Most women who come to the UK to seek asylum have experienced sexual violence. Some have been tied up and gang raped, beaten, burned with cigarettes, cut with razors, subjected to female genital mutilation of themselves or their daughters. Two-thirds of women seeking asylum in the UK under their own name (not with a husband) are rejected on their first application. Often this is because they don’t have sufficient, hard-copy evidence to prove the persecution they have suffered. Or because they don’t have the language to explain it. Or because they don't have the confidence.
London-based charity Women for Refugee Women was set up to support women claiming asylum in the UK, challenging the injustices they face at every stage of the process – from being locked up in the women’s detention centre Yarl’s Wood, to being denied critical legal advice on how to collect and present evidence to support their applications, to the further barriers to education and the right to work. The charity also publishes research documents using testimonies and case studies about what the women have been through, and how they are treated on entering the UK, to inform parliamentarians of what needs to change.
Women for Refugee Women also offers English classes, yoga classes, craft classes, lunches, employability classes in partnership with other support organisations, and mother and toddler groups, providing a social setting with a warm atmosphere where women can come and feel part of a community that understands them. “We wish we could do more,” says founder Natasha Walter, “the needs out there are so great. But where we’ve really had an impact is raising women’s voices.” On Saturdays, the charity runs drama classes, which are now held at the Southbank Centre, and in these, women are encouraged to write and perform poetry, and to learn, essentially, how to express themselves, slowly finding the words to tell their stories. During the Women’s March earlier this year, a group performed a poem about their collective stories in Trafalgar Square.
Below we speak to Natasha Walter, founder and director of Women for Refugee Women, author of The New Feminism and Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, and a prolific journalist for The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent.
What happens to these women on their journeys to the UK? Can you give any specific examples?
One young woman in her 20s made the journey from Ethiopia through Libya, where she was trafficked and imprisoned. She experienced extreme sexual violence while she was there, and then when she got on the boats [to Europe] she had an awful journey through the Mediterranean and the boat behind her sank, and she knew people on that boat. She was then in the north of France for a while and when she smuggled her way into the UK in a lorry she was actually pregnant and she miscarried in the lorry on her way to the UK. So you can see the layers and layers of trauma. Now she’s living in Wakefield. She’s isolated and she’s finding it very difficult. I think she felt that, when she came to the UK, everything would be alright, but she’s facing even more challenges in terms of trying to claim asylum and trying to prove to the authorities that she’s deserving of refugee status. She wants to access education too, which is very difficult.
Another woman I met was persecuted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She was suspected of being involved with the rebels and so soldiers came to her house, took her away and put her in an unofficial prison where she was tied up and gang raped. Eventually, a guy who cleaned the prison helped her to escape. She paid a smuggler to take her out of the DRC and to the UK, where she faced further barriers and was locked up in detention, bringing back all of the memories of what she had gone through.
Yes. Around 2,000 women who seek asylum in the UK are locked up in detention. Immigration detention is indefinite – it can last days, weeks or months. When we met this woman, she was very distressed, she had PTSD and she kept reliving the trauma and going back in her mind to what had happened to her in the prison in DRC, because she was so scared of being locked up again. But she has since been released and has received refugee status here and is now rebuilding her life.
How do these women go about proving their worthiness of asylum?
When people first arrive, they have a short screening interview where they give a few details of how they got into the country, who they are, the basics of their asylum case. They are then recalled for a substantive interview, which could go on for hours – and they can bring any evidence that they have of what has happened to them in their home country. But often, it’s very difficult for women to prove the persecution they have faced, because often it was unofficial, and even when it was official – when the government locks up a dissident, it’s not like they're going to give them documentation of their imprisonment.
Many of these women are escaping forced marriage, extreme violence in marriage, forced prostitution, FGM of themselves or their daughters – and they don’t have the documentation or witnesses. They may not want to get in contact with people back home. So it can be very difficult for women to prove what they have been through, and that in itself is very distressing. With cuts to legal aid as well here, they’re often not getting very good advice, so they don’t know what would be good evidence or what would be helpful to their case.
There was a lovely woman who has now been given refugee status who was persecuted for being a lesbian in Uganda. When she made her first claim, she didn’t disclose enough information about what had gone on because she didn’t really understand what would be relevant – she had a really poor lawyer who didn’t give her any useful advice. She was in Yarl’s Wood for a while, where she met other women who then helped her to find another lawyer. With that lawyer she was able to get evidence from Uganda because she had been imprisoned for taking part in a demonstration for gay rights, so she had some evidence to show.
If you’ve come from a very oppressive regime, and you’ve fled for your life, and then you finally get to this country – where you may not speak the language or you speak just a bit – and then you’re immediately interviewed by an official when you arrive about why you are here, you may not have the language or the confidence to talk about the details of the sexual violence you have experienced. Of what your husband did to you. And by the time women have plucked up the courage and gotten legal advice, it may be too late.
What do you offer women at the centre?
About 100 women come to us for English classes and yoga, and to our mums and toddlers group. It’s really just about friendship, support, being able to sit down with people who are thinking the same as you. Then there is lunch cooked by fellow refugees. It’s such a lovely atmosphere. We do other activities and employability courses in partnership with other groups. And then on Saturdays we have our drama groups and they’re hosted now by the Southbank Centre so the women go to the Royal Festival Hall to the rehearsal spaces, which is lovely. But they also write things and perform them publicly as well – they performed at the Women’s March.
Can you tell me about some of the women who come to the classes?
They are really on a journey... and I feel privileged, in a way, to meet them on that journey. There’s a lovely young woman who made the overland journey and stayed in Calais. She just got refugee status in the UK but she was homeless. She’s in her early 20s and she seemed so full of potential and the other day I asked where she was because I hadn’t seen her in a while, so somebody rang her, and she told them ‘I can’t come for the classes because I’m doing my Maths GCSE this term’. That is amazing! She’s integrated herself into the system so quickly. She did some workshops with us around women’s rights and how the political system works here and she was so enthused by it – by the idea of parliamentary democracy. She comes from Eritrea where it is so different. It’s so inspiring and you just think: she’s going to be a leader. We had this conference in March and she spoke on one of the panels with people who had worked in Calais and Greece and she was telling them: ‘It’s good that you provide food and clothes for us, but we want a system change.’ Over and over again, I am amazed by women like her who have been through everything, all of the shit the world has thrown at them and she's just like ‘I’m going to go and do my Maths GCSE now’, ‘I’m going to speak out for other women’. They are just so strong.
But there’s another woman who’s been coming to us for five or six years and she has had such a hard life, you can see it in her face. Recently she was in hospital and she came to the Monday session with a letter from her discharged hospital that she asked me to read because she couldn’t read it herself. And so I explained to her what was in it, and one thing that really struck me was that the letter said she was fine physically but the obvious issue was that she was low mentally, and that she lived a very isolated life, only leaving the house once a week to go to a women’s centre. She has been in the UK for quite a long time and she has not got much ahead of her.
How do you think Brexit has affected your work?
After Brexit, I don’t know about you, but it was almost like a physical shock for me. I didn’t realise people were feeling like that. Then it was such a relief to come to work, and to continue our work and to see more people come in to volunteer and to donate. Brexit – and Trump – have prompted a real rise in people saying ‘Actually, no, that is not the sort of person I want to be – I want to be the sort person who does see the dignity of other human beings'. The volunteers who come and work with us on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are such amazing people; they’re professional journalists, university lecturers, they’re social workers and they’re making time in their lives just to give a hand to people in their community that need help.
How often do you publish research documents? And what effect do they have?
We’ve published four reports so far, two specifically about the women detained at Yarl's Wood. We showed that the majority of women in Yarl's Wood are survivors of sexual violence, so detention has a real impact on their mental health. And detention is unnecessary; most women who are detained after seeking asylum are not removed from the country but released back into the community. We really put that understanding on the agenda. We also found that if women were on suicide watch in detention they were being watched by male staff, even on the toilets, in bed, in the showers. That was something that had arisen before in women’s stories and the Home Office denied it ever happened. But now, after seeing the evidence, rather than saying it never happened, they said it’s not going to happen anymore. So now there are clear guidelines that state that male staff should not watch women on the suicide watch or go into their rooms without knocking. It's vital that women are treated with more dignity, but it's also vital that women are not detained in the first place!
So what can people do to help?
Volunteer and donate. We don’t actually take donations of ‘stuff’ but other refugees centres do, like the Notre Dame Refugee Centre. But if people want to support our work financially that’s amazing. There are always places to volunteer locally; there’s a lot that people can do in their own neighbourhoods in terms of making people feel welcome.