Isolated by gender

attention has been paid to the particular needs of women asylum seekers, but
refugee groups are now putting pressure on the Home Office to take gender into
account when assessing claims. Natalie Valios investigates.

witnessing your husband’s murder, before being tortured and raped yourself.
Then imagine the terror as you flee your war-torn homeland with your children.
And then imagine your feelings as you arrive in the UK, speaking little English
and knowing no one. Far-fetched it may sound, but women currently seeking
asylum in this country may well have experienced trauma similar to this.

don’t uproot themselves very readily, says Helen Bamber, director of the
Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. When they do, the
reasons are most commonly persecution, imprisonment and torture. Women face
forms of persecution that are unique to them, such as rape, sexual violence,
forced sterilisation, genital mutilation and domestic violence, and from which
they can’t get state protection.

is for these reasons that the refugee women’s resource project was set up by
Asylum Aid in April 2000. It provides free legal representation and advice, and
enables women facing serious human rights violations to gain protection in the

women claim asylum in the UK there is a lack of awareness from officials about
how their gender has shaped their experience of persecution, says the project,
and so their genuine asylum claim risks failure.

the past, limited attention has been focused on the protection needs of women
as asylum seekers.1 More recently, however, refugee organisations
have been putting pressure on the Home Office to take gender, and the specific
issues that women suffer, into account when determining their asylum claims.

April and December 2000, women accounted for 25 per cent of those seeking
asylum in this country, and 19 per cent of heads of household were women. But
even after escaping their homeland, female asylum seekers still face particular
problems in the UK while they await the outcome of their asylum claims.

to the refugee women’s resource project, one of the biggest problems arises
around the safety of women and children who have to share accommodation with male

well as exposing them to the risk of sexual harassment, in many cases female
occupants are likely to come from cultural backgrounds where unrelated men and
women would not mix in public places, let alone private ones.

general lack of interpreters means that women may find themselves having to
discuss intimate or sensitive issues, such as rape, abortion or medical
conditions, with unknown male interpreters or even a male family member.

further problem is the trafficking of vulnerable female asylum seekers for
sexual exploitation. The number of women trafficked in the UK is estimated to
be in the hundreds rather than thousands. Refugee organisations are aware of
women who have presented to them and then quickly "disappeared".

do female asylum seekers need when they arrive in this country? First,
sensitivity and understanding, says Bamber. If they are dispersed before they
have been properly assessed as being in need and vulnerable, they may find
themselves in an area with insufficient facilities to offer basic care, let
alone the specific services they might need.

may not be used to dealing with authorities, such as Home Office officials,
solicitors and agencies, says Helen Muggeridge, a caseworker for the Joint
Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. They need to be informed of their rights
– for example, their entitlement to a female interpreter or female interviewer,
and free legal advice.

should have access to specialist legal advice, as well as any necessary
interpreting and translating support, in order to have the best chance of
securing the protection they need.

women are dispersed to areas where there is a lack of legal advice or if their
solicitor is based, say, in London and they have been dispersed elsewhere, it
can have a negative impact on their asylum claim, warns Muggeridge.

areas may have mainstream services such as those for victims of rape, but they
won’t necessarily be able to provide the specific understanding needed in these
cases, she says. "Because they may end up having to talk to lots of
strangers, who may also be male, they might not want to disclose all the facts,
which could discredit their asylum claim," Muggeridge adds.

who can’t speak English are obviously at a disadvantage, but the lack of
child-care facilities lessens the opportunity for them to attend language
classes. If women arrive in the UK with their husbands, their asylum claim is
not considered separately, unless they make a separate claim. On the whole this
is unlikely, as few will have the courage or the resources. And as vouchers can
only be spent by the "principal applicant", most married women have
no access to money, even though they generally shoulder the child-care

charity Refugee Arrivals Project is contracted by the government to provide a
service to asylum seekers when they first come to the UK. Its particular remit
is the London airports of Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton. It provides
advice independent of the immigration service and helps asylum seekers access
the National Asylum Support Service (Nass).

project’s executive director, Elizabeth Little, wants to see refugee
organisations and services properly resourced and able to pick up on special
needs. "We are in discussions with Nass at the moment. It says that the
new induction centres will provide a better process for identifying people with
special needs, so that they can be met in the dispersal area."

is concerned that Nass’s definition of special needs will not be wide enough to
include, for example, vulnerable mothers with young children. She says there
should be more specific social care, health and education services in dispersal

the moment, it’s a struggle for anyone dispersed to these areas to get
anything," says Little.

the same time, she warns, such services already need to be in place for the
indigenous population.

these issues remain unaddressed, the dispersal system, or a future network of
induction and accommodation centres as described by home secretary David
Blunkett (News, page 6, 1 November), will continue the legacy of discrimination
against female asylum seekers.

H Crawley, Refugees and Gender: Law and Process, Jordans, 2001

‘She thought she was safe’

Mrs S, aged 26, lost
her husband and her livelihood when the Taleban seized power in Afghanistan in
the mid-1990s. Her husband, a former Afghan army officer, was arrested at home
and has not been seen since. She was badly beaten and slashed with a knife when
she protested as they dragged him away.

A professional
singer, she found herself unable to earn a living when the government banned
music. Desperate to feed her three children, she began making clandestine trips
across the border to carry out singing engagements in Pakistan.

When the Taleban
found out, they forced her children out of the house, tied her up and started a
fire. Fortunately her screams, and the cries of her children, alerted
neighbours who were able to rescue her.

Badly burned, she
resolved to flee the country, but had just enough money to take her two
youngest children, a son aged seven and a daughter aged five, with her. She
left her nine-year-old daughter in the care of a relative.

When she reached the
UK, she thought she was safe. However, the local council, which had accepted
responsibility for her case, placed her temporarily in a hostel largely
occupied by young male asylum seekers who started to harass her. Leaving the
room – a daily necessity as both the bathroom and toilet were down a long
corridor – became a major ordeal.

Eventually she
resorted to wearing the veil again, for protection, as it was taken as a sign
that she wished to be left alone. Her children were also subjected to abusive

Her mental health
began to suffer. Depression and insomnia set in, accompanied by flashbacks to
her experiences in Afghanistan. Concerned for her well-being, the Medical
Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture took up her case with the housing
department of the local council. As yet, no solution has been found.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.