Equalities & human rights, Features, International, News.., Poverty & regeneration — By SSmith on 10/11/2011 10:25 pm
SOME speak of rape at the hands of militia groups. Others have been trafficked – sold as sex slaves by unscrupulous gangs profiteering on the back of human misery – while many more have been subjected to routine violence across many of the border regions they cross in an attempt to reach safety.
For female refugee and asylum seekers coming to the UK these stories are all too familiar. Yet by the time they reach their destination, for many their ordeal is just beginning.
At a major conference held in Glasgow last week, the situation facing women refugee and asylum seekers at the hands of the UK authorities was discussed in depth, with the Scottish Refugee Council leading calls for the system to be overhauled.
The event heard that while the past 10 years had seen a transformation in the way the UK criminal justice system deals with domestic and sexual violence, there was a marked disparity between that and the experiences of women asylum seekers, often the victims of similar crimes but treated differently through the asylum process.
Delegates were told that there was not just a moral imperative to change this but the health needs of women also demanded more empathetic treatment than that currently adopted by the authorities
Women account for about one third of the people applying for asylum in the UK. Research published earlier this year by the charity Asylum Aid showed that in 87 per cent of the female cases it examined were initially refused asylum by the UKBA, the government agency that controls migration to Britain.
However, 42 per cent of those decisions, some involving women who had been raped, trafficked and beaten, were overturned on appeal – far higher than the average of 28 per cent for all asylum cases.
John Wilkes, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said the UK government had to do far more to ensure the rights of women were upheld during the asylum process.
“What we are seeing is women at their most vulnerable, coming to these shores only to be treated with suspicion and where the onus is placed on them to prove they are deserving of being here,” he said. “We have to humanise the system, to be more empathetic and put compassion at the fore.”
Wilkes said the system has to deal more effectively with women who seek asylum as it is known they wait longer than men to hear if they have leave to stay. Add that to the fact that 70 per cent of asylum-seeking women surveyed by the SRC said they had suffered physical or sexual violence, and the case was clear, he said.
Yet despite increasing pressure from campaigners and growing evidence the current asylum system continues to discriminate against females, the UK Border Agency shows little sympathy for their plight.
According to Muleya Mundemba, a member of the SRC’s Refugee Women’s Strategy Group, it has been shown beyond doubt that women are far more vulnerable than men and are subjected to violence more than men but the authorities still routinely fail to take this into account.
Against a backdrop of media myths and hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers she believes women are facing an uphill struggle being heard.
“We know women find it hard to discuss these issues,” she says. “Imagine telling a complete stranger about being raped. No-one finds these issues easy to discuss, yet many women who have been subjected to these crimes have to re-live them and prove them to a stranger.
“Of course they have to explain what happened to them but we believe there has to be more understanding where the emphasis is on compassion and not on mistrust and disbelief.”
Nina Murray, SRC’s women’s policy development officer, says that while the support services for women who have experienced trauma are relatively good in Scotland, more signposting and information has to be available.
“Charities and NGOs work hard to facilitate a platform to have women’s voices heard, but then it comes down to the authorities to act on this information,” said Murray.
“The facts facing women refugees and asylum seekers are well known, yet not enough is done to help them. We need clear policies to make sure there is a more compassionate approach to support women.”
Females face disparity across the world
|IN any refugee population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and often their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable.In the last few years, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives. Special attention is given to forcibly displaced women who may face risks because of their specific circumstances, such as pregnant women, older women, and female heads of households.
“Women are active and positive change agents – when given the proper resources – and are capable of improving their lives and the lives of their children, families and communities,” says Frances Nicholson, a senior regional legal officer with the UNHCR.
She has worked on refugee issues for over 15 years but believes during that time the situation facing women has improved little.
“Eighty per cent of displaced people are in developing countries, where support can be minimal,” she said. “This isn’t changing, despite the myth that developed countries are awash with refugee and asylum seekers. As long as women don’t get the support they will be vulnerable.”
The UNHCR works with member states to push for better conditions for all refugees but has embarked on a number of campaigns to promote the needs and rights of women of late. There has been a lot of progress, she believes, through this work but women will always remain more vulnerable than men simply because of their gender.
“We are not coming from a level playing field,” says Nicholson. “For male asylum seekers and refugees, life isn’t easy and they are vulnerable too. But for women and girls it is far more dangerous being displaced. They are open to some of the worst excesses of human nature. And that continues to be the case.”
However, Nicholson says access to support services in Scotland is good but that staff processing claims need to be more aware and have better understanding of women’s needs.
“It has to be understood that women have not only fled trauma but have often been subjected to it because of their vulnerability. So they are doubly persecuted.
“Developed countries need to do more,” she says. “It’s not just support for trauma; it’s a commitment to help them into work, training and education and access to health services to enable them to lead full lives.”
Being given refugee status will always be a compromise. Many women might reach safety but it often ends there.
“It’s not just about a safe haven,” says Nicholson. “It’s about contributing to their communities. We know women have a harder time achieving the same as their male counterparts.
“Being a refugee is often hard enough; being female compounds your status.”
Destination Glasgow for fleeing women
|GLASGOW has become increasingly multi-ethnic since signing up to the Home Office’s Dispersal Scheme in 2001. But with it has come a population of voiceless women who have been witness to untold abuses because of their gender.Many who have fled persecution in foreign countries fell into the arms of other aggressors, many of whom used rape and violence as a weapon.Fahim told TFN she had considered returning to Yemen after enduring “months” of random violence at the hands of traffickers as she tried to make it to Europe.
She had fled the Middle Eastern country after being arrested on political charges and being tortured by the authorities.
It was only when she arrived in Liverpool and made her way to Scotland that she sought help. “Until then, every day I feared for my life,” she told me. “I wasn’t raped but the threat was there. You knew these men were in control and you couldn’t do anything.”
After ending up in Eastern Europe, where Fahim and another asylum seeker were beaten and robbed by their “fixer” – the man tasked with getting them into the UK – she seriously considered giving herself up and turning back for home.
“I couldn’t take much more,” she said. “We were at the mercy of evil people and they just seemed to do with us as they pleased. It would have been better at home.”
In Glasgow she was able to access services but felt restricted because of her status of asylum seeker.
“It was only from others I found out who speak to, where to go,” she says. “I asked the Border Agency but they just gave leaflets. I found out from others about Women’s Aid and projects for women but otherwise I wouldn’t have known.”
She now volunteers to help others in the same situation.
“People will see how vulnerable asylum seekers are when they arrive in a foreign country but I see further. I know that many of the women would have been subjected to violence because of their vulnerability and they need help.”
Another delegate at the conference Mile Gazic, a Bosnian refugee, told me that despite being given safe passage to the UK by the British Government, he had seen how vulnerable women refugees had been treated.
“In any war women are treated as pawns,” he said. “Rape is used as a threat, even against the men. ‘Come with us’, they’ll say, ‘or your wife will be raped.’
“But even after the war is over many women are still in the same situation and are passed on from one abuser to another as they attempt to flee the war.
“That’s what happened in Bosnia and I know some women have ended up in countries where abuse is part of their daily lives.”
Tags: asylum, asylum seeker, Destination Glasgow, refugee, Scottish Refugee Council, violence