Last night, Afusat Saliu and her daughters were deported back to Nigeria, after Saliu was refused asylum. She needed asylum because her daughters are are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria. Saliu fled to the UK in 2011 after her stepmother threatened to cut her daughters. A survivor of FGM herself, she believed the UK government would protect her children from violence. She believed wrong.
Thanks to concerted campaigning by the inspiring and incredibly brave women of organisations like Daughters of Eve and Integrate Bristol, the UK government has made a number of significant promises to end FGM. This is really important, and a testament to the dedication of feminist campaigners who have refused to be silenced.The government has, for example, commissioned a report on the lack of convictions for the crime, invested in a helpline with the NSPCC and sent out educational materials to raise awareness across the education and health sectors. This is all important and fantastic work that has been made possible by the brave women who have campaigned tirelessly on this issue.
But whilst the left hand of government works to end FGM, last night showed how the right hand of government is deporting girls to be cut. This reveals a grave and troubling hypocrisy in the heart of our government and their attitudes towards violence against women and girls.
How can the government claim to be committed to ending FGM, when they refuse to give asylum to those who are at risk of the crime? When they refuse to see it as a form of gender-based persecution from which women and girls need protecting? How can they make promises to girls in the UK, and break those promises to girls not born in the UK?
It isn’t just FGM. It’s all part of a troubling hypocrisy between the government’s professed commitment to ending violence against women and girls, and a culture of disbelief at the UKBA when it comes to processing survivors of male violence.
William Hague has become a real champion in the fight against rape as a weapon of war. Anyone who has heard him speak on this issue cannot doubt his dedication to eradicating this awful crime. I believe Hague truly cares about this and is doing his best to put policies and actions in place to tackle violence against women and girls in conflict.
But once more, we see one side of government making all the right noises about ending violence against women and girls in conflict, whilst the other side deports survivors back to the places where they were raped. Worse, before they deport the women, they lock them up in Yarls Wood, a detention centre riddled with allegations of sexual assault.
The organisation, Women for Refugee Women, recently published a report on on the plight facing women asylum seekers in the UK. The report interviews 46 women – 43 of which disclosed the reason why they were seeking asylum. 80% of the 43 women had either been raped or tortured, and 52% said they were persecuted because they were women. One of the women said she had been sexually assaulted by a Yarls Wood guard.
The government cannot have it both ways. They cannot end rape as a weapon of war when they deport survivors back into the hands of their rapists. They cannot end violence against women and girls when they lock women up and leave them at risk of sexual assault. They need to have a joined up policy where survivors of these horrific crimes are listened to, heard and respected, and where their safety is taken seriously. They need to have a policy that recognises women are persecuted because they are women, and therefore are entitled to asylum if threatened with gender-based violence.
I once went to a talk by a group of women asylum seekers. One of the women speakers told us about how she had been raped by soldiers. On arrival in the UK, the male border guards asked her why she was seeking asylum. Frightened and unsure, she didn’t know she had the right to speak to a woman in a private room. She didn’t want to talk to men about the violence committed against her by men, in front of a room full of other asylum seekers, again many of which were men. Her reticence meant the guards refused to believe her, and she was detained in Yarls Wood.
She was later released. But her story is not uncommon. Many, many more women face this culture of disbelief within the asylum system, and are subsequently locked up by the people they came to for help. Once at Yarls Wood, the Women for Refugee Women report reveals, the women often suffer depression and suicidal thoughts.
And it gets worse. The government plans to remove legal aid for detainees at Yarls Wood and foreign nationals. This will make it almost impossible for women to legally fight the guards who have allegedly committed sexual assault in the centre. It’s a policy that effectively gives the green light for the abuse to continue, and again undermines our government’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls.
These women are not criminals. They are victims and survivors of an abhorrent crime that our government professes to be dedicated to tackling. And yet we lock them up in a centre where they are allegedly verbally, physically and sexually assaulted. About her time in Yarls Wood, one woman said:
‘When the big door closed it brought back everything that had happened to me back home when I was in prison. I thought that I was going to be raped. The fear overtook me. I felt that I was not strong enough to go through anything like that again.’
Another woman detained in Yarls Wood, who sought asylum after being raped by soldiers in the DRC, said:
‘I came here because of the war back home. I can’t understand why they put me in prison.’
If our government is truly sincere about tackling global violence against women and girls, from FGM to rape as a weapon of war, they need to start believing women who claim asylum because they are at risk of gender-based violence. They need to stop locking women up who have survived or are at risk of gender-based violence. They need to start joining the policy dots – and they need to start understanding that they cannot commit to ending rape as a weapon of war when they continue to treat survivors of that crime as criminals themselves.
You can donate to Women for Refugee Women here, and to Integrate Bristol and Daughters of Eve here. I urge you to do so!