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Thursday, 13 May 2010

Rape and sexual violence: the experiences of refugee women in the UK

Source: Women's Asylum News

By Sarah Cutler, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the Refugee Council.

This article summarises the Refugee Council’s key concerns about the situation of refugee and asylum seeking women in the UK who have survived rape and sexual violence, based on our experience of working with women to provide specialist support, practical help and counselling. 

It highlights our casework experience, and identifies the priorities for policy change to improve the situation of refugee women in the UK.

A significant proportion of refugee women living in the UK have experienced violence, including rape or sexual violence. With limited opportunities to seek protection within their own countries and restrictions on international travel, many women survivors of violence are forced to subject themselves to further risks of violence in their quest for protection.  Women are being raped by smugglers, or forced to ‘exchange’ sex for passage to safety to the UK, indicating that a growing number of refugees are at risk of trafficking for sexual exploitation as a result of the limitations to 1 accessing protection.
  
The Refugee Council’s experience is that significant numbers of refugees in the UK report suffering physical and sexual violence before, during and after their journey to the UK.  Once in the UK, refugee women are highly likely to belong to one or more of the groups that are at higher than average risk of rape, and the risks of violence are particularly acute for thousands of women who are left destitute when their asylum claims are refused.
Refugee Council direct work with women asylum seekers 

The Vulnerable Women’s Project (VWP) was established at the end of 2006 with the support of Comic Relief to address the needs of refugee and asylum seeking women who had been subjected to sexual violence, including rape.  The project has provided a holistic approach to assisting women who have survived rape and sexual violence through therapeutic casework, including counselling, advocacy, and practical support. 

The project has worked with hundreds of women:

  • 76% had been raped, either in their country of origin or the UK
  • 76% were experiencing trauma-related psychological distress
  • 35% had suffered some form of violence
  • 27% had physical injuries from their experiences of violence
  • 22% had suffered sexual abuse
  • 20% had gynecological problems as a result of their experiences of sexual violence
  • 15% had become pregnant as a result of rape
  • 9% had been threatened with rape or sexual abuse while in detention in their country of origin
  • 5% had a child as a result of rape
For many of the women, choices are very limited as they are at the end of the asylum process and are destitute. Being in direct contact with the project worker enables us to reduce the risk of their re-victimisation and sexual exploitation. We advise them about their rights and entitlements and support them when thinking through their options. Through our day centre, we provide hot meals, showers and laundry facilities, and emergency provisions such as sleeping bags, clothing, food parcels, toiletries and baby packs.  We also distribute condoms and sexual-health self-test kits.  Women can learn English and participate in regular Women’s Groups. 

Priorities for policy change to protect refugee women

Based on the experiences of our women clients, we are pushing for urgent cross-government action in five key areas. 

Destitution

The government policy of enforced destitution has very clear gendered impacts, as it exposes women to unacceptable risks of violence, and forces them into exploitative situations, including prostitution, in order to survive. 

Poverty has been documented as increasing the risk of sexual violence; research shows that women living on less than £10,000 a year are more than three times as likely to report being raped as women from households with an income of more than £20,000. The vast majority of asylum seekers live in poverty and many refused asylum seekers are completely destitute with no financial support, or are reliant on the limited weekly amount provided by the UKBA through section 4 payment cards. This places women at greater risk of being subject to violence, which is further increased by the fact that they lack the right to work or a means by which to provide for themselves and their families 2 independently.
 
We have worked with many women, including young women who arrived in the UK as children, who have been raped and subjected to violence because they are refused asylum and are not entitled to accommodation or any financial support, leaving them destitute and vulnerable, or forced into 3 prostitution.

One woman explained,
“The money we’re given to live on – £30 per week – is far too little, and I have to cover everything for myself – food, clothes, everything.  So I have to use my body to earn more - sleeping with people for money to eat, because I have to cover everything for myself.”
In order to reduce violence against asylum seeking women:
  • asylum seekers must not be left destitute and should be entitled to work or to receive cash support throughout the asylum process, until they are granted status or leave the UK.
  • priority should be given to developing appropriate safeguards to ensure that asylum seeking women are not forced into living arrangements that make them more vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation.
Speed, flexibility and legal representation in the asylum process – a gender sensitive system?

A lack of gender sensitivity in the asylum procedure and evidence assessment of asylum claims, combined with limited access to legal representation, has further restricted women’s access to protection in the UK.  Survivors of sexual violence still suffer from a shortage of female interviewers and interpreters, from being wrongly detained during the process, from decision-makers lacking the skills to assess gender issues and making incorrect assumptions about their credibility in the face of medical evidence, and from the poor quality of information used about women’s situations in their countries of origin. We struggle to find legal representatives willing or able to take on women’s cases and many are left unrepresented or are charged for poor quality advice.

Many of our clients are also penalised by the tight time scale for processing asylum claims; women are penalised if they fail to disclose the full extent of their experiences at their asylum interview.  

Women’s claims should never be subjected to the detained fast track process; change is urgently needed so that the asylum procedure is sufficiently flexible in order to enable women to fully disclose their experiences.  The consequences of the failure to do this are severe: women will continue to have their asylum claims wrongly refused resulting in creating unnecessary situations of destitution in the UK, leaving them excluded from accessing support services, and vulnerable to further violence and exploitation.

Failure to provide childcare at asylum interviews in all UKBA regions is adding a layer of risk to the security of women and their families.  While some UKBA regions have started introducing childcare for women at asylum interviews, this is not a universal practice.  As one woman we work with told us, 
“Children should not be in the room when their parents are interviewed, as this can be very distressing for them – as well as their parents – there are personal things about what’s happened to you that shouldn’t be said in front of a child.” 

Women must be given a fair chance to secure protection. This means urgent action to:
  • Ensure timescales are sufficiently flexible for women survivors of rape and sexual violence tobe able to fully disclose their experiences in support of their asylum claims.    
  • End the detained fast track asylum determination process end for women’s claims.     
  • Ensure provision of childcare to asylum seeking women during interviews.     
  • Provide women with the option of being assisted and advised by female representatives and/or those with relevant expertise in gender violence.  
  • Contracts with legal suppliers, referrals, and the timing of interviews should be tailored and adjusted to allow this to happen.
Access to health services

High quality and appropriate health services, including psychological support, are essential if women are to recover from the devastating impacts that violence, including sexual violence, have on their physical and psychological health.  The introduction in 2004 of charges for secondary health care for all refused asylum seekers, among other overseas visitors, on the basis that this was necessary to reduce ‘health tourism’ has had a profound and negative impact on refused asylum seeking women. 

Survivors of sexual violence who have been rendered destitute and homeless can be denied treatment for the long-term serious injuries that resulted from their rape, as well as denied vital psychological support to assist their recovery.   Revised guidance has been issued following legal challenges, but despite this, our clients continue to struggle to access primary and secondary health services, at all stages of the asylum process. We continue to work with women who have been refused services that are essential to their recovery from violence. Our clients have also been pursued for unpaid bills that they cannot afford.

On 26 February 2010, a Department of Health consultation was published proposing that refused asylum seekers receiving UKBA Section 4 or Section 95 support would get free health care. This will still leave those who fall victim to the appalling delays and inefficiency in the support system, liable to charges and pursuit of debts, deterring them from accessing services. We will be pushing for free access to health care for all refused asylum seekers to be implemented as a matter of urgency (see our website for information about how to get involved in this campaign.)

We must work together to ensure that:   
  • All refugees, asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers who require physical and psychological health services in order to recover from the violence they have experienced are entitled to services in the same way as other women survivors of violence.    
  • The government ensures that free, high quality and appropriate health care services are available to all women, including women whose asylum claims have been refused.
The mainstream agenda on violence against women

On 25 November 2009, the Government published its strategy aiming to bring an end to violence 4 against women and girls.

While it commits to ensuring staff working with refugees are trained to identify and respond to evidence of violence, and that UKBA guidance in offering appropriate support will be enhanced and strengthened, there is nothing in the strategy to ensure access to appropriate services for refugee and asylum seeking women fleeing violence will improve.

Feelings of exclusion and protection by mainstream agendas are felt in the daily realities of life for refugee women, which in turn affects their confidence to seek help and their ability to remove themselves from contexts of violence.  One woman commented to the Refugee Council:
“There are not enough services available to asylum seekers and refugees facing domestic
violence – they are told that it should be dealt with in the family.”

This is a missed opportunity to send a signal to refugee and asylum seeking women that their experiences of violence will be treated as seriously as those of other women. 

To redress this situation:
  • Future mainstream violence against women efforts must explicitly address the particular needsand vulnerabilities of refugee and asylum seeking women and children in the UK.    
  • Criminal justice authorities should ensure that removal action does not result from asylum seeking women whose claims have been refused reporting crimes of violence and that the voluntary sector to ensure that refugee women are supported and encouraged to report crimes against them.    
  • Service providers to survivors of violence against women must be allowed to include refugees and asylum seekers in their service delivery, and ensure those services are accessible and appropriate.
Whoever is elected at the general election on 6 May, those working to see a fair and just asylum process in the UK must push for urgent changes to make the asylum process fit for survivors of rape and sexual violence, and prevent women from being subject to further violence when in the UK. 

To this end, the Refugee Council will continue to support the Charter for the Rights of Asylum Seeking Women and will be making the case to the next administration for the gender-sensitive asylum system. See http://www.asylumaid.org.uk/pages/charterbackground.html

NOTES
1  See Refugee Council (2009) The Vulnerable Women’s Project: Refugee and asylum seeking women affected by rape or sexual violence; a literature review.                                                 
2 Around 80% of female asylum claims are rejected, so destitution is a reality for the majority of female asylum seekers who find themselves unable to return to their countries due to fear of persecution and lack of protection (see Home Office Asylum Statistical Bulletin 2007 Asylum Statistics UK http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs08/hosb1108.pdf).
3 Examples of cases of destitute women who have been subjected to sexual violence as a result of their destitution are contained within the Refugee Council’s Vulnerable Women’s Project publications (2009).
4 http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/vawg-strategy-2009/ 

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