Women reaching Britain as refugees report suffering shocking rates of sexual and gender-based violence. But far from offering them protection, the country’s punitive asylum system is treating them as a burden to be cast aside.

A migrant pregnant woman is helped onto a bus in Dungeness, England, on August 16, 2023. (Henry Nicholls / AFP via Getty Images)

In April last year, Leila, a pseudonym, sat nervously in front of a nurse at a London hospital. An asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Leila had been held captive, tortured, and raped continually by a group of men prior to being trafficked to the UK. She had suffered a debilitating spinal injury — and been referred for further treatment. When questioned by the nurse about her ordeal, Leila couldn’t recall the details. “I was attacked over a period of time and I fainted a lot,” she says. “So, it is very painful and difficult for me to talk about these things.” The nurse grew visibly irritated at Leila and told her: “If you can’t remember what happened to you, then why are you here?”

Leila says that this wasn’t the first time she’d been insensitively interrogated by a public employee since seeking refuge in the UK. “I had to do my asylum interview with the Home Office in two parts because I couldn’t finish speaking the first time, I was so upset,” she tells me. “When they refused my application, I felt horrible. I told them everything, but they didn’t believe me.” Today, she regularly sees a psychologist who specializes in caring for forced migrants who have lived through sexual violence.

Leila is also receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. “The clinic I go to now is much better,” she says. “But I know there are many women like me who are afraid to talk about what they went through because the doctor or the Home Office won’t be kind to them. They ask you all these questions as if you’re a criminal, and at the end of the day you don’t get any help.”

Like Leila, thousands of women fleeing conflict or persecution in their home countries arrive in the UK having survived shocking levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). But instead of offering these women adequate protection, the UK’s asylum process is systematically failing them — in multiple ways. These include insensitively conducted Home Office interviews that leave victims reluctant to disclose the full extent of their abuse, as well as high barriers to accessing trauma-informed and appropriate health care. Research from the University of Birmingham from 2021 also showed that hostile immigration practices, such as the removal of housing and financial support for refused asylum seekers, add to women’s vulnerability. They are often forced into exploitative relationships to survive, given their scant other opportunities for support.

Due to the difficulty of gathering data, little is known about the nature of SGBV experienced by women asylum seekers in the UK. A 2020 report by nonprofit Women for Refugee Women includes some appalling statistics: of the 103 women surveyed, 78 percent had experienced gender-based violence, while 59 percent had been raped. But as a journalist and researcher who has spoken to dozens of asylum-seeking and refugee women across the West Midlands and London in the course of my work, my sense is that the actual prevalence of SGBV is likely higher, undisclosed, and taking place with terrible brutality.

They ask you all these questions as if you’re a criminal, and at the end of the day you don’t get any help.

Anecdotally, advocacy groups for migrant women indicate that this conjecture is, unfortunately, likely to be correct. “I’ve been working with seventy-four women over the last two years who are either seeking protection through the asylum system, or have no recourse to public funds,” says Sarah Taal, director of Birmingham-based grassroots group Baobab Women’s Project. “Almost all of them survived SGBV.”

Others feel pressured to remain silent about their trauma. A fifty-one-year-old woman whom I have been meeting with regularly over the last year recently decided to share her experiences of sexual abuse by family members, police, and army officers in her home country during a period of civil war. “These are things even the Home Office doesn’t know,” she says. “I can only talk about them now that I have refugee status.” When asked why she hadn’t felt comfortable with including information that might have been beneficial to her case for asylum, she told me she felt the Home Office would be skeptical that she had faced so much violence from multiple groups of people. “The truth is unimaginable for them,” she adds.

These accounts of women within the asylum process demonstrate that survivors of sexual violence are not adequately seen or heard by the state: indeed, their fear of not being believed is often very legitimate. The effect is that public service providers are not giving them the care and protection they need. But there are other factors, too; the UK’s asylum laws veering toward right-wing populist “solutions”; the lack of consistency in the application of trauma-informed support by health care providers and the Home Office; and overworked advocacy groups not having the capacity to push for an overhaul of the immigration system. For all these reasons, survivors of SGBV keep slipping through the gaps.

Skepticism and Hostility

Given the pervasiveness of rape endured by female asylum seekers prior to arriving in the UK, there should be a strong impetus to enact a more clearly defined legal threshold for SGBV as a form of torture. Article 3 of the Human Rights Act (1998) sets out the government’s duty to not deport or extradite victims of torture. However, legislative backsliding means that the UK has recently neglected this obligation. In particular, the Illegal Migration Act enables the Home Office to remove forced migrants arriving by “irregular” means after July 20, 2023. This includes thousands of women who have been raped or sexually assaulted prior to or while undertaking unsafe routes to the UK — even before they have a chance to claim the right to safety from torture.

Since this May, the outsourcing of the UK’s humanitarian responsibility to refugees, via the Safety of Rwanda Act, is even more distressing. Fifty-seven hundred asylum seekers from all over the world are at risk of being sent to Rwanda, a country that the UK’s Supreme Court has deemed unsafe because of its poor human rights record, not least because it repatriated more than a hundred Eritrean and Sudanese nationals back to their home countries under a similar scheme with Israel from 2013 to 2018.

On paper, the Home Office has been careful in adopting a gender-sensitive approach to women entering the asylum system who may have suffered SGBV. It has offered staff guidance on how to treat gender issues in an asylum claim, with detailed information about identifying various types of SGBV, as well as best practices on the arrangement of childcare during interviews and requests for male or female interviewers.

Survivors of sexual violence are not adequately seen or heard by the state: indeed, their fear of not being believed is often very legitimate.

Yet these meticulously specified instructions are not always carried out. “Women have told us that they were laughed at or called liars by interpreters and Home Office caseworkers during their interviews,” Taal says. “One victim of FGM [forced genital mutilation] was told that it was safe for her to go back home since it had already been done to her, so it was unlikely that the same thing would happen again. Another was allocated a male interpreter who refused to translate her rape disclosure to the interviewer because it made the men from their country look bad. These experiences can really trigger women who’ve suffered SGBV, and they can end up spiraling into depression. Some come into our office in tears, expressing suicidal thoughts.”

Another key problem is that health care provision — which ought to be empathetic and accommodating toward women undergoing severe trauma — is instead frequently entangled with the culture of disbelief perpetuated by the Home Office. Asylum-seeking women recount feeling humiliated by their interactions with medical professionals. Jane, another pseudonym, who is from Uganda, was recently given the right to remain after having her asylum application repeatedly refused by the Home Office. She has to report monthly to her local Jobcentre to ascertain that she is still entitled to Universal Credit (UC) benefit payments during her job hunt. Her UC is adjusted for the disabilities that she has owing to the sexual violence inflicted on her by Ugandan authorities.

As part of these Jobcentre assessments, she has to speak semiregularly on the phone to a doctor. Recalling the last conversation she had with the doctor in May, she says: “I have trouble with my bladder because of what happened to me. He kept asking me how bad it [my condition] is, and if I ‘make a mess’ of myself whenever I am outside.” She told the doctor that since he had access to her medical history, he knew full well that her incontinence wasn’t a temporary condition. “He said he was just trying to do his job,” she continues. “I felt very bad about myself. I don’t understand why they have to keep doing this. I can do any type of work so long as I can use the toilet when needed.” Her monthly reporting at the Jobcentre, she adds, is just “another form of torture” after having waited so long to get humanitarian protection from the UK.

Survivors and Mothers

Still less has been done to understand and meet the complex health needs of asylum-seeking women who have suffered sexual trauma and then become pregnant. Pip McKnight, who worked as a specialist midwife at the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust for asylum seekers from 2014 to 2020 and continues to teach midwifery, says that the experience of sexual violence is often aggravated among pregnant migrant women because of the precarity of their everyday realities. “Throughout your pregnancy and until the birth, you don’t have any control over where you live, you’re forced to sleep in the same room as other people and can be moved anytime with a few hours’ notice,” she says. “These are not conditions where you can recover from trauma while having a baby at the same time.”

This volatility ends up further chipping away at the autonomy of SGBV survivors in the asylum system, some of whom were also trafficked to the UK. “The midwife has a unique relationship with the pregnant woman in that she’s in partnership with her, helping her bond with her baby and reflect on the birth,” McKnight says. “But if a woman doesn’t speak the language, she’s at the mercy of the decisions being made for her after she’s already been trafficked or suffered sexual violence. It becomes very hard for her to give informed consent, with doctors and nurses surrounding her and wanting to examine her. It’s unbelievably triggering.”

Asylum-seeking women face additional barriers in seeking accountability for the sexual violence they have suffered.

Along with another midwife who was also a psychologist and specialist in sexual abuse and pregnancy, McKnight helped to create trauma-informed birth plans for asylum-seeking patients through a Psychological Wellbeing Clinic at the same NHS Trust where she worked. This attended specifically to women who had suffered some form of SGBV or child abuse.

“We worked to prepare them for what’s likely to happen in childbirth, and she would show them the rooms so they were familiar with them, and knew what to expect in childbirth, whatever course the labor took,” she says. But ensuring that such valuable specialist care even keeps going itself poses constant problems. “When that consultant midwife and I left, the clinic also stopped. I actually tried to hand things over, but to my knowledge trauma-informed maternity care is still not embedded in the NHS, which is already very overworked and poorly resourced.”

Seeking Justice

It’s difficult to consider long-term strategies for supporting asylum-seeking survivors of SGBV, when the daily problems they come up against seem so overwhelming. Camila Marin Restrepo, a communities officer at human rights organization Redress, which supports torture survivors in obtaining justice and reparation, believes asylum-seeking women face additional barriers in seeking accountability for the sexual violence they have suffered.

“Seeking justice is a lengthy process, and the cases we work on can span over a decade,” she says. “When asylum seekers first come to the UK, they’re in legal limbo, and their main concerns might be economic sustenance or finding a place to live. Women are an even more marginalized subset of the asylum-seeking population given a number of factors like potential caring responsibilities, or the stigma that they face within their communities for denouncing such violence. Real justice is something they might only have the capacity to pursue much later down the line.”

Civil society support for migrants who have suffered sexual and gender-based violence cannot be a substitute for more robustly enforced laws.

Marin Restrepo adds that the migrant justice sector has been so busy firefighting anti-immigrant policies — and trying to win positive outcomes on asylum seekers’ right to remain — that the accountability and rehabilitation that should be an integral part of the healing process often ends up sidelined. “There are just so many angles that we’re constantly trying to fight against that we don’t even have space to imagine what a positive asylum system could look like.”

Meanwhile, advocacy groups for migrant women are filling a gap where the state is failing to fulfill its duties. Espoir Njei, like Taal a director at the Baobab Women’s Project, recently interviewed fifteen migrant women for a casework report aimed at lobbying for better policies to support those who have suffered violence. Several of the women that Njei spoke to faced domestic violence from their partners after arriving in the UK, and were unable to leave their living situations because they had nowhere else to go and feared destitution.

“One of them lived with a man who was raping her all the time, but she couldn’t complain because she was alone in this country and felt there was nothing she could do,” says Njei, who has lived experience of the asylum process. “Most of the women I spoke to said they reported their experience to charities, and were satisfied with the support they had received. In contrast, others who went to the police said that they were just given a case number and were not moved anywhere safer.”

The Home Office formerly proposed to spend £80 million to support “vital services and frontline work such as refuges and rape crisis centres” as part of their 2016–20 strategy to end violence against women and girls. Njei suggests that similar funding could partially be funneled toward NGOs like Baobab that work within communities to support migrant victims of sexual violence. But the outlook on what this Home Office policy has achieved is desolate. The Guardian reported last year that a lack of funding has led to rape crisis centers being forced to end their waiting lists across the UK. Moreover, support offered by the third sector to migrants who have suffered SGBV cannot be a substitute for more robustly enforced laws, and the restoration of trust in state institutions.

Even international laws have barely acknowledged sexual and gender-based violence.

After Thursday’s general election, this is an opportune moment to urge the incoming government — likely led by Labour, according to most polls — to tighten and enact policies that offer better protection to asylum-seeking women who are also SGBV survivors. The good news is that some of this legal guidance already exists; it is a matter of ensuring that caseworkers and medical practitioners abide by them consistently, and that trauma-informed training is standardized across frontline work with migrants. Labour leader Keir Starmer has pledged that the party will not allow any flights to depart for Rwanda should his party win the elections. This is a commitment that must be honored so that all asylum seekers have their claims justly considered.

Lift the Ban

One main reason for neglecting SGBV, within the UK’s official view on immigration, is that even international laws have barely acknowledged it. The 1951 Refugee Convention states that forced migrants must prove that they have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted” to seek asylum in another country, and that the feared persecution is due to “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” As Women for Refugee Women has pointed out, the exclusion of gender as a basis for persecution is problematic as it overlooks forms of violence — primarily SGBV — that predominantly affect women.

When approached for this story, a spokesperson for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) commented that “the refugee definition encompasses gender-related forms of persecution, as well as gender-related grounds for persecution through the particular social group and/or political opinion categories.” It further stated that “women and girls at risk may be prioritized for settlement by UNHCR, including to the UK,” and expressed concern over “barriers to asylum introduced in recent UK legislation.”

While it doesn’t appear that international pressure would be applied on the UK to humanize its migration strategy, more can be done holistically to improve the well-being of asylum seekers. Crucially, women I have spoken to feel strongly about the Lift the Ban movement, which would enable them to work, extricate them from enforced poverty, and offer them a semblance of independence and community while they attempt to rebuild their confidence and their lives. Giving asylum seekers the right to work would also increase GDP by an estimated £1.6 billion while reducing government spending by £6.7 billion. As one SGBV survivor whom I met at a focus group put it: “I’m so tired of being seen either as a victim or a criminal. My life isn’t just about seeing the doctor and my solicitor and then waiting at home. I want to feel like a human being again, and it would really help me if I could contribute to society.”

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