The invisible women let down by Britain

29 May

When Saron, a 28- year-old Ethiopian journalist, saw police shoot dead 40 student demonstrators, she wrote about it for her newspaper. “I reported what I saw and then the police came to my workplace to arrest me,” she says. “The prison was hell. A tiny room, a slit for a window. Toilet once a day, no tissue, no water to wash. Insects jumped from one to another. I got a kidney infection and my body was covered with a rash. I was in prison for four months.”

Saron was interrogated every day. “Then one day a more senior police officer came to the cell and took me to his office. He started touching me. I tried to move away. He said he could do whatever he wanted. I started to cry, pushing him away, and he became angrier. “He began to slap me. I struggled, he told me to keep quiet. He hit my face and my nose started bleeding. I felt dizzy. Then he bit my breast, which started to bleed. After that I felt faint. I couldn’t resist any more. He raped me.”

She was taken to hospital, where her family came to her aid. Her sister bribed a nurse with money given by their father to spirit Saron out of a staff exit. They stayed the night at an aunt’s house, then fled to the north of the country. Eventually Saron made it to Sudan and then, in 2003, to Britain: “I expected there would be more humanity in England; I had been told Africa was backward but Britain has a reputation for helping those who have suffered. But what happened to me here was worse than Ethiopia.”

Saron, confused and traumatised, found herself interrogated in public by a series of immigration officials. Embarrassed by what had happened to her, she found it almost impossible to tell her story in her halting, schoolgirl English. Her application for asylum was refused.

“They told me I was too young to have such a story,” she says. “They said I must leave Britain by a particular date. But I had no passport, no money; how was I supposed to go?”

At this point Saron breaks down: “I had nothing, I had to live rough on the streets. I was traumatised, depressed, crying all the time. I had no legal papers to work or stay in the country. I was completely without friends. If you sleep rough as a woman, men abuse you. They offer you a safe place, a warm place — but then it is like what the policeman did to me in prison.”

Eventually a doctor in a homeless shelter sent her to hospital. From there she was sent to a Home Office detention centre at Yarl’s Wood in Bedford for a few weeks, then released. This pattern of detention and living rough continued until 2008, when she was finally given leave to remain in Britain.

A report to be published by the Women for Refugee Women (WRW) organisation this week shows Saron’s case is not unusual. Every year about 18,000 people claim asylum in Britain after fleeing persecution in their home countries; some 5,000 of these are women. Unlike economic migrants, who work undercover in the black economy, these women are open about their plight and declare themselves to the authorities, expecting protection.

Of the women claiming asylum in their own right, some 74% are turned down. That means every year about 3,000 women, who may be as vulnerable as Saron, are refused asylum. While the authorities are understandably keen to root out those trying to play the system, many are nevertheless left in a wretched position by an immigration bureaucracy that is at times chaotic. Some, like Saron, later have the rejection of their claim overturned.

The WRW research found that 48% of women claiming asylum had been raped in their home countries — 32% by soldiers, police or prison guards. More than half who had fled here were subsequently left with no means of support, housing or way of returning home.

Many had fled their homes and families because of political activity (36%) or persecution because of religion or ethnic background. But the majority (66%) of the women were fleeing what the United Nations terms “gender-related persecution”, such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution or rape by a male relative. I interviewed several women for this piece, many of whom were still so obviously traumatised by their experiences that they found it hard to revisit them. They explained how they had been interrogated here by male immigration officials in open offices in English, a language they hardly spoke.

Three-quarters of the women said they had not been believed. “They said I was lying,” says Rhiam from Cameroon, who fled a forced marriage and a violent husband. “They asked me so many questions. But why would I leave my home, my family, my beloved daughter, the sunshine, the food that tastes good in my mouth, to come here alone, if I was lying?” She arrived in Britain in 2001, yet it was only last year she was given leave to remain. A handsome woman with beautiful grey-painted nails, she weeps as she tells me that when she left, her daughter was six years old: “Now she is 18. That means she is too old to come and join me. I have been a bad mother.”

For more than a decade she has slept on sofas and floors: “I was abused by men; I had nowhere to go, nothing to eat — in order to stay alive I had to have sex with them.” She says this with deep shame, her head bowed. In Cameroon she had been educated, with a job as a secretary.

“I just want to work; I thought I could make a better life here for me and my daughter. But now I wish I had never come. I should have died in Cameroon at my husband’s hand with my child. Coming to England has brought me nothing but misery. I cannot tell you how much.”

Such despair is common. Of the women questioned in the report about being refused asylum, 97% said they were depressed, 93% were scared, 63% said they thought about killing themselves. “They kill me already,” says Saron. “I feel like the walking dead.”

WRW was founded by the journalist and author Natasha Walter after she was moved by the story of a refugee called Angelique from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I met Angelique in a hostel with her baby,” says Walter. “Her father was a political activist, so the soldiers attacked and killed the family, imprisoning Angelique. In prison she was repeatedly raped. Friends of her father helped her to escape, but when she arrived in Britain she was disbelieved, turned down for asylum and left destitute. While living rough she was raped again — resulting in the pregnancy.

“The horror of her story reminded me of Dickens. I was appalled that such women were living invisible, hidden, right under my nose, yet they are women who have experienced terrible things. It is so important that they are treated with humanity.”
The report also recommends that asylum seekers are granted permission to work if their case has not been resolved within six months or they have been refused but temporarily cannot return home through no fault of their own. Alternatively it suggests that such women are provided with welfare support until the point of return or integration.

Walter hopes the report “will force ministers to show leadership to get the Home Office to improve the quality of its decision-making processes, so that women who have fled intolerable cruelty don’t get unfair refusals which lead them to a situation of detention or destitution”.

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