Home Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Women for Refugee Women, the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London (ASY 13)

Women for Refugee Women works with women who have sought asylum. We aim to challenge injustices experienced by women who cross borders to flee persecution, and we aim to empower women refugees themselves to speak about their own experiences. For this submission, we worked with the London Refugee Women’s Forum, which brings together refugee and asylum seeking women to campaign around the issues that affect them, and with Women Asylum Seekers’ Together London, a self-help group of women who have sought asylum.


This submission focuses specifically on three areas of the inquiry’s remit: the assessment of the credibility of women; the adequacy of asylum support, and the prevalence of destitution. We have kept this submission very brief and would be glad to provide further information or evidence at any stage.

Women seeking asylum in the UK are often fleeing extreme human rights abuses:

49% have experienced arrest or imprisonment

32% have been raped by soldiers, police or prison guards.

48% have been raped as part of the persecution they are fleeing

66% have experienced some form of serious gender-related persecution including female genital mutilation, sexual violence or forced prostitution (source: Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK, Women for Refugee Women, May 2012)

Women seeking asylum make up only a small proportion of migrants to the UK, but are not encountering a fair hearing:

5,364 of the 19,865 people seeking asylum in 2011 were women (source: Home Office)

74% of women seeking asylum were refused at first decision in 2010 (source: Home Office)

76% of women refused asylum said they were not believed by the Home Office (source: Refused, WRW)

Refusals on women’s asylum claims are more likely to be overturned at appeal than refusals on men’s claims (source:Unsustainable: the quality of initial decision-making in women’s asylum claims, Asylum Aid 2011)

The impact of refusal is extremely harsh:

Among our sample of women refused asylum in the UK and not removed, 67% became destitute

25% had been detained

97% were depressed

63% said they had contemplated suicide (source: Refused, WRW)

Destitution is very prevalent among women refused asylum:

Of 30 women asylum seekers interviewed in March 2013, 23 had experienced destitution and 18 were currently destitute (Women for Refugee Women research for this submission, 2013)

Of the 23 women who had experienced destitution, 18 had visited charities for food, 7 had worked unpaid, 6 had worked illegally, and 16 had slept outside

10 of the 23 women had experienced destitution for more than 3 years

Destitution has a devastating impact on women’s mental health and makes them more vulnerable to sexual violence:

Of the 23 women who had experienced destitution in March 2013, 18 said that this had made them lonely, 21 said it made them worried, and 15 said they thought about suicide

13–16% of destitute women we spoke to have experienced sexual violence while destitute (source: Refused, May 2012, and WRW, 2013)

A. Women in the Asylum Process: Credibility and Refusal

1. Recently, understanding has been growing of the abuse and violence that women experience across the globe. The Foreign Office’s new initiative to tackle sexual violence in conflict is a potentially important step in supporting women who are experiencing gender-related persecution. The Home Office has made improvements in criminal justice processes to ensure more reporting and prosecution of sexual and domestic violence in the UK. However, women who have crossed borders to escape persecution still too often encounter barriers to a fair hearing, and can be retraumatised by the difficulties they face in the asylum process.

2. WRW carried out research last year, published as Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK, for which we interviewed more than 70 women who had claimed asylum in the UK. We discovered that these women had typically experienced serious human rights abuses in their home countries. 49% had experienced arrest or imprisonment, 52% had experienced violence from soldiers, police or prison guards, 32% had been raped by soldiers, police or prison guards. 6% were fleeing forced prostitution, 10% were fleeing forced marriage, and 48% had survived rape as part of the persecution they were fleeing. Overall, 66%, or two thirds, had experienced gender-related persecution in the areas we asked about, including rape and other sexual violence, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.55

3. There are many reasons why women who are fleeing genuine persecution which satisfies the terms of the Refugee Convention may not be given refugee status, including the problems that they face in disclosing their experiences, the lack of up to date information about their countries, poor legal representation, and the attitudes that they face from decision-makers in the Home Office and judges at tribunals.56 As Frances Webber has stated, “The legal arguments may have been won, but the procedure for claiming refugee status, and the widely observed ‘culture of disbelief’ in the UK Border Agency and among immigration judges, makes the road to recognition as a refugee a very rocky one, which comparatively few succeed in traversing.” 57

4. In recent years case law has shown that even though persecution on the grounds of gender is not specifically included in the Refugee Convention, such persecution may well fall within the terms of the Convention. Gender-related persecution has been defined as any persecution in which gender plays a part; whether because the type of persecution (such as sexual violence as retribution for political activities) or the reason for the persecution (such as resistance to forced marriage) is related to the person’s gender.

5. However, concerns have recently been growing about the way that the Home Office deals with asylum claims involving gender-related persecution. Asylum Aid has carried out important research showing that initial refusals on women’s claims are more likely to be overturned at appeal than refusals on men’s claims.58

6. Our recent research in Refused adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests that women are not being given a fair hearing in the asylum process. In our sample the vast majority of women, over 90%, were turned down for asylum. (Overall, in 2010, 74% of women claiming asylum were turned down at first decision.) When we asked the women in our sample why they had been refused, 76% of those refused said that they had not been believed. Yet none of the women we interviewed felt able to contemplate voluntary return to their home country.

7. We are very concerned about the quality of initial decision-making in women’s asylum claims. Looking at recent decisions, we have found that a small discrepancy in a woman’s account, or a small area in which she cannot bring evidence, will too often lead the case-owner to dismiss her entire claim (see Ella’s case study below). We have read Home Office decisions which reproduce discredited myths about the nature and impact of sexual violence and domestic abuse in order to discredit women—asking, for instance, why women or even their children did not fight off powerful attackers. We have read decisions which expose ignorance about the situations in the countries women are fleeing—for instance, stating that women who are fleeing family-based violence can return and rebuild their lives safely even in traditional societies, without any protection from family members.

8. The refusal of asylum to women who have crossed borders to flee persecution must be tackled urgently. These are not mere administrative decisions.The impact of refusal is devastating for individual women, often the turning point which turns hope into despair. In our sample, of those women refused asylum, 67% had become destitute (left with no means of support or accommodation), and 25% had been detained. The effects on women’s mental health were particularly severe. 97% of those refused asylum said that they were depressed and 63% said that they had contemplated suicide.59 Even if a woman who has been initially refused does get leave to remain further down the line, the legacy of these experiences will remain with her.

9. Ella claimed asylum in the UK after fleeing a forced marriage and extreme domestic violence in her home country, the Gambia. She had not felt able to remain in her home country due to the fact no successful prosecution for domestic violence has ever been brought there, and because her husband was a famous and influential man and was a friend of her father’s, so she felt it would be impossible to protect her daughter and herself from him and his family in their country. Ella went to Croydon to claim asylum, travelling from the north of England where she had gone on arrival in the UK. But when she arrived at the Asylum Screening Unit, she was told, “We don’t believe you. Get out. We will call security if you don’t leave.” With no acquaintances and no money, Ella stayed the whole night in a bus shelter. She returned to the offices at 4am the next day and was finally allowed to claim asylum and was sent to a hostel.

Ten days later she was recalled to the Asylum Screening Unit and this time she was taken into the detained fast track. She found the experience of detention extremely traumatic. Her case was refused while she was in detention. The refusal stated that the Home Office did not believe she had been married to her husband, because Ella did not know his date of birth. The evidence of the scars of abuse all over Ella’s body was not even considered, because the Home Office had fastened on one shaky answer to dismiss her whole case.

Luckily, Ella has good English and knows how to use the internet, so she contacted a friend in the Gambia who sent Ella’s marriage certificate and her daughter’s birth certificate to the detention centre by courier. Ella was then released from detention. At her appeal hearing the Helen Bamber Foundation gave evidence of more than 50 scars on Ella’s body consistent with deliberate abuse, including burning with irons. Ella was given refugee status. She still realises that she was lucky to have saved herself from removal. While she was waiting for her appeal hearing she told us, “I will never go back. I will kill myself first.”

B. Asylum Support

10. Asylum support levels are extremely low, typically about half the level of mainstream benefits. Many women have to live for very long periods below the poverty line in this way, struggling to fulfil basic health and nutritional needs. Section 4 support, which is given to some refused asylum seekers who cannot be removed, and relies on a card rather than cash, is particularly inflexible and causes particular hardship, as women are left without money even for a bus or a phonecall. Living on asylum support is especially difficult for women with children who recognise that their children are spending formative years below the poverty line but are completely disempowered from being able to contribute or improve their situation.60

11. The chaos and delays at the UK Border Agency have been well documented by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, who found in November 2012 that the Border Agency had failed to deal effectively with the legacy caseload of previously unresolved cases, and commented, “This has serious consequences for asylum seekers who had already waited many years for the resolution of their case.” 61 This means that even if women have not been refused asylum, and have tried to stay in touch with the authorities, they may have found themselves living on asylum support, prevented from working and forced under the poverty line, for many years.

12. Helen first claimed asylum over 10 years ago, after leaving her home country, Ethiopia, because of persecution resulting from her political activities. She was initially refused asylum and is currently in complete limbo, having never been informed about the outcome of her most recent submissions to the Home Office, made years ago to the Case Resolution Directorate of the UK Border Agency. Over the last 12 months various solicitors have given her conflicting advice about how to resolve her situation. In the meantime she is ineligible for any support herself, and has to feed and clothe herself and her three children on the £60 a week which she is given by a local authority for their support.

“I think what is so difficult is the indecision. It really damages your confidence and I need to build a life. I want to work and contribute. I would like to be an independent person earning my own money. I am not allowed to work, but that is the dream that I strive and hope for.” Helen has spoken about how hard it is to give her children healthy food, how sad she is that they don’t have the toys and play opportunities that other children might take for granted, and how stressful their situation can be: “I have to go to Hammersmith twice a month to pick up one hundred and twenty pounds each time for me and the three children to live off. If I don’t go there at the right time I won’t get the money and the children won’t have anything to eat. One day, even though they were ill I wrapped them up as warm as I could went with them on the train. I was so embarrassed because all three of them threw up, and were crying as I was trying to clean them up. I could see that the other travelers were really disgusted by me and the kids and it made me feel very stressed and ashamed.”

Most recently, during the very cold spell of weather, the heating in Helen’s flat, which is owned by a private landlord, broke. When we called an electrician for her, he refused to work there because of a terrible rat infestation. She said, “I am so worried about my children’s health. I am trying as hard as I can to keep them warm and clean.I got so worried about the rats that I brought all the children into my bed because I didn’t like the thought of them coming near the children at night.” She remained without heating or hot water, and at the time of writing is still living in this condition.”It does feel as if I am stuck somewhere, which is neither one place nor another, and not able to progress in the way an adult woman or a mother should. I have been waiting so many years now for leave to remain. I so want to give a good example and work ethic to my kids. If I get leave to remain I think I will feel less heavy and depressed and full of regret.”

C. Destitution

13. Many women who have fled persecution and come to the UK for asylum are forced into complete destitution without any support or housing. Destitution is common among women who have been refused asylum and have exhausted their rights to appeal, but are unable to leave the country. Destitution can also happen at other times in the asylum process, for instance when an individual makes a fresh claim for asylum but the asylum support system has not yet caught up with her changed situation. When an individual is granted asylum and is making the transition to mainstream support, she often becomes homeless and destitute. We were shocked to hear about the death of a destitute woman and her child who were in this situation in London in 2012.62

14. Along with other charities who have contact with many asylum seekers and refugees, we are unable to provide the support that individuals need in order to deal with errors and delays by the UK Border Agency, Jobcentres, private landlords and local authorities, all of which can contribute to refugees and asylum seekers falling into periods of homelessness and destitution. We also come into contact with many women who are living in sustained periods of destitution due to the fact that they have been refused asylum but are unable to leave the country voluntarily, and we are aware that there are no services sufficient to meet their basic needs.

15. Women for Refugee Women and the London Refugee Women’s Forum took a snapshot of the experiences of destitute women in London in March 2013 to assess the prevalence and impact of destitution, compared to the period when we carried out our previous research published in 2012.

16. On this occasion, we interviewed 30 women, most of them at meetings of Women Asylum Seekers Together London or the Refugee Council London drop-in centre. We found that the situation for women refused asylum was still the same: destitution was common and the impact of destitution was very harsh. 23 of these women had experienced destitution, 18 of them are currently destitute.

17. Some had experienced prolonged periods of destitution—one for 13 years, one for eight years, one for six years, and others for periods of between six months and five years. 10 of them had experienced destitution for more than 3 years.

18. In order to survive, 18 out of the 23 had visited charities for food, 7 had worked unpaid, 6 had worked illegally, and 16 had slept outside.For instance, one woman from Zimbabwe has been destitute for 6 years. In order to support herself she has worked illegally in the past, and she has had to sleep outside. When asked how she currently survives, she said, “I go from charity to charity looking for food parcels.”

19. We are very concerned about the impact of destitution on the mental health of already vulnerable women. 18 of the 23 women said that destitution made them lonely, 21 said it made them worried, and 15 said that they thought about killing themselves.

20. We are also very concerned about the fact that many women who are destitute become vulnerable to sexual violence. Three out of the 23 destitute women we spoke to for this submission had experienced sexual violence while destitute that they were prepared to disclose to us. This proportion, at 13%, is comparable to the 16% we found in the larger sample for the 2012 research who told us that they had experienced sexual violence while living destitute. One woman in her twenties, who had claimed asylum from Uganda, had been refused asylum and become destitute in 2009 to the present day. She had been sleeping rough in the month before she talked to us, and had been raped on the streets. She had not reported the rape to the police or received any counselling or support, because she was too afraid to talk about her situation.

21. From anecdotal evidence presented by the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London, we are also concerned that many women who are destitute or on very low levels of asylum support feel forced into sexual relationships or sex work in order to get food or shelter. One woman stated baldly in this research when asked what she did to support herself, “I have sexual relationship with a man.” Another woman had previously said to us, “I was forced to sleep with man for me to have accommodation and food, I was forced to go and be a prostitute for me to survive.” One woman who is known to a member of the London Refugee Women’s Forum was being assaulted by her violent partner, but she stayed with him as she was too scared to go back to sleeping on the streets.

22. By driving women who have been refused asylum but who cannot return to their home countries into destitution, the government is making many women who have already fled persecution which often involves rape and sexual violence vulnerable to further abuse. It is time to tackle this issue urgently.

23. We are also particularly concerned about the experiences of women who have children and remain destitute. Although in theory children may have a right to access support even if their mothers are ineligible for support, in practice this can be hard to access for some women who are very scared of the authorities. One woman, whose story we tell here in more detail, lived destitute for four years, since the birth of her baby son, because when she went to social services for help they told her that they would take her child into care.

24. Mariana became destitute after being refused asylum in 2005. “I was not entitled to any support or housing, so I was moving from friend to friend and having to rely on food parcels from charities. I had to get rid of most of my belongings because people became less welcoming when they see you arrive with a lot of things. Once I took a big suitcase to a friend who was letting me stay for a while but when I left she put it out on the street and the council took it away.

“In 2006 I became pregnant but my boyfriend was unhappy about it and left me when I was only 20 weeks pregnant. At this time I was staying with a lady with two children. I was helping her with her children and housework.

“As soon as I held my son my life changed. Before, I had only thought about myself. But then all I wanted was to protect him and love him.When I came out of hospital my friend could not have me there anymore so I went to social services. I walked in holding my son. He was just three months old. The manager of the social services told me that they cannot help failed asylum seekers. She said that the only support they can provide was to take my baby to another family. That made me so frightened that I felt sick. I got up and somehow made my way out of the room. I remember leaving the office and walking down the street, crying and holding my baby and wondering what I should do. I could not give my baby son to a stranger.

“I went to stay with friends, one after another. One of them told me I could sleep on the floor, and gave me a blanket. It was cold and hard and my son and I were awake much of the night. In the day I didn’t have a key to her home so I was walking the freezing streets. I had to walk and walk all day, or sit on a park bench, or maybe in a library for a few hours. You are not treated well if you have nothing. Once I was staying in a family and I was looking after my son and six other children, and then the mother would shout at me if she came back and the dinner wasn’t ready. During the day we were always outside. That made us vulnerable. Once a neighbour assaulted me but I couldn’t call the police. I thought I would be arrested if I did. As my son started to walk and talk it became even harder to make sure that the people we were staying with did not get irritated by him. I had to try and keep my son quiet and not let him be a normal child. One lady I stayed with would shout at my son whenever he cried. I became anxious about him making a noise, even if it was the happy, sweet sounds that babies make. This was our life for four years.”

25. The Home Office response to the issue of forced destitution is typically that the individual should take steps to return home once asylum has been refused. This ignores the very real problems that many women face in getting a fair hearing in the asylum process and the fear that they will face further persecution if they return to their home countries. Despite their experiences while destitute, none of the destitute women we spoke to, either in 2012 or in March 2013, had contemplated voluntary return.

26. “I cannot go home because I fear for my and my husband’s life,” said one woman who had sought asylum from Algeria and been destitute for seven months. Another woman who has sought asylum here from Ecuador and been destitute for ten years said, “I came to the UK for a reason. I have a problem with the government of my country.” She said about her mental state, “If I am alone I would have killed myself, but I have a son to look after.” Another woman who said that her parents were so against her marrying a Muslim that they had hired people to kill her, had been destitute for 4 years and had experienced sexual violence where she was sleeping rough. She said, “It is hard, especially when the weather is bad, but I can’t go back to my country.”

27. Bella is currently destitute. “I have been destitute for three years now. I come from Eritrea and I am 43. When I first arrived I was given accommodation for three months but since then I have slept on people’s floors, on their sofas and even in baths, in hostels and in the streets. I would not sign section 4 which gives the government the right to detain and deport you because the situation back home is so terrible. I don’t understand why they would want to send me back there because everyone knows the situation is bad there. Even David Cameron knows that the situation is bad there.

“It is difficult staying with other people because I have been in situations in which I feel very vulnerable and have to do what people want in exchange for a roof over my head. I have had a woman much younger than me treating me like a servant and wanting me to be a maid to her friends and shouting at me and abusing me. When that happened I left to stay with another friend and I completely broke down and couldn’t stop crying because it had been so stressful and degrading. It is terrible because they feel they have control over you and you are in such a weak position.

“Worse though was trying to sleep outside in the streets. I would find a bus shelter and I would make myself invisible and I couldn’t sleep because it was so cold and because I feared what might happen to me if I did. Last spring I was outside and my asthma got so much worse because of the freezing air. I have been staying in a hostel run by nuns but when it was so cold recently I thought of all the people trying to sleep and thought of those that wouldn’t survive it and would die. I have met some very old people who live on the streets and are asylum seekers and I can’t see how they can still be alive. Two months ago I was very sick and was finding it very hard to breathe and thank god a friend helped me and took care of me.

“From tomorrow I have nowhere to stay and yet again I must face either sleeping on the streets, asking someone if I can sleep on their floor or trying to get a hostel place which so far I have not managed to secure. I go from charity to charity to get one meal a day and that is enough for me. I want the government to realise that everyone who is seeking asylum and cannot return home for fear of what will happen to them needs to have a place to stay and to not fear that they will die from the cold and from hunger. Does the government really want to be responsible for so much suffering?”

D. Recommendations

28. Along with other organisations who work in this area, Women for Refugee Women, the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London believe that it is time to build a fairer and more humane asylum process. Among the many improvements that could be made to the asylum process, we would particularly like to flag up the need to improve the decision-making process and to end destitution.

29. Improve the quality of decision-making in women’s asylum claims:

Members of Parliament should show leadership on the importance of breaking down the culture of disbelief in the Home Office.

The Home Office must ensure that decision-makers grasp the nature and impact of gender-related persecution and how it engages the Refugee Convention. Training that is currently being developed for case-owners on gender-related persecution should be monitored for its impact on the quality of their decision-making.

The Home Office should undertake further research on the quality of decision-making in women’s cases, and should collect statistics on the proportion of women’s asylum claims which involve gender-related persecution and the outcomes of those claims.

30. End the detention of those seeking asylum:

If detention continues, more rigorous procedures should be put in place to ensure that claims involving gender-related persecution, torture and other serious human rights abuses are never routed into the detained fast track.

31. End the destitution of those refused asylum:

Grant 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 her own.

Provide welfare support for all asylum seekers who need it, up until the point of return or integration.

32. The numbers of people entering the UK to claim asylum are not large. Only 19,865 people sought asylum in the UK in 2011, and only 5,364 of those were women claiming asylum in their own right. Many of the women who come here to seek refuge have fled extreme abuse, and are desperate to find safety. But they are not just victims; many are true survivors who could help to build a more equal society both here and in their countries of origin. It is time that we built a just and dignified asylum process, in order to give every woman who comes to this country fleeing persecution a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild her life.

All names have been changed.

Women for Refugee Women, the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London

April 2013

55 Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK, by Kamena Dorling, Marchu Girma and Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women, May 2012, at http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/images/refused.pdf and provided as supplementary evidence here

56 For more discussion on barriers to gaining asylum, see Refused, pp22-27

57 Frances Webber, As A Woman I Have No Country, Women for Refugee Women, 2012, http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/images/Pdfs/asawoman.pdf

58 Unsustainable: the quality of initial decision-making in women’s asylum claims, Asylum Aid, 2011

59 Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK, by Kamena Dorling, Marchu Girma and Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women, May 2012

60 Report of the Parliamentary Inquiry on Asylum Support for Children and Young People, January 2013 http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/tcs/asylum_support_inquiry_report_final.pdf

61 Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, An Inspection of the UK Border Agency’s handling of legacy asylum and migration cases, November 2012, http://icinspector.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/UK-Border-Agencys-handling-of-legacy-asylum-and-migration-cases-22.11.2012.pdf

62 For an analysis of this case and other issues around destitution, see Lives of Destitution, Inside Housing, 18 January 2013, http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/care/lives-of-destitution/6525384.article

Prepared 11th October 2013