while some might be taken into detention.
Detention centres in the UK ‘are similar to prisons, but you don’t know when you’re getting out,’ says Singer. About 2000 women who seek asylum in the UK are locked up in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood in Bedford or Tinsley House near Gatwick airport.
When in detention, Angelique was extremely distressed, according to Walters, ‘She had post-traumatic stress disorder and kept reliving the trauma and going back in her mind to what had happened to her in the prison in DRC, because she was so scared of being locked up again.’ Being detained not only brought back memories of a past trauma, but also caused distress brought on by the anguish of not knowing when she would be getting out, either to get refugee status or to be deported.
If released to be deported, the confusion is often even greater. In some cases, asylum-seeking women have boarded a plane to be deported before the Home Office has even been through their whole case. According to Singer, ‘In these situations, only the legal representative of the woman can request for her to get off the plane, but this is a traumatic situation.’
In Angelique’s case, getting out of detention finally meant receiving refugee status in the UK and she is now slowly rebuilding her life.