How the UK rejects refugees fleeing sexualized violence

By — October 26, 2012

When I met Angelique she had been living on the streets of London for some time. She was walking from one end of the city to the other, looking for places to sleep and food to eat. One day she met a man who took an interest in her and gave her some money. As a result, she became pregnant. “Then I had real problems,” she told me. Yet for seven months of her pregnancy, Angelique kept walking.

It was London, after all, that she had hoped would provide some respite. A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angelique had already lived through horror. Her father had been a politician. During the civil war, rebel soldiers had come to the family compound, burned their house, and killed Angelique’s parents. She had been taken to prison, where she was made the sex slave of the prison governor.

“Once or twice a week, the guards would fetch me to come to his room and he would rape me,” she told me.

One night he took her out of the prison to his house, and when he fell asleep she decided to try to escape. “I thought to myself: There are two possibilities if I run now. Either they will kill me, or God will save me.”

So she ran into the bush and managed to get to the house of a friend of her late father’s, who paid an agent to take her out of Congo. She didn’t know she was heading to London—when she got here, she spoke little English. Despite the persecution she’d experienced, she was refused asylum.

Protesters seeking better treatment for refused asylum seekers. (lewishamdreamer)

I met Angelique while working as a journalist at the Guardian newspaper. I was writing about women’s rights in all sorts of contexts, from London to Kabul, and began researching the lives of refugees. Angelique’s experiences rebuked me as a feminist. I have spent much of my life writing about women’s rights, and have published two books that deal with equal pay, pornography, and other familiar issues. Talking to Angelique made me realize that I was living among women whose needs for self-determination and protection were altogether ignored.

When I looked further into the issue, I realized that Angelique was not alone; many women had suffered similarly after fleeing sexualized violence. And so I established a nonprofit organization called Women for Refugee Women. At WRW, we believe that women who cross borders to find safety deserve dignity and a fair hearing. We believe that if more women speak up on behalf of refugee women, our governments will ensure that they are treated more fairly in the asylum process.

This is an urgent issue. WRW recently published research into the experiences of women who have been turned down for asylum in the UK. We found that nearly half of these women had been raped in their home countries, and two-thirds had experienced gender-related persecution. Yet, the UK Home Office admits, 74 percent of women who applied for asylum in 2010 were refused in an initial decision.

We’ve found that some of the women who are refused are disbelieved—told they are liars. Others are trivialized, told that their experiences are not serious enough to form the basis of an asylum claim. I have known women who were refused because the Home Office told them there was no evidence they were actually married to their violent husbands, even when they were able to supply marriage certificates and photographs, and others who were told there was no evidence that they had been tortured—even when their bodies bore the scars.

When refused asylum, women can be made destitute, detained, or returned to their countries. Living destitute makes them vulnerable to further sexualized violence and exploitation. As one woman who responded to our research after she had been refused asylum said, “I was forced to sleep with a man for me to have accommodation and food. I was forced to go and be a prostitute for me to survive.” And the emotional effect of refusal can be devastating: Over half of the women we spoke to had contemplated suicide.

Despite the large numbers of refugees worldwide, only a very small proportion will find their way to the West in their search for sanctuary. As we’ve seen, those who do often struggle to find safety. While the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees—the fundamental legal document that delineates who is a refugee, what their rights are, and the legal obligations of states, which was adopted in 1951—commits its signatories to give protection to those who are in danger of persecution on grounds of “race, religion, nationality, particular social group or political opinion,” there is no direct reference to sex or gender. The UK-based nonprofit organization Asylum Aid recently found that the UK Home Office displays a “striking failure” to understand the nature of the persecution experienced by women. Like Angelique, those who have suffered through rape, female genital mutilation, honor crimes, forced marriage, or forced prostitution find only hostility from the West.

For me, the journey from being a writer to being an advocate for refugee women has had a steep learning curve. I have realized I do not have to travel to Afghanistan or Albania or Saudi Arabia—all places I visited as a journalist—to meet women who are survivors of forced marriage, rape as persecution, or forced prostitution. These women surround us in the West, but they are too often unseen and unheard. Every Monday, about 50 women refugees come to classes in the basement of our WRW office building in London. I walk among them and hear them speaking in Lingala, in Arabic, in Amharic. I know that each of them has a story of persecution and survival that we would struggle to imagine. I want more citizens to listen to these stories, and to work with us for a more equal world for these women.

And what about Angelique? She found a decent lawyer and is able to remain in the UK for now. She is bringing up her daughter and working in a nursing home. She has learned English and supports other women going through the asylum process.

I am struck by her determination, but I know that there are many more Angeliques out there: women who have fled persecution yet are denied a fair hearing. In the UK and beyond, many refugee women are now organizing and speaking out to demand changes to the asylum decision-making process and an end to the destitution and detention of those who seek asylum. You can support them by raising awareness of their actions through your networks; sign up for our e-newsletter at www.refugeewomen.co.uk or follow us on twitter at @4refugeewomen if you would like to know more. Let's work together to ensure refugee women are given a chance to rebuild their lives.

Click here to read the story of Saron, an Ethiopian woman who was raped and is now lost amid the asylum system in the UK.