By Katie Nguyen
It should have been a happy time.
In 2008, Sanaa* (not her real name) left Iraq to join her British husband and start a new life in southeast England. But from the moment she set foot in her new home, she was beaten and verbally abused by her husband, also of Iraqi origin.
He raped her several times and controlled every aspect of her life. Not only was she locked out of the house every time he left their home but she was refused any money.
When she flew back to Iraq to visit family, her husband cancelled the visa on which she had been sponsored and spread rumours among her family in Iraq that she had been unfaithful.
Hunted down by a paternal uncle and her own brothers, Sanaa fled first to an aunt's house and then back to the UK.
Under threat of being killed in Iraq and feeling unsafe living with her husband, Sanaa sought asylum after arriving back in Britain in 2009.
Yet her application was turned down by the Home Office (interior ministry).
The domestic violence she suffered was dismissed, despite evidence from medical and police reports. Her explanation for not returning to Iraq because of the danger she faced at the hands of her family was rejected.
But an immigration judge who heard Sanaa's appeal four months later decided she was telling the truth and overturned the original ruling rejecting her asylum claim.
Sanaa's experience is all too common in the UK, where women seeking refugee status often seem to fare worse than men, activists say. Not only do they face discrimination for being asylum seekers but also because of their gender, campaigners say.
"The UKBA (UK Border Agency) consistently makes the wrong decisions for women seeking asylum, which then have to be corrected by immigration judges," according to London-based Asylum Aid, which provided Sanaa’s case study.
It said her story reflects the wider trend of discriminatory treatment towards women asylum seekers in the UK.
Women account for about one third of the people applying for asylum in their own right, not as wives or other dependants.
Research published earlier this year by Asylum Aid showed that women in 87 percent of the cases it examined were initially refused asylum by the UKBA, the government agency that controls migration to Britain.
However, 42 percent of those decisions, some involving women who had been raped, trafficked and beaten, were overturned on appeal - far higher than the average of 28 percent for all asylum cases.
The disparity was something Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg seized upon in a speech to the UK Refugee Council in May.
" ... why do far more women have their case overturned at appeal?" he said. "Is there an inherent unfairness built into the system?"It would appear so, according to Debora Singer, policy and research manager at Asylum Aid, a London-based campaigning charity that also offers legal representation to asylum seekers.
She criticised the "institutionalised and systematic" culture of disbelief within the UKBA.
"We identified that the quality of decision-making was woeful. Women simply weren't believed," Singer told TrustLaw. "It is shocking but, unfortunately, the women and the people who work in this sector would say, not unexpected."Although Asylum Aid's findings related to a small number of cases, they were confirmed by the UKBA's internal data for 2010.
Asylum Aid said UKBA figures -- released in response to Asylum Aid's study -- showed 35 percent of asylum refusals issued to women were overturned on appeal within six months of their application for asylum.
This number rose to 41 percent when the decision took more than six months, whereas the comparable rate for men was 26 percent, irrespective of how long it took for the asylum ruling.
"Many of the UKBA's decisions proved to be, in the words of an immigration judge examining one of the cases included in this research, 'simply unsustainable'," Asylum Aid said in its report.
THE IMAGE OF A REFUGEE
So, why is this happening?
At times, case owners -- officials who deal with every aspect of an asylum application -- failed to understand the nature of the persecution from which women may have been fleeing, and so doubted the accounts they heard, Asylum Aid said.
For example, at one asylum interview, the case owner admitted to never having heard of the term, "female circumcision". Yet female genital mutilation (FGM), marital rape, forced sterilisation, physical and sexual violence are some of the key reasons women seek refuge abroad.
Another problem is how to interpret the U.N. Refugee Convention as it relates to many women's asylum claims.
The Convention defines a refugee as someone with a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", who receives no state protection.
Experts say when the treaty was drawn up in 1951 its architects had in mind the stereotyped image of the male political activist escaping persecution by Soviet-backed regimes of the Cold War era -- and not a woman fleeing persecution in the home.
"There's a number of hoops women have to go through to fit the definition of a refugee," Asylum Aid's Singer said.Although the Convention does not explicitly recognise persecution due to gender as a ground for establishing refugee status, it does refer to persecution due to membership of a "particular social group".
"There are many situations which force women to flee persecution abroad, but some women are fleeing because of the harm done to them, not by the state, but by their family or their community. It could be FGM, honour crimes, forced marriages, trafficking."
However, case owners either did not consider that argument at all or did not consider it appropriately in cases based solely on gender-related persecution, Singer said.
LESS INTRUSIVE INTERVIEWS
Cases were also weakened by being passed from one case owner to another, a lack of knowledge about an asylum seeker's country of origin and the use in some instances of out-of-date case law, Asylum Aid said.
"One decision-maker relied upon an article from the American gossip website www.gawker.com when refusing an application from a lesbian who feared the death penalty if returned to Uganda," the report said.In recognition that women face a tougher struggle to prove their refugee status, the Home Office, Britain's interior ministry, adopted gender guidelines in 2004 which were then revised in 2007.
"No reference was made to the country of origin report detailing the persecution for gay people in Uganda", it noted.
Last year, the UKBA appointed a Gender Champion, Matthew Coats, to oversee work on gender as a whole.
"We are reviewing gender sensitivity in the asylum process as part of our overall Asylum Improvement Project," said a UKBA spokesperson, adding that a number of steps had been taken to make asylum interviews for women less "intrusive and invasive".In Sanaa's case, the judge who heard her appeal was critical of the fact that although she had mentioned being raped in a statement to officials before her asylum interview no further questions about this were asked at the interview.
"We have introduced measures to ensure that female interviewers and interpreters are now available for female applicants. We have also introduced provisions for women to bring a friend or other companion with them to the interview to provide emotional or medical support," the spokesperson told TrustLaw in emailed comments.
* Sanaa asked to use a pseudonym because she was afraid of the consequences of revealing her true identity