Women & asylum: what should the government do next?

This is a guest post by Russell Hargrave, Communications and Public Affairs Officer at Asylum Aid. Russell Hargrave joined Asylum Aid following the General Election in 2010, after several years working for his local MP in south Wales. Prior to this, Russ worked as a researcher and teacher at the University of Cambridge.

In February this year, my colleague Christel Querton wrote for The F-Word about her research into the way women are treated at each stage of the UK asylum system.

Her report, “I feel like as a woman I’m not welcome”, uncovered a series of damning statistics and harrowing personal stories. She found basic procedural failings in the way women were treated, and gaping holes in strategic thinking at the heart of the UK Border Agency.

It is a worrying combination, with horrifying consequences. Normal standards of respect and decency are suspended; privacy is grossly breached; women’s safety is compromised. Something evidently goes terribly wrong at the Border Agency when dealing with asylum claims by women.

In one sense, diagnosing the problem has become the easy part. There is now a wealth of high-quality independent research into women and asylum. Asylum Aid’s previous report Unsustainable (2011) demonstrated that women are routinely and arbitrarily disbelieved by the Border Agency, and that it falls to immigration judges to overturn poor initial decisions. The report Refused [PDF] (2012), published by Women for Refugee Women, describes how many women seeking asylum have been raped and how poorly their claims are handled (as eloquently described by Hannah Sansom on these pages earlier in the month). Oxfam described [PDF] last year the exploitation to which failed women asylum seekers are vulnerable on UK streets.

Solutions are not always so easily prescribed. But charities and NGOs should not run scared from providing solid policy advice to government where they can. In this case, Asylum Aid is proud to be working with the 300-plus endorsers of the Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum to point out that one positive step is staring government in the face. The tools for making better policy are in place already – it’s just that so far women seeking asylum have been almost entirely missed out.

The coalition’s strategy [PDF] to End Violence Against Women and Girls was launched in November 2010, and is subject to the occasional media splash. Ministers will report on its progress again this November. Beyond the changes it promises and the resources it allocates, the strategy also represents a welcome consensus on the steps that any decent society should take to protect women from violence.

“No level of violence against women and girls is acceptable in modern Britain or anywhere else in the world,” wrote the Home Secretary in the foreword. As a clarion call, it is encouraging. Committed to plans that weave across several government departments, she promised work that will be “cohesive and comprehensive”.

Except that such grand aims are unlikely to be achieved, at least while the strategy remains in its present form. Those looking for a reference to women seeking asylum – women who have already fled rape, torture and violence, and who need co-ordinated support here as much as anyone – will have to squint into the middle pages, for a single, heavily-qualified sentence that makes no new promises at all.

So the next move for government isn’t a complex one. Asylum Aid and our colleagues are pushing the Home Secretary to include far more detailed plans to assist women seeking asylum when the strategy is revisited in November.

This isn’t a demand for special treatment – just for the same rights as other women.

On the ground, the strategy can help ensure resources are directed where they’re needed. More broadly, it acts as an advertisement for the basic decency with which the UK as a whole approaches the question of women’s rights.

When the feminist lobby of parliament takes place next month, under the guiding hand of UK Feminista, it will bring together campaigners to talk about some of the day’s central themes. These include the need for affordable childcare and the right of women to make decisions concerning their own bodies.

The agenda includes the rights of women seeking asylum, too, and the importance of fair and safe procedures for women forced to flee their homes to save their lives. In the government’s mainstream work so far to tackle violence against women, asylum seekers have been sidelined. It is charities which have pressed for this to change, and it’s now time for the government to catch up.