The long walk to freedom


Women’s plight:

– Women make up about 30 per cent of asylum seekers in the
– Seven out of 10 are without their husbands.
– Half are caring for children.
– 50 per cent of women claiming asylum in the UK have been

(Source: The Refugee Council)

Women are nothing if not resilient and refugee and
asylum-seeking women are more resilient than most. They are among
the most marginalised groups in this country. And, although efforts
have been made to make the UK’s asylum system less gender
blind, much remains to be done,

writes Janet

The Refugee Council believes the number of women seeking asylum
in the UK has been rising and is approaching one third of the
total. But policy makers have been slow to react to this trend. For
example, the National Asylum Support Service has pressed ahead with
its dispersal policy despite evidence that it has a particularly
detrimental effect on women.

A survey by Refugee Action published last December found that
those placed in mixed-sex hostels were at high risk of sexual
abuse.1 And refugee women who had moved into their own
homes reported that they locked themselves indoors because they
feared they and their children would be subject to racist

Meanwhile, those with partners were more likely to be victims of
domestic abuse resulting from the huge stress the family faced.

Hildegard Dumper, a researcher and consultant in refugee issues,
says men arriving in Britain were more likely than their female
counterparts to be able to access support networks. “Women
may not want to mix with men from their own community as often
it’s gender issues and conflict with male society that has
led to them to seek asylum in the first place.”

Dumper is a member of the Refugee Women’s Legal Group,
which is in talks with the home office about developing gender
guidelines to make the asylum process fairer. Under the current
system, women arriving with husbands or partners are highly
dependent on them for two reasons: first, benefits will be paid in
the husband’s name; second, a woman’s asylum claim will
be linked to their husband’s by officials, making it almost
impossible to separate if there is domestic abuse.

But the Refugee Women’s Association believes change is
under way and female refugees and asylum seekers are becoming less
invisible as funders come round to the idea of allocating a portion
of their grants to projects for women. The organisation’s
director, Simin Azimi, says it has been tough gaining recognition
for this group of women. “We have had to constantly justify
ourselves – to funders, to policymakers and to society as a
whole and impress on people that these women need support.

“Many of those we deal with have partners who are missing
or dead and have been through trauma themselves. Many are bringing
up children here single-handed. But they don’t sit around
feeling sorry for themselves. They are bright and motivated and
they will seize any opportunities that come up – or
they’ll create their own.”

The association offers employment skills training and has set up
a mentoring project for women. One mentor, Akgul Baylav, equalities
adviser with Barking and Dagenham primary care trust, who arrived
in Britain as an asylum seeker from Turkey 20 years ago, says:
“Even though I spoke English and had family here I had
difficulty getting my head round the system. There were huge
barriers to overcome – like trying to sign on with a GP and
attempting to get a job. So the battle faced by women arriving here
alone and unable to speak the language should not be

Baylav remembers applying for 43 jobs before even being
interviewed. “I went to register at the job centre and they
asked me what qualifications I had. When I said I had a PhD they
looked at me blankly. I learned how to negotiate the system the
hard way and I want to make it easier for others.”

She mentors Mira, who was a teacher in Kosova before she fled
with her mother. “I struggled when I first came to this
country and ended up on a hairdressing course, but it’s not
what I want to do. I’ve found the mentoring scheme has been a
great help and Akgul has become a friend as well as adviser. With
her support I hope to find a job working with people.”

Suzy Croft, a social worker at St John’s Hospice in
London, set up a group for women asylum seekers and refugees with
HIV. Thanks to retroviral drugs, many of the women she deals with
are in stable health and wanting to work. Croft says: “They
are thinking about their future and they are increasing in
confidence partly thanks to the group and attending the hospice day
centre. But the discrimination they face trying to get work is

“I see highly qualified women who speak perfect English
turned down for jobs in clothes shops and ending up stacking
shelves in supermarkets. It’s nothing less than blatant
racism on the part of employers, particularly those in the private

A survey by Asylum Aid earlier this year found that one in four
refugee women have been to university and just under half have been
through higher education.2 Helping women into employment
has been a key focus for a project at the Birmingham and West
Midlands Refugee Resource Centre. It was set up by Suzanne Bisani,
a translator with Birmingham council, who arrived in Britain in
1999 as a refugee from Rwanda. She has secured a European Social
Fund grant to support women asylum seekers and refugees to launch
two “community businesses” in catering and art.

“The two main issues keeping women stuck indoors are lack
of child care and not being able to speak English,” she says.
“If you tackle the child care issue first they can start
integrating into society.”
The catering business was launched from a kitchen at the centre,
and there are plans to recruit an on-site childminder.

Julie Kafhirahanwe, manager of Refugee Action’s youth and
community project in Liverpool, believes the future for empowering
refugee women is peer support. “We run four groups a year
with 20 women in each, and we’ve found the women support each
other and encourage new people to join each subsequent

According to the Action for Refugee Women Network, initiatives
for women refugees and asylum seekers are springing up all over the
country, many tackling social exclusion by bringing women into the
job market. But, as a report published by the Greater London
Authority highlighted in December, the skills they bring with them
are being squandered and too many are still ending up in dead end

But the signs are that despite all the hurdles many of these
women are not only managing to rebuild their own shattered lives,
but are also contributing to their local communities and reaching
out to others to help them start a new life in Britain.

1 Hildegard Dumper, Is It Safe Here? Refugee
Women’s Experiences in the UK, Refugee Action, 2002
2 Women Asylum Seekers in the UK: A Gender Perspective,
Refugee Women’s Resource Project and Asylum Aid, 2003
3 Missed Opportunities, Greater London Authority,

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