Chances of asylum being denied are twice as high for female refugees in the UK than for males, recent research shows. The findings suggest that officials often don't believe the women's stories of rape and torture.
According to recent research by the UK-based organization Women for Refugee Women, half of the women seeking asylum in the United Kingdom have experienced torture or rape, but are refused asylum. The research indicates that women may feel too ashamed and traumatized to speak about what has happened to them since their experiences include details of sexual violence. And when they do discuss the details, some authorities may not find their stories credible.
In 2011, some 19,000 people applied for asylum in the UK; 30 percent of that number were women. While 41 percent of asylum applications from women were refused, for men it was 26 percent. Figures from the UK's Home Office show a similar trend for the past five years.
Women for Refugee Women recently published a report revealing the specific challenges female asylum seekers face. "We found that nearly half the women claiming asylum here have experienced rape as part of the persecution they're fleeing from," said Natasha Walter, the organization's director.
"We found that a quarter of the women we spoke to have been detained in the UK, so they've been locked up in detention centers, which are effectively prisons," she said.
The vast majority of women who have been denied asylum feel depressed, scared, anxious, and more than half of them have admitted contemplating suicide, she added.
Offering relief during a painful process
Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) is one group in East London aiming to make the process of seeking asylum less traumatic. It's a self-help group run by female asylum-seekers and sustained through donations. Visitors to the center will hear women's chatter and laughter wafting up a stairwell that leads to the basement of the gray building of the non-profit organization. A wooden, tattered door swings open to a room filled with at least 40 women, sitting around tables with paper and pens in front of them, preparing for the tasks at hand.
The women, aged 20 to 50, come together to support each other in their legal struggle to get refugee status, to find food or to locate a place to sleep. They hear about WAST by word-of-mouth, and everyone who joins the group is expected to take responsibility in helping to organize it.
Once a week, they also organize lessons to improve their English skills, deciding themselves on their subject material since they know what could be most useful to them. The English teachers' reading materials are often composed of historical stories of war and revolution since many of the women can relate to them through their own experiences.
Julia, in her 30s, joined the group several years ago and now helps newcomers to the English class. She fled to the UK after enduring imprisonment and torture due to her political opposition in her home country of Zimbabwe. "I had no option - it's either you die or you come here," she reflected.
Many asylum-seekers live in 'squatter-like' conditions while waiting for the decision on their claim
Still, in Zimbabwe, she owned an arts-and-crafts shop and lived with her three daughters in "a huge house," she said. She now lives "like a squatter" in a small, run-down community home provided by the British Home Office. Though her asylum claim was refused in 2004, she was saved from deportation since Zimbabwe was not considered a safe country to which refugees could return. Many of the women at WAST have a similar story.
Hard to prove or hard to tell
Julia is currently waiting for her second asylum claim to be processed. Until then, she - like most asylum-seekers - must live without the right to work, depending on charities for food, clothing and money. Julia says that most of all she misses her family and having a job.
It's taking years for her case to be decided, but statistically, she has a greater chance of being granted asylum than other women who flee from sexual violence or gender-related persecution, like female genital mutilation, as it is more difficult to prove sexual persecution than political persecution.
The UK, for its part, signed the United Nation's Refugee Convention 60 years ago in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Convention states that anyone who flees from persecution and is not protected by their own state should be given asylum.
Though women and men both face hardship when fleeing their country, women often face specific challenges. According to research by Women for Refugee Women, 69 percent of female asylum seekers apply for reasons of sexual and gender-related violence. This includes forced marriage, female genital mutilation or rape. It is, however, difficult to provide evidence of this kind of persecution at an interview with UK border officials, who decide whether a refugee's story fits within the Refugee Convention.
Debora Singer, an advisor at the organization Asylum Aid, which provides legal assistance to asylum seekers, said officials have a hard time believing the women's stories.
"The culture of disbelief is a huge problem within the asylum system generally, but it's a particular problem for women," Singer pointed out.
"We looked at a number of women's claims and found that, in the majority of cases, the women were refused asylum and it was always because they weren't believed."
Of those cases that then went on to appeal, over half of them were overturned because the judges believed the asylum seekers or had more resources to check the evidence, for example through medical examination of the women, she said.
The British Home Office declined to give an interview for this report, but said in a written statement to DW: "We recognize that women may face particular forms of persecution. We treat all asylum applicants with sensitivity and work with external partners to continually improve the process."
Turning over a new leaf
The International Refugee Convention was amended in 2002 to widen the definition of persecution and include that specific to women as a reason for asylum. Since then, the UK Home Office has introduced measures to assist women in making their asylum claim, like facilitating female interviewers and interpreters.
But, the process is still fundamentally flawed, said Asylum Aid's Singer. "Women lose their claim for asylum because they are often too traumatized to tell their story," she noted.
Both men and women who fear for their lives can experience trauma, but the private nature of violence faced by women presents a particular hurdle. Shame also plays a role.
"Some people just find it impossible to talk and then if they do talk, it is often quiet jumbled or confused and that's because they feel so much pressure that they are not able to think straight; they're not able to think of dates or what happened exactly when," said Jacky Roberts, a psychotherapist who works with many victims of violence, including asylum seekers.
"In the nature of trauma, everything gets quiet confused. I think that's partly why people get refused, especially women because they're not able to think clearly and calmly on the spot about what happened to them," Roberts said.
As Julia waits for her results from her second application for asylum, robbed of any rights and struggling to make ends meet, and still reeling from abuse she suffered while in prison, she said she does not regret coming to the UK. "I had no choice," she said. "I miss my children, but I had to leave or they would have had a dead mother."