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Refused asylum in the UK: women victims of rape, violence and persecution

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Ilona Lo Iacono
WVoN co-editor 

Nearly half of all women seeking asylum in the UK have survived rape as part of the persecution they fled, and 66% have experienced some form of gender-related persecution, according to a new report.

Women for Refugee Women, launching “Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK”, said that most women claiming asylum in the UK are initially rejected.

In addition to rape and gender-related persecution, 49% of women interviewed for the report had experienced arrest or imprisonment in their home country, and 52% had experienced violence from soldiers, police or prison guards.

However, of the 5,000 women claiming asylum in their own right in the UK in 2010, 74% were turned down.

Of the 70 women who were interviewed for the report, and who disclosed their initial application outcomes, 67 were refused asylum.

While some had not understood their refusal letter, 76% said that they were rejected because they had not been believed, while 19% said that, while they had been believed, they had been told they could return to another part of their country and so could not stay in the UK.

As the “Refused” study only covered women still in the UK, the 67 refused women were all clinging onto hopes of being granted refugee status.

Without the right to work (96% of the women) or access welfare, 67% had been left destitute, with no accommodation or support, and 25% had been detained.

Of those women left destitute, 96% had relied on charity for food and 56% had been forced to sleep outside; 16% had experienced sexual violence, and a similar number had worked unpaid for food or shelter. Some reported being forced into prostitution in order to survive.

Unsurprisingly, 97% of the women said they were depressed, 93% said they were scared, and 63% said they had thought about committing suicide. And yet, not one of the women interviewed had thought about returning to their home countries.

“I would rather die here than go back,” one woman explained.

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women and one of the report’s authors, told BBC Woman’s Hour that women also find it more difficult than men to reach the UK to claim asylum.

Men’s claims of persecution are often easier to prove than women’s. Many men are able to substantiate their claims by proving, for example, membership of a political organisation.

Women’s political activity often takes on different forms, and when targeted, their persecution is also often by different methods – including rape, which, unlike torture, is not explicitly covered by the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

The UK Border Agency issued a statement, saying: “We recognise that women may face particular forms of persecution which is why we have female interviewers and interpreters for women applicants.

“We treat all asylum applicants with sensitivity … We are proud to offer refuge to those who need it, but when we and the courts have found that applicants are not in need of asylum, then we do expect them to go home.”

Immigration lawyer Julian Norman told Woman’s Hour that many women seeking asylum do not realise that they are entitled to ask for a female interviewer, or are afraid to ask because they don’t want to be perceived as troublesome.

Norman also said that the number of asylum seekers who are initially rejected but eventually accepted as genuine refugees, often after years of appeals, shows that initial assessments are often wrong.

After the release of the 2006 report, “Misjudging Rape – Breaching Gender Guidelines and International Law in Asylum Appeals”, Anver Jeevanjee, a former member of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, said: “Despite all the gender guidelines … judges often start from the position that a woman is lying.

“They demand a much higher degree of proof from women. The idea that they wouldn’t tell their husbands or family members about a rape, for example, is regarded as absolutely implausible.”

The “Refused” report indicates that too little has changed since then.

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