London -- 23 May 2006
The asylum process is failing too many women
Rape, honour crime, female circumcision - how can the system be so dismissive of such terrible persecution?
By Natasha Walter
NOTE: Visit Women for Refugee Women to sign the campaign for the rights of women seeking asylum in the UK
It's hard to read the story of the Zimbabwean refugee who was asked for sex by a UK immigration official in return for help on her case without feeling horrified by the way that vulnerable women are treated when they come to seek refuge. Tanya, whose story was reported in Sunday's Observer, had already fled sexual violence in her own country when she found herself targeted for sex by a senior employee at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. But Tanya's story, awful as it is, is only a small part of what rape survivors who are seeking asylum here are going through day by day.
Last week at the ICA in London, at an event organised by Women for Refugee Women, a group of women refugees presented their stories of injustice to an audience who seemed genuinely shocked by what they were hearing. Some of them had their accounts read by actors. Among the participants was Juliet Stevenson, who read the story of Angelique - a Congolese woman who was targeted for the political activities of her father, and held in a prison in Kinshasa where she was raped repeatedly for more than three years.
When she finally managed to escape and get to Britain, she failed in her asylum claim and was made homeless. She went to the Refugee Council and National Asylum Support Service, begging for help, but none was forthcoming, and she started to live on the streets of London, walking from Ilford to Brixton, from Archway to Stratford, in the hope of finding a bed. One night she met a man who took some interest in her, but she went on living on the streets until she was six months pregnant.
It was deeply moving to witness the audience's empathetic reaction to Angelique's story. And they seemed even more moved by the refugees who stood up to tell their own stories. One was Farhat Khan, a brave, intelligent woman from Pakistan who has taken her campaign for asylum public and gained support from such women as Helena Kennedy and Allison Pearson. Farhat fled a violent husband in Pakistan when her young daughters were threatened with forced marriage to two of his equally violent relations. "I saw no help, no protection, not a ray of hope for my children and me if we stayed in Pakistan," she told the audience.
Yet she, too, was refused asylum, on the grounds that she could settle elsewhere in Pakistan. That judgment flies in the face of her reality. She continued to receive threats from her husband's family after fleeing, and would find it impossible to settle under another name back in Pakistan, a society in which a single woman without family protection is assumed to be immoral.
"As a woman I have no country," said Virginia Woolf in 1938, but she also went on to say: "As a woman my country is the whole world." Only the first part of that statement has come true for these women. They have no country. They are not the criminals and chancers of popular belief about asylum seekers. But despite years of feminist rhetoric in the west, we seem unable to recognise those women who flee genuine persecution - such as rape by state agents, honour crimes, forced marriage, trafficking for forced prostitution, female circumcision - as genuine refugees. They are all too often disbelieved, or told their experiences do not satisfy the exacting requirements of refugee law.
Of course the Home Office has a written policy that states it does take such persecution seriously, and key cases that have gone to the court of appeal or the House of Lords over the past seven years show that women in these situations should be recognised as refugees. But you only have to listen to the experiences of women in the system to know that something is going horribly wrong for women on the ground. You can also read a recent study by the Refugee Women's Resource Project, at Asylum Aid, which shows the policy is not being properly implemented, or talk to lawyers or doctors or campaigners who see the effects on many individual women and their children.
Recently I spoke to the barrister Frances Webber, who has been fighting on these issues for many years. She was uncompromising in the way she phrased the struggle that women in the asylum system face: "We have banged our heads against the brick walls of the courts of appeal until we are bleeding trying to explain how women are persecuted, but there is an institutional refusal to accept the reality of the situations these women face. I believe there is a real battle now on hand to get women's experiences respected. A ferocious battle."
At the moment this battle is being fought with few voices raised in the women's defence. Some might say this is an impossible theme to raise now, given the current debate that centres entirely on the threats that asylum seekers pose to us, the host community. But it is surely possible to support strong controls on migration and still say that women fleeing rape by soldiers or police, or forced marriage and honour crimes, should not be living on our streets or sent back to the dangers they have fled. As Farhat Khan said: "I still believe that if more women knew about what women are suffering in the asylum system, they would stand up for us."