A new report highlights how insensitive support services fail
new mothers and pregnant women seeking refuge. Clare
Jerrom considers how their situation could be
Pregnant asylum seekers and those with babies become lost in the
system and face hardship from the moment they arrive in the UK.
So claims ‘Mothers in Exile’, a report from pressure group
Maternity Alliance, which argues that the asylum support system is
designed for single young men.
The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture says
that women are more likely to be sexually harassed, physically
assaulted, raped and suffer from depression, and poor health as a
consequence of their refugee experiences. Despite this, they are
placed in emergency accommodation dominated by single men, where
they feel intimidated.
Asylum seekers are allocated emergency accommodation hotels with
full board, but no cash or vouchers, under the National Asylum
Support Service (Nass). Dispersal should occur within seven days,
but the report finds that women can remain in hotels for up to five
Most women are forced to share bathrooms and toilets with
strangers of both sexes, and some find this “culturally
unbearable”. The bathrooms and bedrooms are dirty and women fear
for their babies’ health.
Dispersal also causes problems. Some late in pregnancy are
refused dispersal when they are desperate to leave emergency
accommodation, while others are dispersed away from friends just
before giving birth.
Although mothers supported by Nass can access a £300
maternity grant, many women either do not know it exists, or the
local authority fails to provide the grant, or they are in
emergency accommodation. These restrictions force women to beg for
nappies from strangers.
Report author Jenny Mcleish says it is essential for pregnant
women who have been raped or tortured to be treated with
sensitivity. Continuity of carer is vital to ensure women do not
have to repeat their histories to different professionals.
But half the women surveyed had encountered racism and rudeness
from professionals, leading the report to call for better
According to the Home Office, the Department of Health and the
Refugee Council intend to produce a resource pack for health and
social services on best practice in meeting the needs of asylum
“We are taking action to ensure that the NHS workforce is
equipped to respond to the needs of the communities it serves with
sensitivity, and without discrimination,” says a Home Office
But Maternity Alliance says more must be done. It wants all
single women and families to be accommodated separately from single
men, and for pregnant women and new mothers to be dispersed only to
areas with adequate support services. The report also says women
should receive on-site information about support, dispersal, and
health care systems, including how to access maternity services and
But according to the Home Office this already happens. It
insists all asylum seekers are treated with basic humanity and
dignity, and that the government is “committed to ensuring that
asylum seekers are properly supported and accommodated while their
claims are being considered”.
Under its latest plans, the Home Office is building four
accommodation centres for asylum seekers. Although single men,
pregnant women and new mothers will all be housed in these, a Home
Office spokesperson says it envisages the accommodation will be
separate and there will be “family blocks”. The centres will also
offer health care and education services, which will be a “huge
step forward regarding provision and advice”.
Refugee Council health policy adviser Sasha Acimovic agrees
something needs to change: “The asylum support system contrasts
with Sure Start, which recognises that early years are vital.” She
warns that all accommodation provision must concentrate on the
needs of pregnant women and new mothers.
As McLeish says, these women have low expectations, but the UK’s
system as it currently stands fails to meet even these.
- Mothers in Exile is available from www.maternityalliance.org.uk