A well-known author once wrote that “evil begins when someone begins to think of people as things.” As a privileged nation we forget that, as borders and seas conveniently separate us from the horrors that our fellow humans endure. In a world riven with conflict, from Syria and Afghanistan to Somalia and the Republic of Congo, there are 16 million refugees and asylum seekers who have been uprooted worldwide. Recent figures reveal that refugees and asylum seekers only make up 0.05 per cent of the population in Scotland, but they are demonised in the media to such an extent that people speak of our country being ‘overrun’ – or worse, as a columnist at the Daily Express once put it; “A multicultural hellhole we never voted for.”
Scotland can take pride in its human rights based approach to gender-based violence – having specialist courts, task forces, forced marriage protection orders and specialist support for victims. However, women seeking asylum have been systematically neglected by the Home Office for years due to lack of training, childcare and female interpreters. The Women’s Asylum Charter has been campaigning to the Home Secretary to make the asylum system more gender-sensitive and close this ‘Protection Gap’ so the community can begin to rebuild their lives.
Nina Murray, Women’s Policy Officer from the Scottish Refugee Council, said that women seeking asylum are at greater risk of having their claim rejected as women are disproportionately affected by rape and domestic violence – experiences which are difficult to prove to caseworkers. Trauma from past events can affect their memory, meaning they cannot give a proper testimony. In many cases, women have felt degraded as they are forced to tell their harrowing story through a male interpreter or in front of their children, meaning they do not disclose all the details necessary.
“Giving a full, detailed testimony to Home Office at the first meeting greatly improves an asylum seeker’s chance of being granted refuge, but often due to those circumstances, Home Office have often made the wrong decision and justice is not done,” she said.
She added: “Home Office has indicated its willingness to explore how to implement the campaign’s recommendations, but women in the asylum process urgently need action now to turn this commitment into a reality. There needs to be a cultural shift in their practice.”
According to an Asylum Aid report in 2013, women make up a third of asylum applicants, but 42 per cent have their negative case overturned at appeal – compared to just 28 per cent of the wider asylum seeker population. It seems demonstrative of a wider culture of cynicism; in a study carried out by Asylum Aid in 2011, 87 per cent of caseworkers of whom have admitted that they initially did not believe the women. Their compassion is perhaps dampened by the ever-present trope of the ‘bogus’ asylum seeker in the media. Applicants thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy, afraid that their story isn’t powerful enough to allow them to stay. Their desperation is clear, however; anything is better than going back to a war torn country where their lives are at risk.
At the Garnethill Multicultural Centre Women’s Choir, where refugees and asylum seekers meet once a week, many members enjoy socialising with others from different backgrounds; a welcome distraction from the worries and fears of awaiting their fate.
Hope, 43, fled Zimbabwe in 2002 due to political conflict, leaving her children aged six and eleven behind. The Home Office have continually rejected her appeal, she has never met the person handling her case, and she has had to submit a fresh claim several times – leaving her ill with stress and mental health problems.
“I think dying would be easier than what I have been through,” she said, adding: “I have had to live thirteen years without my children because they can’t come here – and it was too dangerous for me to go back home. I have had to travel to Liverpool with barely any money to fight for my right to stay. Many women are dispersed halfway across the country by Home Office, like we are cattle.”
She added: “Without refugee status, I am not allowed to work, but we are just made out to be lazy. We refugees come here to protect ourselves, to find peace – but women are dying from stress and from being detained. We are treated like criminals.”
The UK is one of the few EU countries where there is no upper time limit on detaining asylum seekers – 30,000 were incarcerated across the eleven detention centres in the UK last year, up 24 per cent from the year before. Described as “costly, ineffective and unjust” by Conservative MP Richard Fuller, the taxpayer spends £97 a day to detain an asylum seeker – which is extremely high, considering it is done mostly for administrative purposes.
In a government report carried out by charity Women for Refugee Women, 85 per cent of women detained in removal centres had been raped or tortured – and half of them had been verbally abused by the guards. This issue also came to light in Channel 4’s recent investigation of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire – Britain’s largest detention facility which houses up to 400 women. In the footage, guards were filmed referring to the detained women as ‘animals’ and ‘bitches,’ and claimed that self-harmers were “attention-seeking.” While politicians publicly condemned the staff, the fact still lies that women – some pregnant, and some victims of rape and violence – are being detained at considerable cost to their mental wellbeing. Months of mistreatment, isolation and countless roll calls, some women slash their wrists, starve themselves – and in one case, a woman even resorted to jumping down a flight of stairs. According to Home Office figures, more than one in five women have considered killing themselves while in detention, and a third have been placed on suicide watch. At Dungavel, Scotland’s detention centre, there are only eighteen beds for women in a centre for 250 people – which is incredibly distressing for women who have suffered gender-based violence. One woman described to the Scottish Refugee Council that they “felt like chickens amongst dogs.”
Home Office recommends that women who have suffered trauma should be living in the community rather than in removal centres, except in extreme circumstances. Instead many are treated like criminals, waiting in limbo within concrete walls and barbed wires for their verdict for months, or even years. Some might even say convicts are treated better.
Gita, 46, arrived in Britain in 2007 after fleeing persecution in Zimbabwe. As the vice secretary of an opposition party, she was living in fear of being killed in her sleep by government forces. She is still waiting for her case to be accepted.
“They say they don’t believe me. No one gave me information on how to apply for asylum, so I was unaware I was living here on an expired Visa. I had photos of me that prove I was part of this party, but at the time my mum said I should leave everything behind for my own safety. The Home Office look for evidence of corruption [in Zimbabwe], but they wouldn’t put anything on the internet, they act like everything is fine, ”
She adds: “Women are under so much stress in the asylum process. A lot of them are mothers, and have to manage children’s appointments, pick-ups all the while panicking that you might be taken away by the Home Office.
“My friend was heavily pregnant, she went to report to the Home Office and they tried to detain her. She was screaming and shouting until they released her, before rushing to the refugee council. We couldn’t even do anything for her. For a country with human rights, but they don’t treat asylum seekers with enough respect. We are treated like animals.”
It takes a lot for a person to flee their home country, to leave their friends and families behind – to risk their lives bribing traffickers, boarding a rubber dinghy or clinging on for dear life under lorries at Calais. Regardless, for vast swathes of the UK population, it seems that when asylum seekers take that risk to get here by dangerous means, they have already forfeited their human rights and protection under international law. Refugees and asylum seekers are treated as collateral damage in a toxic, inhumane asylum system underpinned by Home Office values of ‘efficiency’, ‘reducing costs’ and ‘securing the border’ – the government flexing its political muscles on the world stage while laying human lives to waste because they are poor, powerless and destitute. Home Office must implement the policies necessary to close the ‘Protection Gap’ – but so long as immigration policy is reserved to Westminster, Scotland can never give all women equal rights – and give those seeking asylum the justice they deserve.