Abused, marginalised, ignored: The world of female refugees and asylum seekers

TW: Rape, sexual violence

This week at TWSS we are teaming up with Bristol Student Action for Refugees (STAR) to discuss the experience of being a refugee and a woman. Holly Rooke explains what STAR is and why the experience of being a refugee is different for men and women.

The experience of becoming a refugee, forced to leave your home and seek asylum is traumatic. Yet for women and girls the challenges only multiply.

Often fleeing from countries in which the female voice is marginalised and repressed, women seeking asylum in Britain are repeatedly failed by a system that does not take into consideration their specific needs or the peculiarities of their positions. That does not account for what it means to be a woman in difficult and vulnerable situations.

The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone who ‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.’

Written after the Second World War, at a time when refugees were primarily believed to be male political activists, the Convention has commonly been interpreted through a framework of male experience, and often has difficulty accommodating the particular realities of women. As a consequence, women and girls, particularly those who have faced sexual and gender-based violence, are more likely find it difficult to fit the prescribed criteria, and often struggle to obtain refugee status.

Marginalised by the accepted definition of ‘refugee’, the challenges faced by female asylum seekers are, in many cases, additionally complicated by the fact that the abuse and violence they are fleeing from takes place in the private, rather than the public, sphere.

Women, particularly those who have suffered sexual and domestic abuse, often find it painful and difficult to speak about their experiences during the asylum process. Vladimir Dislimovski, who works for the NGO La Strada, told an Amnesty report that women seeking asylum, ‘don’t talk easily about their experiences, especially when it comes to sexual violence. They are too ashamed to speak.’ In the UK, this problem is often augmented when the interviewers and interpreters involved in the asylum application process are male, as the vast majority are.

STAR week 1

Increasingly restrictive measures implemented by David Cameron’s government, and others across Europe, affect all people seeking safety and protection. Yet the time spent in transit camps and settlements such as those at Calais and Dunkirk – the result of Europe’s failed approach to the refugee crisis – can be particularly challenging for women.

The UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls, published in 2008, notes the increased vulnerability of females, particularly those travelling alone, in such camps and holding centres: ‘In collective reception centres, women and girls on their own may be at risk of further abuse or violence, if they are not accommodated separately from men or if there is not sufficient privacy. Too often, unaccompanied or separated girls fall victim to traffickers and disappear in the course of the asylum procedure.’

Sadly, for those women who do reach the UK, the challenges and dangers they face do not miraculously disappear. Many are detained indefinitely, isolated, abused, and under constant threat of deportation. Women for Refugee Women, a non-profit organisation that challenges the injustices experienced by female refugees and asylum seekers, revealed that of the 6,071 women who came to Britain seeking asylum in 2012, 1,902 were detained.

The organisation spoke to 46 of these women, all of whom had been detained or were currently in detention, mostly in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Their findings, published in ‘Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked Up in the UK’, reveal the horrors faced by women who seek safety and protection in Britain.

Of the 46 women, 33 had been raped in their home country, 11 of these by soldiers, police, or prison guards. 40 women – over 80 per cent – had either been raped or tortured. In the UK, 40 of the 46 women said they had been guarded by a male staff while in detention; unsurprisingly, 70 per cent said this made them feel uncomfortable. 50 per cent of the women interviewed said a member of staff had verbally abused them.

The process of detention, continuing the cycles of persecution and mistrust, often leads women to despair: 93 per cent of those who took part in the study said they felt depressed while in detention, more than half had thought about killing themselves, while 10 of the women – more than 1 in 5 – had attempted suicide. For more information and personal testimonies, see the full report here.

Earlier this month nearly 2,000 people marched on Yarl’s Wood detention centre, protesting against the unfair and inhumane treatment of the women inside its walls. Change is clearly being called for, with many different groups campaigning for a transformation of the UK asylum system.

Student Action for Refugees (STAR) is one such group. STAR is a national charity of over 13,000 students working to welcome refugees to the UK. The organisation aims to improve the lives of refugees and asylum seekers, with over 30 groups at universities across the UK involved in volunteering, fundraising, campaigning, and educating.

Joining STAR is an opportunity to show solidarity with all those – especially the women and girls – who come to Britain seeking safety and protection, yet are abused and mistreated by the asylum system.

To find out more about the Bristol STAR join our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter!

Image by Kate Dickinson


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