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Displaced and disbelieved: refugee women dancing at the edge of the world

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Bidisha*
writer, critic and broadcaster

Earlier this year I spent several months doing outreach work in migrants’, refugees’ and asylum seekers’ centres in London, in association with English PEN. My students were male and female, aged from 20 to over 60, from Uganda, Cameroon, Iran, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and beyond.

I have never met such garrulous, anarchic people.

Yet close beneath the students’ good humour were countless experiences of brutality, which their high-spirited conversation and patient writing exercises occasionally hinted at.

Despite their determination to focus on survival in the present, hints about their previous lives crept through as the sessions continued.

As we gained each other’s trust, I learned more about the many places in the world that are unstable with violence, poisoned by corruption, soaked in spilt blood, tormented by trauma, betrayed and exploited (or split into warring factions) by their own rulers, intimidated by aggressors and divided by countless inequalities and abuses.

While all spoke about the violence they had witnessed, many of the women approached me during breaks in my teaching sessions and talked specifically about the additional issue of gendered brutality.

“If we go back they will take us and rape us and kill us. Please believe me, I am telling the truth,” said one.  I did believe her. I do believe her, as I believe all survivors of sexual violence, violation and abuse.

But so often the Home Office does not. The disbelieving of survivors of gendered brutality is endemic all over the world, in all societies in all hemispheres, in peacetime and wartime, crossing cultures, languages, religions and regimes.

The denial of victims’ testimonies is as ubiquitous as the violence itself, and is part of it and reinforces and redoubles it. To deny victims is to support perpetrators, to aid perpetrators and to tacitly promise all perpetrators that they can continue to rape and abuse women with impunity.

Now the charity Women for Refugee Women has released the results of a major research project which uncovers extremely disturbing evidence about the treatment of women seeking asylum in the UK and the gendered violence they have been subjected to before their arrival here.

It casts a critical light on the Home Office’s treatment of these women, which represents in intensified and concentrated form the attitudes always brought to bear upon sexual violence survivors in all contexts. The consequences of victim-denying in this specific case, however, are even more severe than is usual.

The following factual material is taken from Women for Refugee Women’s full report, “Refused”, and from the report summary.

The research was carried out by Women for Refugee Women, Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) London, WAST Manchester, Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Cardiff, Embrace in Stoke on Trent, Bradford Refugee & Asylum Seeker Stories, the Women’s Group at the Young Asylum Seeker Support Service in Newport and the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group in Glasgow.

Along with other countries, the UK has made a commitment to give asylum to those fleeing persecution if their own state cannot protect them.

“Refused” explores the experiences of 72 women who have sought asylum in the UK:

  •  49% had experienced arrest or imprisonment as part of the experiences they were fleeing
  • 66% had experienced gender-related persecution, including sexual violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation
  • 52% had experienced violence from soldiers, police or prison guards
  • 32% had been raped by soldiers, police or prison guards
  • 21% had been raped by their husband, family member or someone else

Others were fleeing forced marriage, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation. Altogether, 66% had experienced some kind of gender-related persecution and 48% had experienced rape

Almost all these women (67 out of 72) had been refused asylum. Of these, 75% said that they had not been believed; 67% had then been made destitute (left without any means of support or accommodation); and 25% had then been detained. Not a single woman felt able to contemplate returning to their country of origin.

Of those who had been made destitute, 96% relied on charities for food and 56% had been forced to sleep outside; 16% had been subjected to sexual violence while destitute and a similar number had worked unpaid for food or shelter.

One woman said, “I was forced to sleep with men for me to have accommodation and food. I was forced to go and be a prostitute for me to survive.”

When asked what they felt about being refused asylum, 97% said they were depressed, 93% were scared and 63% said they had thought about killing themselves.

One woman said, “They kill me already. I feel like the walking dead.”

The director of Women for Refugee Women, writer Natasha Walter, highlights the failure of the government to respond to the needs of survivors of gender-based violence “who have survived rape and abuse are refused asylum and experience destitution, detention and despair in this country.”

Debora Singer, policy and research manager at Asylum Aid, said:

“The harrowing stories told in Refused are a crucial reminder of how often women are failed by our asylum system. These are women fleeing unspeakable violence, yet they are routinely let down when they turn to the UK for help.”

She added: “Women are routinely, arbitrarily disbelieved by officials when they explain what has happened to them. We know that women are more likely than men to see asylum decisions overturned on appeal, so woeful is Home Office decision-making.

“And we know that the government hasn’t honoured its promise to introduce meaningful gender-sensitive reforms. As a result, women are left destitute on our streets, exposed to exploitation and abuse. The whole system desperately needs reform, and it needs it now.”

The reform of the asylum process and the issues it raises must not be hijacked by the tabloid press, by fear, by racism and xenophobia, by reductive thinking, by generalisation, by meaningless rhetoric or by ignorance.

In order to create a progressive, just and peaceful world society campaigners, politicians and leaders must publicly challenge the poisonous myths (about sexual violence, about race and culture and about immigration) which keep inequality in place and support abusive, cruel and inhumane practices.

The report advocates several measures including ministerial leadership and influence in challenging the Home Office culture of disbelief; improvements in the quality of asylum decision-making by everyone up to judge level, through training, guidance and consciousness raising about the nature and impact of gender-related persecution; access to free quality legal advice and representation for all asylum seekers; a ceasing of the destitution of those refused asylum; granting asylum seekers permission to work if their case has not been resolved within six months or they have been refused but temporarily cannot be returned through no fault of their own; welfare support for all asylum seekers who need it, until the point of return or integration.

A critique of asylum seekers is that they want something for free. I agree with that. They demand an awful lot which is free: kindness, basic humanity, faith and trust. They deserve to be given it.

*BIDISHA is a writer, critic and journalist who focuses on culture, the arts and issues of gender as well as international human rights reporting.

  1. Jane Osmond says:

    Great post: a friend who worked in an asylum centre some years ago told me some of the stories of the suffering that the women went through. It was heartbreaking. Since then I have always wanted asylum seekers to be treated with the respect and acknowledgement they deserve after making the dangerous journey to our shores. But this seemed an impossible task. I really hope that this report will make a difference.

  2. vicki wharton says:

    It’s not the system that needs reforming, its the attitudes of the men running it. Women are routinely dismissed when talking about male violence against them or their children whether they be asylum seekers or UK based and suffering sexist violence. A largely male led country is actively suppressing the use of violence against women and children wholesale, whilst keeping up a smokescreen of political correctness about sexist violence. Men don’t want to address male violence as it will make them equal to women and children, not above them. Take away their violence and you take away their privilege.

    • nilmini says:

      Agree Vicki, I also have found that migrant women and those seeking asylum have little chance of gaining justice in our (western) societies – as sexual crime and violence against women are, as you say, used “wholesale” here too… to subjugate women, and perpetrators treated with impunity. While it is admirable to scandlize the treatment of refugee women’s as they endure the continuum of sexual and sexist violence they face at home, and when they come to Europe seeking refuge, Natasha Walter might like to consider a campaign against the US/UK superpowers and arms traders…who start the conflicts in Africa and elsewhere, which are the root causes of milllion’s of women’s suffering…

      • vicki wharton says:

        Yes, the UK and US has done an admirable job of rebranding slavery trafficking, prostitution as a life style choice, violence against women as domestic violence and therefore locational rather than attitudinal, psychopathic, gendered propoganda as porn and the selling of war and largely civilian death as a legitimate industry. The more technically advanced we become the less humanity we feel to one another.

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