(Nb. I won't use names of the women who spoke at the workshop in this post or go into a lot of detail about the stories told - this was a safe space and I respect the confidentiality of the women who spoke out)
I first came into contact with the workings of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) earlier this year, when me and two activist friends, Chitra and Ray, hastily set up a grass roots campaign to prevent the deportation of a young Ugandan woman who had experienced severe homophobic persecution and was at serious risk of harm if she returned. The woman, who I'll call 'T', had been horrifically assaulted and branded in a homophobic attack and since her arrival in the UK, had been outed as a lesbian in a notoriously homophobic newspaper. This outing meant it was not safe for her to return to Uganda. Her family had abandoned her and she sought asylum in the UK. Despite her medical report confirming her injuries and the obvious dangers she faced if she returned; asylum was initially refused because the UKBA didn't believe she was really gay, and therefore refused to believe she was really in danger.
I think before the morning when I sat reading the reports and the judgements on her case, I had had faith in the system. I felt that despite the pressures from a rabidly right wing press that is filled with lies about asylum seekers, and the resultant pressure on government to keep people out; I believed that deep down, in my wealthy, liberal country, we would help people who came to us looking for help. Not turn them away to face rape, violence and murder on the flimsiest of excuses.
I don't have that faith anymore. As far as I can tell, the UKBA's chief concern is not to help people find a new life; it is to send people back as quickly as possible to keep the Daily Mail readers happy.
Thanks in part to our campaign that raised some noise about her case and led to her getting better legal representation, T was released from Yarl's Wood and is now waiting for her case to come up. She is in limbo but she is not detained in what is basically a prison for women who have committed no crime.
Campaigning on T's case opened my eyes to what our asylum system actually does to women and men, but I had only seen a small slice of one case. So I was thrilled to see one of my ultimate feminist heroes, Natasha Walter, was leading a workshop about her charity Women for Refugee Women and the difficulties that women seeking asylum in the UK face. It was called 'From rape to refusal'.
Unfortunately, rather than being really cool and saying hello, when Natasha stood near me I went all weirdly star struck and looked at the floor. So shameful!
The workshop opened with a song from a group of women from WAST - women asylum seekers together. It was a welcome song about les modes preferees (favourite things?) with lots of clapping and joyful singing. Natasha then introduced why she had set up Women for Refugee Women. People mainly know Natasha for her books which concentrate a lot on UK feminism and the issues that are of particular concern to western feminists, so although I knew about her work with her charity, it was great to hear more about the work she does beyond the books.
Like me, Natasha's eyes were opened to the horrors women face when they arrive in the UK when she met a woman who had sought asylum from the DRC. She realised that she needed to do something to end the deafening silence around this issue, as well as find a way to provide support for women going through the system. Natasha explained the reasons why people seek asylum, such as persecution on religious, political grounds, or because they are a member of a persecuted ethnic group. Both women and men seek asylum under these terms. But she explained that women often have to seek asylum because of so-called honour based violence, the threat of FGM, intimate partner violence and rape (which can overlap with the other cited reasons). This is gender based persecution and it is a reason to seek asylum, but, just like in the UK justice system, it is often not taken seriously and women are not believed. Because we don't consider gender hate to be a hate crime or form of persecution, it is difficult for women to get asylum. To make matters worse, I found out from my friend that last week the:
'UK Government has decided to opt out of the EU directive which will give women seeking refuge from gender-related persecution, such as FGM, forced abortion or rape in situations of conflict or war greater protection in other European countries.'
Natasha didn't talk for long, this was a workshop, she explained, where we would hear and listen to the voices of the women going through the system.
The stories began with a woman talking about her arrival in the UK, and the first time she went to the home office to request asylum. In a room packed with people, the officer asked her to explain what happened to her and why she needed asylum. Because of the lack of privacy, she found it very difficult to took about the violence she had suffered, she couldn't go into details. Think about this carefully. A woman arrives in the home office centre. She is expected to tell a stranger about incredibly traumatic and violent experiences in a room full of people who can hear what she is saying. How can we expect women to do this? How can we expect women to talk about this in public, with no privacy, no support, no understanding?
The official's response?
'I don't believe you. You are lying. You have to leave.'
With no-where to go, she spent the night sleeping rough, and returned the next day. It was then decided she could go on the 'fast track' (where cases are decided in two weeks) and was put in detention whilst her case was processed.
In response to a question about whether women were entitled to speak to a woman official and see a woman doctor, Natasha explained that the right is there, but that we have to understand that women arriving at the asylum office often don't know what rights they have. They don't know the system and no-one is going to explain it to them. And the fear is always there that if they 'cause trouble' they will be seen as a problem, and put themselves at risk. Particularly against the context of what many of these women have experienced at home, you can see why it might be hard to speak out and ask for what they are entitled to have. So whilst the right is there on paper, it is rarely put into practise.
The women talked more about the horrors of detention in Yarls Wood. The family wing in Yarls Wood was recently closed down, and children and families are now kept in a different centre (not without its problems) but there are still over 400 women held at Yarls Wood. It is important to remember that despite these women being the victims and survivors of horrific crimes, in Yarls Wood they are treated like criminals, detained in a centre where they have no freedom. Is this how we treat women who come to the UK to escape horrors across the world? The women on the panel spoke about how detention triggered traumatic memories from the persecution they had suffered in their home countries. Is this how we help people?
From arrival and detention the talks moved to explain and discuss destitution. When an asylum seeker is refused asylum and has exhausted their right to appeal, they become destitute. This means that the (tiny) benefits and housing provision they had when they were in the system (£30 a week on a card that they can only spend in certain shops, no right to work) are no longer given to them and they have nothing. Nothing. Many destitute asylum seekers end up sleeping rough where they are at serious risk of sexual assault. One recent report found that a third of asylum seeking women sleeping rough had experienced rape and sexual assault - none of which was reported to the police. Because asylum seeking women are refused recourse to public funds, they often cannot go to refuges or shelters who might be able to support them as victims and survivors of violence. One woman on the panel had been destitute since 2004. Others had spent near to ten years in 'limbo', waiting for their cases to be heard, waiting for their decisions to come through. Limbo often goes hand in hand with destitution.
The lack of proper legal representation is one of the issues women seeking asylum face, leaving them in limbo and struggling to have their cases heard. The cuts to legal aid will of course exacerbate this.
One woman on the panel described how the scars of the physical torture she had experienced in her home country would heal. But that with the UK's asylum system she had experienced long term, systematic mental torture.
That is what our asylum system does. It tortures women who have already been tortured in horrific ways. It dehumanises women. It robs women of their dignity. It opens them up to shame and abuse and puts them at risk of assault and trauma. And it refuses to believe women. The opt-out of this directive will mean the government can continue to allow the UKBA to refuse to believe women.
The workshop finished with a message of hope, however. Because we have to remember that change is possible. Natasha talked about the progress we have made in the UK in getting rape and sexual assault taken seriously (yes we have a long way to go but progress has been made) and how we can use this to try and change the disbelieving attitude towards women in the asylum system. The women spoke about the importance of the support networks such as WAST. And, movingly, one woman spoke passionately about how the support of British women had given her hope. That support, a phone call, seeing women at the workshop, a hug, these gave her hope (by this point I had started crying).
Tomorrow no doubt the Mail and the Express will be wilfully confusing economic migrants, illiegal immigrants and asylum seekers with a pack of lies about the benefits they get, the jobs they 'steal' and the 'too full get out' message they so love. Their shit stirring leads to government decisions like the one to opt out of a directive that will save the lives of women across the world who need our support.
We need to listen to the stories of these women and we need to make the change so that no-one will ever be robbed of their dignity when arriving in this country ever again. We need to make the change. And after hearing the women talk yesterday, I believe we can. I hope we can. It will take a long time and a lot of fighting. But we have to do it.
Because I am ashamed to live in a country that looks at the scars of a woman like T's and says she's lying. I am ashamed to live in a country that puts women into a virtual prison when they are survivors of crimes against humanity. I am ashamed to live in a country where women are left destitute and at risk of sexual violence when they have been forced to flee a life of sexual violence. This is not a country that I want to see. I want a system that believes women, that supports women and that doesn't tell lies about women.