Yesterday I listened in horror, as down the phone, a woman I was speaking to started to cry. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I heard her repeat one word over and over again. My interpreter translated for me. She was asking “why?” I didn’t have an answer for her. I could offer her no comfort.
A few years ago, Noorzia Atmar had reason to hope. She had returned to Afghanistan after years in exile during the Taliban’s rule – and she had won a seat in parliament. During her term in office Afghanistan signed up to the Convention for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and banned twenty-two forms of violence against women. Progress was slow, achingly so, but it was being made.
Noorzia’s situation now could not be more different. Forced to flee her country by a husband who tried to kill her and a family who deserted her when she tried to divorce him as a result, Noorzia has been reduced to penury, to hiding, and to depending on the small mercies of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Her outlook is bleak. When she applied to the British Embassy in Afghanistan for help, before she was forced out of the country altogether, she was curtly rebuffed. Their reason? If they offered her sanctuary it would open the floodgates. Too many abused, victimised, terrified women would turn to us for help. This is how we make moral decisions in these penny-pinching times.
As I listened to Noorzia’s anguished cries, I felt helpless. I wanted to help her. But I felt little hope that the country I was sitting so comfortably in would be a sanctuary for her. And if I’d had any delusions on that score, the plight of another woman, Yashika Bageerathi, currently being played out all over the media in real-time, would have been sure to disabuse me of them.
Yashika fled Mauritius with her family in 2012 after a drug dealer broke into her house. “I refused to open the house door, it was just me and my younger siblings at home”, she told the Independent. “He broke it down and came in, started hitting my sister and me, and tore my clothes. My mum came home from work before he could do anything.” This man has warned that his gang will be waiting to greet Yashika off the plane. “He lost a lot of money because of us to do with his drug-dealing.”
Her home is currently a cell in the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre – but weeks ago she was a top student at her school in Enfield. She is predicted A*s, she has offers from all five of her university choices – and scholarships from two of them. Her school has spoken about how she spends her spare time volunteering to coach younger students. Hardly cell-block material.
There is something unseemly about the haste with which the Home Office is trying to deport Yashika. She is a matter of months from completing her A levels – there can be no logical explanation why her education should be so cruelly and irrevocably disrupted in this way. Her supporters argued that she had no family in Mauritius, that all she had to welcome her “home” was the man who tried to rape her. They invoked Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention – the right to a family life. The Home Office’s response? To deport the rest of her family too.
Yesterday afternoon it seemed as if there was a break-through. The only flight from Gatwick to Mauritius was delayed by 23 minutes – but Yashika was not on it. It later emerged that British Airways had refused to accept her onto the flight. It comes to something when we have to rely on private companies for a show of moral rectitude; all the Home Office seems capable of doing is repeatedly trotting out their tired old claim that “the UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it”. As if they were not in the process of wilfully sullying that history.
Report after report has demonstrated that we repeatedly get it wrong on women’s asylum claims. Home Office staff are simply not properly trained in the type of discrimination women face. Up to 96 per cent of women are refused asylum on their first application, with 50 per cent of those rejections overturned on appeal – almost double the average rate of 28 per cent. There’s something going very wrong with the decisions made over women’s claims – not surprising given Home Office staff have been known to base their life-changing decisions on Gawker articles.
The Home Office tells us we should feel proud of our tradition of offering asylum. Well, I do. I do feel proud to belong to a country that believes in offering sanctuary, a place of refuge to those in need. I don’t believe that because I was lucky enough to be born in the position I am in, that I am somehow more deserving of it. But when I speak to Noorzia, when I watch helplessly, as yet another vulnerable woman is hastened out of this country by a faceless bureaucracy that doesn’t have the courage of its convictions to face the 125,000 people who have signed a petition, a bureaucracy that will not face us and defend its decision, I don’t feel proud. I feel ashamed. And I feel angry. This does not happen in my name.