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24 February 2010

Female asylum seekers: fast-tracked unfairness

Report shows that women are being shunted into a system designed for simpler asylum claims.

By Samira Shackle

A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), published today, documents how female asylum seekers are being shunted into a fast-track system that does not accommodate the complexity of their cases.

I wrote an article for the New Statesman in October about the problems faced by women seeking asylum. Often they are fleeing persecution by their families or communities, which can be harder to prove than straightforward political pressure. There is no provision made for this in the stringent terms of the Refugee Convention, and it can be very difficult to build a legal case that proves, for example, the risk of honour killing, rape, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, or social exclusion.

Sadly, HRW’s report Fast-Tracked Unfairness: Detention and Denial of Women Asylum-Seekers in the UK appears to show that this situation is getting worse, not better.

The Detained Fast Track system, created in 2003, is part of the government’s drive to conclude 90 per cent of all asylum claims within six months. Women began to be fast-tracked in 2005. When a claim goes through the fast track, the UK Border Agency aims to reach a decision within two weeks, during which time the asylum-seeker is detained for administrative ease.

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The problems with this are manifold. The article I wrote in October discussed the way in which women in the mainstream asylum system are trapped within a framework that does not recognise their needs: the extra time it takes to gather evidence of persecution, the expert testimony required to make the case, and the gender-sensitive procedures required to help them discuss matters such as rape.

To attempt to process these claims in two weeks — with just a few days to appeal — is nothing short of a travesty of justice. As the report shows, lawyers have very little time to gain the trust required for the client to explain their claim, or to obtain the medical and other evidence to corroborate an asylum application.

“The Detained Fast Track system doesn’t meet even the basic standards of fairness,” says Gauri van Gulik, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It is simply not equipped to handle rape, slavery, the threat of ‘honour killings’, or other complex claims, and yet such cases are handed to it regularly.”

This is borne out by the evidence. So far 2,055 women have gone through the fast-track process. About 96 per cent of them were refused on first hearing, while government statistics for 2008 and the first half of 2009 show that 91 per cent of appeals were refused.

As asylum aid organisations and women’s groups have pointed out for months, this benefits no one. It is traumatic for the woman, and ultimately more expensive for the Home Office and the British taxpayer, due to the cost of going to appeal.

The report also shows that roughly a quarter of women initially assigned to the fast-track procedure in 2008 were moved back into the standard asylum procedure — the work of lobbying by lawyers and non-governmental organisations, rather than reassessment by the border agency.

The standard asylum procedure still leaves a lot to be desired (Asylum Aid has done some good work on this, including a Women’s Asylum Charter endorsed by nearly 200 organisations). Yet it is preferable to having just two weeks to process a claim.

HRW calls for complex gender-related persecution claims, such as sexual and domestic violence, to be added to the list of “claims unlikely to be accepted into fast-track”. This must be a priority.

The report is not part of a campaign for open borders or for making Britain a “soft touch”, but it is an indisputable fact that seeking asylum is a right, not a crime. To remove the tools needed to make the case for it violates the fairness that the British justice system aims to uphold.

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