“I’m all on my own and I’m fighting to stay at a place that I think is safe,” explained Esther to Asylum Aid last year, describing her day-to-day existence since she fled to the UK to save her own life, “and nobody seemed to believe me”.
Reform of our asylum system is desperately needed across the board, but nowhere are the problems so stark as for women who have sought international protection here. The TUC is one of well over 300 organisations who have endorsed the Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum, through which a new campaign has been launched to address precisely these problems.
There is a wealth of independent evidence regarding the abuses that these women have already endured, and of the flaws in the system when they turn to the UK in desperation. The overwhelming majority of the women have been raped; many have complex, gender-related asylum claims based on sexual and domestic violence. Mental health problems are commonplace.
Yet we also know that the UK Border Agency is ill-equipped to guarantee even the most basic levels of safety and dignity.
Women are denied privacy at the crucial moment that they claim asylum, for example. When women are refused international protection, it is disproportionately likely that this decision will be overturned by an appeal judge. In the bitterest of ironies, women refused asylum and left destitute on our streets are highly vulnerable to yet more violence and sexual exploitation.
Not all women will be recognised as refugees, but Esther’s story articulates some of the failings to which so many are exposed: the enduring instability, the isolation, the ‘culture of disbelief’ which marks the decisions made by officials.
Evidently, something is going badly wrong when women seek asylum. This is why it is imperative that women seeking asylum aren’t left behind in the government’s plans to tackle violence against women and girls.
When the Coalition unveiled its strategy on violence against women two years ago, it promised “cohesive and comprehensive” action across government. Yet amid more than one hundred ‘actions’, just one, heavily-qualified sentence was dedicated to women seeking asylum. There is little indication that the Border Agency wants to learn from the successes and failures of gender work carried out by other government departments both home and abroad.
But it must. The strategy document tries to shape a consensus for how we should protect women and girls in danger. It is absurd to ignore precisely those who have fled danger overseas.
The new campaign, Missed Out, is putting pressure on the Home Secretary to ensure far more detailed work is included in the strategy to help women seeking asylum, and is calling on individuals to lobby their MPs for the change.
On November 25th, the coalition will mark the international day for the elimination of violence against women by reporting on its progress so far. It is an appropriate moment – better late than never – to finally place gender at the strategic heart of asylum work.
The TUC Women’s conference recognised this need in 2010 when it unanimously passed a motion calling for a more gender-sensitive asylum system. We welcomed the TUC’s support then, as we have all its work to ensure asylum seekers are never forgotten in the push for gender equality. And this work continues.