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They have fled torture, rape and oppression, often leaving their children behind, in the hope of finding sanctuary. But once here, they have to contend with destitution – and a government system geared up to sending them back. Louise France on the desperate lives of the UK’s women asylum seekers
We don’t usually hear from women like Salima Sekindi. It stands to reason that if you’ve been told to leave the country you’re not going to draw attention to yourself. But the irony is that once I know where to look, I find women like Salima – female failed asylum seekers – in all kinds of places. I meet them in local libraries, friends of friends’ kitchens, drop-in centres. On streets in the dusty parts of London that the tourist guides never mention – Canning Town, Hounslow, Tottenham, West Ham. For a few hours they appear in the foreground. Then, like ghosts, they melt away again. Salima Sekindi has packed a lot into her 37 years, but not in a good way. We sit in the drab living room of the house where she’s currently camping out – at any time she could be asked to pick up her few belongings and leave. Like many asylum stories her account is by turns horrific and mundane, dramatic and repetitive. Life-changing events seem to happen in seconds, stultifying months of limbo follow.
Salima tells me how in Uganda she was raped and tortured in front of her children when her husband, a Muslim, was arrested for suspected involvement in rebel groups. (He has never been seen or heard of again.) In Britain she is homeless, just about existing, sleeping on friends’ settees and floors. Her hair is falling out, a combination of stress and poor diet. Without any financial benefits, or the possibility of legal employment, there have been occasions when she’s been forced to exchange sex for food. A man who offered her a room took advantage of her situation and she was raped again. ‘I had no choice,’ she says.It was a business friend of her husband’s who paid an agent to bring her to Britain. Salima travelled on a false passport and claimed asylum as soon as she arrived, six years ago, but her case was rejected. She has struggled, she says, to find effective legal advice. In 2005 she was arrested and taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, where she went on hunger strike and attempted suicide by hanging, tying one of her sheets to the steel stairways. Three times she was taken to the airport to leave, three times the decision was changed on appeal at the last minute.
Salima’s voice grows hoarse and she finds it hard to stop the tears. She wipes her eyes on her denim jacket, determined to tell her story to the end. It isn’t running away that seems to have broken her spirit. Or living under the constant fear of arrest. Or having to survive on the occasional handouts from friends. It is the gradual seeping away of any hope. ‘I can’t believe this is me,’ she says. ‘I never imagined my life would come to this. Always waiting, not knowing what is going to happen.’ Believe the metaphors favoured by the media and you might think that Britain is drowning beneath a flood, a torrent, a deluge, a tidal wave of asylum seekers. One of the problems, say campaigners, is vocabulary. Most of us do not differentiate between economic migrants, arrivals from the newly expanded EU and asylum seekers. In fact, according to the most recent figures (from 2005) the number of people applying for asylum has dropped by 24 per cent. Most, according to The Destitution Trap, a recent report by Refugee Action, ‘arrive here through chance, not choice, and most do not understand what seeking asylum means’.
Many of the women I speak to were brought over by ‘agents’ who were paid substantial amounts of money. Hours after their client’s arrival the agents invariably invent some sort of pretext – collecting tickets, buying coffee – and then disappear, never to be seen again. The vast majority of those asylum seekers who apply to stay here are rejected. Each year around two-thirds of applications made to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office are ultimately refused. Once the applicant’s claim has been turned down and there is no outstanding appeal they are expected to leave the country within 21 days. Financial support and any accommodation provided by the National Asylum Support Service are cut off for single adults and childless couples.
Ivy, who is 41, laughs a lot, although for the life of me I don’t know why. She seems to survive on a droll sense of humour and a bird-like energy which finds her volunteering most days at different women’s groups around Manchester. ‘I make sure I keep myself busy,’ she says. ‘You can’t cry all the time.’ Every night she sleeps on a single bed which she shares with her 20-year-old daughter in a friend’s living room. Her ‘landlady’ doesn’t know that Ivy is HIV positive, so she hides her medication under the mattress.
Ivy was a dressmaker – ‘a good one’ she says proudly – in Malawi. Five years ago she fled the country following threats of a forced marriage to her brother-in-law after the sudden death of her husband. Her application to stay was finally turned down in 2005. She and her daughter survive on a weekly handout from the Red Cross: a kilo of rice, a kilo of semolina, two apples, two potatoes and one bag of sugar.
I ask her what is the most difficult aspect of her life now. ‘I know where I am from, but I don’t know where I am going,’ she says. ‘My life is in somebody else’s hands. Sometimes I overhear people criticising asylum seekers and I feel sorry for myself. They don’t know what they are talking about. If I was allowed to work I could contribute. But we’re forced to become beggars. We have no names.’
In the current popular debate there can be few labels as stigmatic as ‘asylum seeker’. Add the word ‘rejected’ and ‘female’ and you’re pretty much at the bottom of the heap. Last year the journalist Natasha Walter became so alarmed by the stories she was hearing about women asylum seekers – pregnant women sent into detention centres, women forced to sleep rough – that she has helped to set up a campaign group, Women for Refugee Women, which aims to publicise the issues and lobby government. ‘You get the feeling that women are sitting ducks,’ she says. ‘While men might go into hiding women are more exposed. There is the fear that the authorities can sweep down on women and children in their homes.’
About a third of all asylum seekers are female, yet campaigners argue that the 1951UN Convention on Refugees does not take into account women’s experiences. It states that ‘a person may be recognised as a refugee owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’ Crucially it misses out the word gender.
Deborah Singer, co-ordinator of the Refugee Women’s Resource Project at Asylum Aid, explains why this is significant: ‘The convention was written over 50 years ago, during the Cold War, when the classic image of a refugee was a white man crossing over to the west from behind the Iron Curtain. The idea that a refugee might be a black woman from Africa was unheard of.’ Thus widely recognised forms of oppression such as rape, or forced marriage, or female genital mutilation are not strictly recognised by the guidelines. Meanwhile, the fact that a woman in their initial interview might say she’s been persecuted because she’s the wife or sister of an activist, or because she was involved in low-level political activity such as hiding someone or cooking for political meetings, is sometimes not taken seriously.
The concern is that women don’t receive a fair hearing. This, says Singer, is despite the fact that evidence suggests that for a woman to make the decision to flee her country, going against social mores and often forced to leave her children behind, the situation she is running from is usually extremely treacherous – possibly worse than that of the men who arrive here.
However, campaigners claim that what women face when they come here, both in the media and inside the immigration centres in Croydon and Liverpool, is a culture of disbelief and the problem of how to prove crimes which have happened behind closed doors, many thousands of miles away. ‘The sorts of persecution women are fleeing from are the kind a British woman would be protected from,’ says Singer. ‘The criminal justice system has come a long way in treating victims of rape and domestic violence. But if you’re a female asylum seeker looking for the same kind of understanding, you won’t find it.’ Many of the women are too scared or shy or traumatised to disclose crimes such as rape. ‘This is a recognised common pattern among British rape victims,’ says Singer, ‘but these women are expected to talk to an official as soon as they arrive.’
Robinah seems much older than 29. Her life is a catalogue of loss – first her mother and father, then her brother, most recently her sister-in-law. She describes growing up in Masaka, central Uganda, where she was looked after by her brother following the death of their parents. Her brother, who owned a bar, was a member of the banned Democratic Party. ‘One day many soldiers came and attacked the bar and the shop where I worked nearby,’ she says. People were shot at and beaten. Robinah and her sister-in-law were raped. Her brother was taken away. ‘I never found out what happened to him.’
That night, Robinah and her sister-in-law slept in the bush. Months later, after living in hiding in Tanzania, they made their way to Britain with the help of an agent paid by their aunt. Early in the morning of their arrival he took them to a Ugandan-run bar – ‘somewhere in east London, I didn’t know where we were’ – and left them there. I wonder what kind of belongings she had. ‘Jean jacket and lady’s shoes,’ she replies. ‘The kind of shoes you wear to church.’
In immigration interviews, she was allotted a male case worker. She remembers being frightened. ‘We thought they were going to take us straight back. My mind was panicking. I was very scared.’ She never mentioned the rape. ‘I felt so ashamed. ‘ This was in 2001. Six years later Robinah’s sister-in-law has vanished from the church where she was sleeping out and Robinah has been in detention five times. She survives with the help of handouts from a British woman who has taken her under her wing. Her application to stay in Britain has been turned down.
‘Imagine putting yourself in their shoes,’ says the actress Juliet Stevenson, who has campaigned on behalf of women asylum seekers and took part in a reading of ‘Asylum Monologues’ along with fellow actor Kwame Kwei-Armah during Refugee Week in June. ‘Imagine living in a country where you are persecuted, where you have seen your family killed, or left your children behind, or have been raped. Imagine getting on a plane and getting off in Taiwan and being asked to fill in a 19-page form you don’t understand, in a language you don’t know. What if that was you? There seems to be a concrete wall between how we want to be treated and how we think people from abroad should be.’
The figures for women like Salima, Ivy and Robinah vary wildly. According to Home Office statistics there is a maximum of 283,500 refused asylum seekers in Britain. Unofficial estimates from Amnesty International suggest the figure could be almost double. Many don’t return for fear of their lives back home, some are unable to safely obtain travel documents or valid visas. The New Asylum Model, introduced in April, aims to speed up the process of 90 per cent of applications to six months by 2011. However, there is a substantial backlog of cases and at the current rate of removal (according to Liam Byrne, Minister of Immigration, Nationality and Citizenship, someone leaves every 26 minutes) it will take at least 14 years to catch up, at a cost of £11,000 per person.
Prior to 2002, asylum seekers were usually barred from working for the first six months while their asylum application was being considered, but after that they could apply for the restriction to be lifted. This is no longer the case. Campaigners suspect that because the government cannot afford to remove all refused asylum seekers it is resorting to making them destitute to get rid of them.
In theory, some refused asylum seekers can obtain ‘Section 4′ shelter and £35 worth of weekly food vouchers – provided they sign up to returning to their countries of origin. In practice, many are not eligible and others choose not to apply for it, seeing it as a ploy to force them to return. Either way, say asylum seekers and charity workers, the support is meagre and hard to access.
Destitution means sleeping in telephone boxes, church porticos, on friends’ floors or on the back seat of the night bus, going hungry or relying on a weekly bag of provisions handed out by charities. Rejected asylum seekers have access to emergency healthcare only, despite the fact that many have illnesses as the result of torture. I hear of women who have been handed a bill after giving birth. A bill they have no hope of paying.
The Red Cross drop-in centre is tucked away behind the smart shop-fronts on Islington High Street, in north London. Over the past 12 months the number of asylum seekers pitching up at these cramped offices has doubled. If they’re lucky they can get supermarket vouchers, a free sleeping bag, a couple of hours’ advice . There’s a room of basic clothing – vests, knickers, sweatshirts. Until recently there was a stash of Union Jack-patterned boxer shorts, but they’ve all been given away. The image of rejected asylum seekers reduced to wearing patriotic underwear provides a rare moment of dark humour.
Marie-Anne Fishwick, who co-ordinates the centre’s women’s project, lists the people she has seen so far today. A woman in her forties with mental health problems due more to her current life than her old one in the Congo; an Ethiopian woman who is five months pregnant and has been split up from her husband; another Congolese woman, this one 19, who spends her nights on the streets in a sleeping bag; a woman from Kenya worried about the health of her poorly child. Fishwick’s team is particularly concerned that women on the streets are vulnerable to exploitation. They know of at least 50 last year who became pregnant as a result of abusive relationships. ‘It’s not easy hearing women’s stories, hearing that they would rather die and not being able to offer any comfort. It used to be that there were quite nice bits of my job,’ says Fishwick. ‘People who had been granted leave to stay would come here and we’d tell them what a pound coin was, or how to go on a list for housing. Now the majority are destitute and they understand that these hopeless circumstances are now their future.’
In 2006 Jan Shaw, Amnesty International’s refugee programme director, decided to focus her annual report on destitution. She knew it was a huge, underground problem, but she didn’t realise quite how overwhelming the response would be when word got out. ‘People literally walked across London to talk to us,’ she says. ‘They were desolate. Their eyes lit up when they arrived here thinking we could do something, until they realised, in the short term at least, there was nothing we could do.’ She argues that despite improvements in the immigration service, asylum seekers are still at risk of not receiving a fair hearing. ‘Poor decision-making, poor interpreting, poor legal advice is leading to destitution,’ she says. ‘The only legal way out of this black hole is to say you will go home, but no one will do that.’ When Home Office staff come to the offices for meetings she makes sure they all drink their tea from mugs which read: ‘I’m standing up for refugees.’ The problem is that she is not at all convinced they are. There is an assumption among the authorities, she says, that asylum seekers understand their way around the legal system. In her experience the vast majority do not, and with recent changes to legal aid there are fewer solicitors available, or willing, to take on their complicated and time-consuming cases.
Louisa, 45, who was kidnapped in Zimbabwe for handing out pamphlets on behalf of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, has never found any decent legal advice. I realise how desperate she is when she asks me if I can recommend anyone. Four years ago a Zimbabwean lawyer she contacted ran off with both her passport and £600, and she’s not found any other legal help since.
In the unlikely event that Louisa needs a reminder that she’s under constant threat of being sent back to Zimbabwe she need only look up at the sky. She lives with her twin sister Elizabeth, who has legal status to remain in Britain, directly beneath the flight path to Heathrow . Every five minutes the grey underbelly of a plane hovers overhead. Every month she must sign on to prove that she is still in the country. Every month she has no idea if she will be ordered to leave.
The three of us talk in the living room where Louisa sleeps each night on the settee. She is especially anxious today. She needs to take her prescription for warfarin (the drug that reduces the risk of blood clots) to the chemist, but there is no money to pay for it. Louisa: ‘When I came here I thought I would be safe, but you don’t feel safe because you don’t know what is going to happen to you. You don’t know if someone will pick you up and lock you in.’
Elizabeth: ‘She has no money at all. I have to pay for everything. Food, clothes. And then my husband plays up. He is tired of it. He wants his home back.’
Louisa: ‘My sister is putting her marriage at risk letting me stay here. But even if I wanted to go home I would be killed. Either way you can’t win. You are not allowed to be here. You are not allowed to be there. You are nowhere.’
This is a crucial time for asylum issues: a new prime minister, a revamped Home Office, a surprise choice for home secretary and the UK Borders Bill currently making slow progress through parliament. ‘We are pushing for amendments to the UK Borders Bill that will end the scandal of destitution at a stroke,’ says Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council and a member of the Still Human Still Here campaign. ‘We think that it is morally unacceptable to use destitution to encourage refused asylum seekers to return to their country of origin, and so do a growing number of churches, charities and community organisations across the country who are picking up the pieces when people have nowhere else to go and nothing to eat.’ Church of England bishops have said that they’re committed to debating the issue in the House of Lords. In Manchester I meet an unusual group of women seeking asylum. They have banded together to help one another with anti-deportation campaigns and publicise what it’s like to be a female asylum seeker in Britain in 2007. Every Friday afternoon Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) meets in a small community centre. When I arrive there are four women in total, sitting incongruously on children’s chairs in a huddle. As the afternoon goes on more appear, in pairs, in threesomes, some women pushing prams. In the end the room is packed with women from many of the world’s most notorious countries : Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Nigeria.
Farhat Khan, a dignified, softly spoken woman from Pakistan, chairs the meeting. She has lived in Britain with her five children for seven years, after fleeing a violent marriage. Her husband’s relatives have let it be known that her life would be in danger if she returned home. She introduces the group and later the women literally queue up to tell me their stories. Some are still stuck in the asylum process, waiting on decisions. Others have already been turned down and are living on handouts. All are living under the constant threat of detention.
First up is Naima Alam Maznura, whose husband, an activist in the Freedom Party in Bangladesh, has already been deported. She thinks he may have gone to India but she has no way of getting hold of him. Next I meet 24-year-old Florence Moses from Sierra Leone, a lesbian who was forced to marry her cousin. When she arrived in Britain she discovered she was carrying his child. Emiola Fadeyi, from Nigeria, is in a wheelchair and must live on £30 a week. Then there is Asli, an Eritrean, born in Ethiopia. She is a bright and vivacious young woman whose twenties are slipping by while she waits for an answer from the Home Office. Farida Yesnin from Bangladesh becomes so distraught she gives up speaking and just puts her head in her hands. Her three-and-a-half-year-old son watches, bewildered.
It’s impossible to talk to these women without thinking about questions of identity, about what it means to be British, and what it means to be stripped of everything – money, home, clothing, food, dignity – until you’re rendered almost invisible. Elizabeth, who was accused of supplying pharmaceuticals to the rebels in Uganda, sums it up: ‘It’s like you are dead already. Nobody knows that you exist. No one even sees you.’
Towards the end of the afternoon Farhat receives an unexpected telephone call. She replaces the receiver, visibly shaken . It was her solicitor, she tells me, her voice quivering. She has been given permission to remain in Britain. She can hardly believe it. For at least one of the women today there is something to celebrate. Finally, she has her life back. For the others, the agonising wait goes on.
This story appeared on Sunday July 22, 2007 in the Guardian Unlimited
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