Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Rape, refusal, destitution, denial: refugees dancing at the edge of the world

Earlier this year I spent several months doing outreach work in migrants’, refugees’ and asylum seekers’ centres in London, in association with English PEN. My students were male and female, aged from twenty to over sixty, from Uganda, Cameroon, Iran, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and beyond. I have never met such garrulous, anarchic people. They introduced me to the useful concept of ‘international time’: lateness of anything up to 45 minutes is permissible and any chagrin on the part of the teacher is caused by grave cultural misunderstandings relating to unnecessarily rigid Anglo Saxon scheduling methods – although once, when I myself was late to turn up, I was collared by a student (literally) and dragged ruefully up the stairs into the room while the student declared with great glee, “I found Teacher on the street! And she was running!”  The class teased, argued, encouraged, remonstrated and back-slapped, trading jokes across the classroom. I taught them little but laughed a lot, in between being jovially bullied, teased and exhorted to talk about something useful, explain why ‘Van Gogh’ and ‘cough’ were pronounced similarly but ‘cough’, ‘through’, ‘rough’ and ‘slough’ were all pronounced differently from each other, intercede with various authorities on their behalf and contact the Home Office with a testimony of their ardent desire to be granted leave to stay, to work, to learn, to teach, to participate fairly and equally in British society and to help others in a similar position navigate life in a new, uncomprehending and sometimes incomprehensible country.

Yet close beneath the students’ good humour were countless experiences of brutality, which their high-spirited conversation and patient writing exercises occasionally hinted at. I had been counselled in advance not to use any journalistic cunning to coerce these women and men for their ‘stories’. The students were there for writing and composition classes. They were not to be used to elicit exciting narratives, unlocked through guile or coercion under the pretence of rightful concern, then enjoyed for the vicarious, exotic thrill they provided. They warned me themselves that if I were to ask what brought them to the UK, “You will have nightmares.” They did not want to talk about the persecution, civil and cross-border wars, terrorisation, corruption and violence that caused them to risk everything, yield all that was familiar and beloved and leave their lives and identities behind: homes, jobs, histories, studies, parents and siblings, children.

Despite their determination to focus on survival in the present, hints about their previous lives crept through as the sessions continued. As we gained each other’s trust, I learned more about the many places in the world that are unstable with violence, poisoned by corruption, soaked in spilt blood, tormented by trauma, betrayed and exploited (or split into warring factions) by their own rulers, intimidated by aggressors and divided by countless inequalities and abuses. I saw the effect on ordinary people, not rulers, not activists, certainly not the high elite or the privileged, and the way environments of extreme danger and violence had forced each of these people to act with unimaginable bravery in leaving. They had to change their lives in every way, in an attempt to save their lives. I have written an account of those revealing and transformative months, composed with my students’ blessing and featuring some of their own testimonies, and it will be published in a forthcoming book, to be announced next year.

I also learned about strength, survival and resistance from the asylum seekers, refugees, displaced and undocumented people I worked with. In many cases, their treatment in the UK matched their mistreatment in their home countries, with the cruel addition that their testimonies were dismissed as lies. The majority of my students had not been granted indefinite leave to stay, permission to work or study, the provision of stable housing or any sustainable means of support. Some were caught in a years-long limbo, awaiting a final decision on their status from the Home Office. Others were or had been homeless. Many had been refused permission to stay and were awaiting deportation. Many were living on the kindness of friends and near-strangers, walking for miles (or taking interminable bus journeys) from the further parts of Greater London to reach my classes, living on five pounds or less a day. Many were working illegally and in exploitative, sometimes dangerous, unstable and heavily underpaid conditions as factory labourers, unskilled building site workers, cleaners and casual help. Many had been persecuted, prosecuted, incarcerated in prisons and detention centres, bullied and harassed by officials of various kinds. All were intelligent, politicised, professional, multi-lingual. Many were educated to college or university level. All wanted to work legitimately – in fact, they were desperate to do so. All were affected mentally and physically by the small, crushing humiliations, degradations, frustrations and limitations of daily life in a society that did not see them, help them, acknowledge them, respect them, listen to them or believe them. The class of twenty roared with laughter and recognition when one man described his Home Office interview, when his account of what he had witnessed and experienced in the Congo was met the with words, “Everything you’re telling me is [….the whole class chimed in…] a story you’ve just made up.”

While all spoke about the violence they had witnessed, many of the women approached me during breaks in my teaching sessions and talked specifically about the additional issue of gendered brutality. “If we go back they will take us and rape us and kill us. Please believe me, I am telling the truth,” said one.

I did believe her. I do believe her, as I believe all survivors of sexual violence, violation and abuse. But so often the Home Office does not. The disbelieving of survivors of gendered brutality is endemic all over the world, in all societies in all hemispheres, in peacetime and wartime, crossing cultures, languages, religions and regimes. The denial of victims’ testimonies is as ubiquitous as the violence itself, and is part of it and reinforces and redoubles it. To deny victims is to support perpetrators, to aid perpetrators and to tacitly promise all perpetrators that they can continue to rape and abuse women with impunity.

Now the charity Women for Refugee Women has released Refused, a major research project which uncovers extremely disturbing evidence about the treatment of women seeking asylum in the UK and the gendered violence they have been subjected to before their arrival here. It casts a critical light on the Home Office’s treatment of these women, which represents in intensified and concentrated form the attitudes always brought to bear upon sexual violence survivors in all contexts. The consequences of victim-denying in this specific case, however, are even more severe than is usual.

The following factual material is taken from Women for Refugee Women’s full report, Refused, and from the report summary. The research was carried out by Women for Refugee Women, Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) London, WAST Manchester, Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Cardiff, Embrace in Stoke on Trent, Bradford Refugee & Asylum Seeker Stories, the Women’s Group at the Young Asylum Seeker Support Service in Newport and the Refugee Women’s Strategy Group in Glasgow.

Along with other countries, the UK has made a commitment to give asylum to those fleeing persecution if their own state cannot protect them. Refused explores the experiences of 72 women who have sought asylum in the UK.

  • 49% had experienced arrest or imprisonment as part of the experiences they were fleeing
  • 66% had experienced gender-related persecution, including sexual violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.
  • 52% had experienced violence from soldiers, police or prison guards
  • 32% had been raped by soldiers, police or prison guards
  • 21% had been raped by their husband, family member or someone else
  • Others were fleeing forced marriage, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation
  • Altogether, 66% had experienced some kind of gender-related persecution and 48% had experienced rape

Almost all these women (67 out of 72) had been refused asylum.

  • Of these, 75% said that they had not been believed
  • 67% had then been made destitute (left without any means of support or accommodation)
  • 25% had then been detained.
  • Not a single woman felt able to contemplate returning to their country of origin.

The consequences for these women were severe:

  • Of those who had been made destitute, 96% relied on charities for food and 56% had been forced to sleep outside.
  • 16% had been subjected to sexual violence while destitute and a similar number had worked unpaid for food or shelter.
  • One woman said, “I was forced to sleep with men for me to have accommodation and food. I was forced to go and be a prostitute for me to survive.”
  • When asked what they felt about being refused asylum, 97% said they were
  • Depressed, 93% were scared and 63% said they had thought about killing themselves.

One woman said, “They kill me already. I feel like the walking dead.”

The director of Women for Refugee Women, writer Natasha Walter, highlights the failure of the government to respond to the needs of survivors of gender-based violence "who have survived rape and abuse [and] are refused asylum and experience destitution, detention and despair in this country.”

Debora Singer, Policy and Research Manager at Asylum Aid, said: “The harrowing stories told in Refused are a crucial reminder of how often women are failed by our asylum system. These are women fleeing unspeakable violence, yet they are routinely let down when they turn to the UK for help.” She added, “Women are routinely, arbitrarily disbelieved by officials when they explain what has happened to them. We know that women are more likely than men to see asylum decisions overturned on appeal, so woeful is Home Office decision-making. And we know that the government hasn’t honoured its promise to introduce meaningful gender-sensitive reforms. As a result, women are left destitute on our streets, exposed to exploitation and abuse. The whole system desperately needs reform, and it needs it now.”


The reform of the asylum process and the issues it raises must not be hijacked by the tabloid press, by fear, by racism and xenophobia, by reductive thinking, by generalisation, by meaningless rhetoric or by ignorance. In order to create a progressive, just and peaceful world society campaigners, politicians and leaders must publicly challenge the poisonous myths (about sexual violence, about race and culture and about immigration) which keep inequality in place and support abusive, cruel and inhumane practices.

The report advocates several measures including ministerial leadership and influence in challenging the Home Office culture of disbelief; improvements in the quality of asylum decision-making by everyone up to judge level, through training, guidance and consciousness raising about the nature and impact of gender-related persecution; access to free quality legal advice and representation for all asylum seekers; a ceasing of the destitution of those refused asylum; granting asylum seekers permission to work if their case has not been resolved within six months or they have been refused but temporarily cannot be returned through no fault of their own; welfare support for all asylum seekers who need it, until the point of return or integration.

The report states:
The numbers of people entering the UK to claim asylum are not large. Many of the women who come here to seek refuge have fled persecution that we would struggle to imagine, and are desperate to find safety. It is time that we built a just and humane asylum process, in order to give every woman who comes to this country fleeing persecution a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild her life.
Women for Women International, in association with many other groups focused on the rights and welfare of asylum seekers, asks the government to heed the findings in Refused, note the upsurge in campaigning and concern around the issue and reform the asylum process in such a way that women are respectfully heard, understood by informed and enlightened listeners, believed and then treated with humanity and dignity. These women (and also their brothers, fathers, sons) are victims, not perpetrators; survivors, not criminals; refugees and escapees, not parasites and exploiters.

A criticism of asylum seekers is that they want something for free. I agree with that. They demand an awful lot which is free: kindness, basic humanity, faith and trust. And they deserve to be given it.





Notes and links:
  • Women for Women International have produced a short film which summarises the issues in Refused. Click here to view it.
  • The foreword to Refused has been written by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and the report launch was hosted by Baroness Joan Bakewell at the House of Lords late last month.
  • Novelist Esther Freud has written an interview with a refugee woman for Refused, while Livia Firth, Mariella Frostrup, Oona King and Juliet Stevenson have recorded filmed messages of support.
  • The Times featured the story of Saron, a refugee from Ethiopia who had been imprisoned, raped and tortured in her home country, but who was refused asylum in the UK
  • Natasha Walter spoke on Woman's Hour on Radio 4 with a woman who fled Ethiopia after she was imprisoned and beaten.
  • Comedian and campaigner Kate Smurthwaite wrote about the issue in The Independent.
  • There was further coverage by Sky News, MSN, The Scotsman, ITV, The Huffington Post, Belfast Telegraph and Mumsnet.
  • Women for Refugee Women enables women refugees themselves to speak out. Find out about Journeys, which tells the story of Saron and Alicia, who were refused asylum, detained and threatened with deportation; Motherland, which tells the stories of women and children detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre; and the Break the Silence event which showcased Lydia Besong’s play How I Became an Asylum Seeker.
  • Finally let me express my admiration for Natasha Walter, who not only talks the talk and writes the rights, she also rights the wrongs and walks the walk.