Women asylum seekers face tough times in the UK

published August 2013 for World in Progress on Deutsche Welle

If you‘re a woman refugee your chance to be denied asylum is twice as high than if you were a man. Half of the women seeking asylum in the UK have experienced torture or rape, according to recent research by the organisation Women for Refugee Women, but are refused asylum. The findings suggest that officials often don‘t believe the women‘s stories, and that women feel too ashamed and traumatized to speak about what has happened to them. Out of the approximately nineteen-thousdand asylum seekers to the UK last year, women made up 30 percent. The hardship and upheaval connected with fleeing to another country is more often braved by men. Those women who do take the risk and leave their families behind expect to come to a safe haven. Instead what they often find is that the process of claiming asylum is a traumatic one.  

Surviving as an asylum seeker in the UK

Surviving as an asylum seeker in the UK

Women‘s chatter and laughter wafts up a stairwell that leads to the basement of a grey NGO building in east London. A wooden, tattered door swings open to a room filled with at least fourty women, sitting around tables with paper and pens in front of them. They are WAST – Women Asylum Seekers Together, a self-help group which is run by women asylum seekers and sustained by donations. The women come together to support each other in their legal struggle to get refugee status, find a place to sleep or food and once a week they organize lessons to improve their English.

They find WAST by word-of-mouth, and everyone who joins the group is expected to take responsibility in helping to organize it. It is them who chose what they want to be taught. They are the one‘s who know what is most useful to them. The reading material their teacher uses in their English classes are historical stories of wars and revolutions, because the women can relate to them through their own experiences.

Julia joined the group several years ago and helps newcomers in the class. She fled to the UK after enduring imprisonment and torture, for being part of the political opposition in her home country Zimbabwe. She owned an arts and crafts shop and lived with her three daughters in what she described as a „huge house.“ Comparing it to her accomodation in London she said she lives „like a squatter“. In 2004 her asylum claim was refused, and she was saved from deportation because Zimbabwe was not considered a safe country to send refugees back to.

Hard to prove or hard to tell

Many asylum-seekers live in 'squatter-like' conditions while waiting for the decision on their claim

Many asylum-seekers live in 'squatter-like' conditions while waiting for the decision on their claim

Currently she is waiting for her second claim to be processed. It‘s taking years for her case to be decided, but statisitcally Julia has a better chance to be granted asylum than other women who flee from sexual violence or gender related persecution, like female genital mutilation. That‘s because it is more difficult to prove sexual persecution than political persecution.

Immigration officials know about political instabilities in other countries – like the war in Afghanistan for example, but they are less likely to know about practices in Afghanistan which persecute women because they are women – like an Afghani woman being raped but not given protection by the police.

The International Refugee Convention was amended to widen the definiton of persecution in 2002. Since then it includes persecution specific to women as a reason for asylum, and the UK Home Office introduced measures to assist women in making their asylum claim, like having female interviewers and interpreters. Debora Singer, policy advisor at Asylum Aid, an organisation that provides legal support to asylum seekers, still thinks the process is fundamentally flawed. „Women lose their claim for asylum because they are often too traumatized to tell their story“ she said.

Trauma is experienced by men and women who are in fear for their lives, but the private nature of violence faced by women makes it hard for them to tell their stories, to complete strangers, which often include details of sexual violence. Another effect of being traumatized is that the victim often can‘t remember details of the traumatic event or feels too ashamed to speak about it, which makes it even more difficult to convince officials of their right to asylum.

Once the initial claim for asylum is refused refugees can appeal to court. Research by the orgnaistaion Asylum Aid found, that 50 percent of women‘s refused asylum claims are overturned and granted by judges, because they have more resources to check the evidence, for example through medical examination of the women.

An asylum-seeker on her way to a soup kitchen

An asylum-seeker on her way to a soup kitchen

No other option

On reaching the UK Julia said she was glad to have escaped alive, but now she lives making ends meet, robbed of any rights since eight years. She is not allowed to work, is dependent on donations from charities and can‘t get treatment for pain that she still suffers from when she was abused in prison.

Does she regret coming here? „I had no choice,“ she said „I miss my children, but I had to leave or they would have had a dead mother.“ Most women fleeing, because they have no other choice, find themsleves in the UK without much of an option either. The research conducted by Women for Refugee Women found that 96 percent of those they interviewed were like Julia – not allowed to work and relying on charities for food. Further the findings showed that, when an asylum claim is refused a woman‘s desperate situation pushes her into prostitution or domestic servitude.

This is another reason why English lessons seem important to women like Julia. „It built my confidence and now I can talk about what happened to me, why I had to leave my home and be here“ she said. It is crucial for her, and other women asylum seekers, to be able to tell their stories, no matter how painful it is.