“A little place where I live safe”

Human Rights Watch have released a report on the use by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) of Detained Fast Track (DFT), an accelerated procedure for asylum cases, for the cases of women whose circumstances raise complex gender-related issues. Many of the women concerned speak of having experienced or been threatened with sexual violence.

Problems start with the initial screening interview. This is the first point of contact between a UKBA officer and an asylum-seeker—the point at which an applicant applies for asylum. This interview does not involve any substantive questions about why an applicant is claiming asylum. Nevertheless, an assessment of her immigration history and credibility is made and the UKBA officer decides how the case should be routed. Many complex cases are inappropriately routed into the DFT as opposed to the general asylum procedure, despite the stated intention that DFT is there to deal speedily with straightforward (or “quick”) claims.

Once in the DFT procedure, women are on a fast-moving treadmill with structural features inhibiting or even preventing them from making their cases effectively. When women arrive at Yarl’s Wood, they will often have their asylum interview the next day. Most only have an opportunity to consult their duty solicitor in a short conversation over the phone. There is little opportunity to build trust, and women, especially in cases involving rape or abuse, may only reveal relevant information late in the process, or not at all. There is limited opportunity to access expert evidence, such as medical reports. The UKBA officer who conducts the asylum interview, known as the case owner, decides whether or not asylum should be granted.

That the trauma of rape can give rise to feelings inhibiting a woman from going to the police is, for example, recognized in criminal court. However, an asylum seeker is expected to immediately tell strangers—UKBA officers and legal representatives—of any violence, including sexual violence, that she has gone through. Solicitors report and refusal letters confirm that delay in mentioning critical facts about sexual violence often leads case owners to conclude that the information is not credible. Women seeking asylum are also disadvantaged by the lack of female interviewers and interpreters which can further inhibit full disclosure of experiences.

The report speaks of women whose stories run the gamut from rape to torture to enslavement, after which their search for safety runs into decidedly anticlimactic – but potentially, no less dangerous – roadblocks. Bureaucracy. Legalese. Paperwork. One solicitor assigned to represent a client recounts receiving a fax a week after the woman in question had arrived in Yarl’s Wood – but hardly any time at all before her crucial asylum interview, scheduled for 10am the next day. Get someone to open up about what may be harrowing experiences of violence, build a case around the lack of an adequate state response to those crimes, gather medical and other expert evidence, make necessary translations… that’s a list of tasks and a half for 24 hours.

Human Rights Watch also raise concerns about how the credibility of women is assessed during the asylum process. I found it hard to read this without hearing echoes of whistleblower Louise Perrett’s account of her experiences at UKBA:

She claims the tone was set on the first day when one manager said of the asylum-seeker clients: “If it was up to me I’d take them all outside and shoot them.” Another told her this was to be expected, adding: “No one in this office is very PC. In fact everyone is the exact opposite.”

She told the Guardian: “I witnessed general hostility, rudeness and indifference towards clients. It was completely horrific. I highlighted my concerns to senior managers but I was just laughed at. I decided to speak out because nobody else was saying anything and major changes are needed at senior management level.”

One of her cases involved a Congolese woman who had the right to remain in the UK. Perrett says a superior nevertheless decided the woman and her children should be removed, and asked officials whether there were any grounds to remove them. Frustrated, she approached a member of the legal department. His reply, according to Perrett, was: “Umbongo, umbongo, they kill them in the Congo.”

Against which the words of one woman featured in the Human Rights Watch report, who said she had been imprisoned, raped and tortured, are particularly poignant:

I am a fighter, I am used to fight to live, but to be told ‘you faked your life’ is a little like death.

Fatima H, who wrote to Human Rights Watch while scheduled to be removed to Pakistan, is also quoted:

If I go back, my husband and my family kill me. No one to collect me on airport, and you know in Pakistan women are not secure…If there [is] in this world a little bit of humanity or you can say human rights, please protect me from them. If no then allow me to kill myself as a right of human who have nothing in this world, not a little place where I live safe.

Read the full report and recommendations here.