Home is where the heartbreak is

Asylum-seeking women are especially vulnerable to persecution, but the British immigration system do

"Maybe I should just go back and die," says Esther. "It happens all the time. People go to sleep and just don't wake up." If she returns to her native Kenya, Esther will be under threat of murder and rape. But the UK has refused her asylum. Her situation is typical of the plight of vulnerable female refugees, trapped in a system that does not recognise their needs.

Esther, a born-again Christian and activist, was forced to flee Kenya after breaking the traditions of her tribe, the Luos. At the prompting of her husband, a warrant was issued for her arrest. The Mungiki terror cult also put up posters in Nairobi naming her as a target for her church activism. Her house was burned down, and she does not know the whereabouts of her children - something she finds too painful to discuss. "Luo women have no rights," she says. "The husband paid money for you, so you are their possession and must do what they tell you."

The UN Refugee Convention, written in 1951, defines a refugee as someone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", with no protection from their own state.

Debora Singer, policy and research manager at the charity Asylum Aid, explains that lone women often have a distinct set of reasons for seeking asylum. "Women might flee for the same reasons as men, such as political persecution, but they tend to be involved at a lower level," Singer says. This doesn't mean that they are at less risk, but it can be perceived this way, and the danger is harder to prove.

“Women also face persecution that is not perpetrated by the state, but by their families or communities, such as rape, domestic violence, honour crimes and female genital mutilation."

This presents the problem of evidence. Political persecution is one thing, but how can a raped woman prove that her family will murder her because of the shame she will bring? A good lawyer can argue that a woman is part of a certain social group with unchangeable characteristics - a divorced woman, for example, will be a social outcast in many countries - but this is the legal point on which women's cases often fail.

The Home Office accepts that Esther is in danger, but recommends "internal flight", meaning returning to another part of Kenya. To do so, she will have to pass through Nairobi. "They will hack me," she says, fearing death by machete at the hands of her persecutors.

Meena Patel, joint co-ordinator of Southall Black Sisters, which provides support for female asylum-seekers, explains. "The Home Office now quite consistently says that a woman can't return to her particular area but can return to another part of that country. But women such as these in countries throughout Asia and Africa will struggle to survive. They will be targeted, vulnerable and ostracised. It will be very difficult to get jobs, especially if they are single, leading to poverty and destitution. It doesn't matter if you're from the Punjab and you go back to Gujarat - you are a single woman, therefore you may be seen as a loose woman or a prostitute. There are no systems in place to protect lone women from the risks they face."

Persecution in Pakistan

Salma was sent to England at the age of 18 from a village in Pakistan, for an arranged marriage with a British citizen. Kept as a slave in his house, she suffered physical and sexual abuse. She is strikingly small and speaks quickly, rocking back and forth as she describes how she escaped to a women's refuge after finding guns in the house, and then called home in Pakistan.

“My mother kept saying I couldn't go back," she says. "Then my brother snatched the phone and said if I came back, he would kill me because I would bring shame on the family." Brutalised and terrified of being removed from the UK, Salma tried to throw herself under a bus. Although she survived this suicide attempt, she says she will try again if her application for asylum fails - "then I can choose how I die".

A landmark case in 1999 ruled that divorced women in Pakistan did qualify as a persecuted group, and that the women in question should be granted refugee status. Lord Steyn, adjudicating, said that "discrimination against women in Pakistan is partly tolerated by the state, and partly sanctioned by the state". He accepted that there was strong discrimination against divorced women, who are viewed as licentious and potentially contaminating. But subsequent cases have overturned this, leaving the ground uncertain for women, a legal grey area dominated by case law. As human-rights cases often relate to men, the boundaries are even further blurred. It might be viable for a young man to flee within a country, but it is impossible for a lone woman such as Salma because of her precarious social position.

In this minefield, it can be hard to find good representation. With cuts in legal aid funding, solicitors can work only a prescribed number of hours on each case. "Cases involving women often take more time," says Jonathan Bishop, an immigration lawyer. "All asylum cases are complex, but for women, solicitors must find evidence of violence or abuse and often rely on expert testimony on the risks the woman will face upon her return, which costs money."

Gender guidelines

Yet another problem is a lack of existent female-sensitive procedures. This year's Vulnerable Women's Project by the Refugee Council found that 76 per cent of the women it supports have been raped, giving some indication of the high prevalence of sexual violence suffered by female asylum-seekers.

The UK Border Agency does have gender guidelines - this is one of just five countries worldwide that does - which state that a female interviewer, and child care for the duration of the interview, must be provided if requested. However, at present, only half of the UK's regions provide this, and caseworkers report that gender guidelines are rarely enforced.

Singer expands: "It's difficult for women in this country to talk about rape or domestic violence, let alone those from a very conservative society. If they later pluck up the courage to disclose that they were raped, it often goes against their credibility, and is seen as being made up to support their case . . . A major problem is women not being believed. For a rape victim, that is very, very traumatic."

While the treatment of rape victims in the criminal justice system is far from ideal - and the subject of separate campaigning - 16 gender-sensitive provisions exist, such as allowing victims to give evidence by video link. For women seeking asylum, there are just two. The lack of gender guidelines in the legal asylum process, or adherence to guidelines by the UKBA, leads not only to distress for women, but also to a waste of public funds as many cases go to appeal. No one is arguing that all women claiming asylum should be granted automatic refugee status. But it is equally impossible to say that the current system treats them fairly.

Samira Shackle is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

Bordering on ignorance

The plight of female asylum-seekers is unfashionable. Although it attracts attention from the charitable sector - in particular, with a Women's Charter by Asylum Aid, endorsed by 160 organisations - the media and government remain largely uninterested.

I spoke to the UK Border Agency, where a spokesman defended the status quo, given that "asylum applications by female applicants may well be considered under the heading of 'Particular Social Group'".

I asked about the UKBA's gender guidelines, which women and front-line workers claim are often not enforced. The spokesman stressed that requests for same-sex interviewers and interpreters are always met, "where operationally possible". With the inherent difficulty of providing evidence of persecution by family or community, cases often rest upon the woman's own credibility as a witness; yet few provisions are made to assist her in telling the full story.

What about the disjunction between the treatment of UK rape victims and victims who are asylum-seekers? "We do not accept that there is a direct analogy in the way women who are victims of crime in the UK are treated in the criminal justice system and the way that the UK considers those seeking asylum." No reason was given.

The UKBA says that it is working to ensure that women asylum-seekers are treated fairly, but these answers do not give a real sense of engagement with the complexity of the issue.

Samira Shackle