By Anna, Women’s Advocacy Officer
This week at an event to mark the UN International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women, Baroness Verma, the Government Spokesperson for Women and Equalities, highlighted the cross party support to tackle Violence Against Women. While we applaud strides taken to protect women, it is clear to us that both the former Labour government and the current administration have implemented policies that have resulted in some of the most vulnerable women in our society facing increased risk of violence – women seeking asylum.
Refugee women are more affected by violence against women than any other women’s population in the world. Yet many women seeking asylum in the UK struggle to get their protection needs recognised. Research by Asylum Aid released earlier this year found that the UK Border Agency was consistently making the wrong decisions on women’s asylum claims. Of the cases they examined, over 40% of refusals were overturned on appeal. UKBA have admitted the need for change in this area, and we welcome this. However recent cuts to legal aid in immigration and family law, and to specialist services and organisations working with and on behalf of women in crisis situations make it even harder for women seeking asylum to properly explain why they need protection here.
Most women seeking safety in the UK live in poverty, and so are unable to pay for legal fees, let alone meet their basic needs. Not allowed to work, a single asylum seeking woman is entitled to less than 70% of income support and has to get by on around £5 a day. The link between poverty and sexual violence is well established. Alarmingly, research shows that women living on less than £10,000 a year are more than three times as likely to report being raped as women from households with an income of more than £20,000.
If an asylum seeking woman is refused but is unable to return to her home country because it is still unsafe, she becomes still more vulnerable – she’ll have 3 weeks before her asylum support is terminated altogether. Many women in this situation become destitute, living hand-to-mouth and sleeping on the streets or on friends’ sofas. The consequences for both men and women in this situation are severe, taking its toll on both their physical and mental health. A destitute woman faces an acute risk of sexual violence – in a 2009 report into the destitution of asylum seekers, over a third of the women interviewed had been sexually assaulted in the UK. There is an obvious link.
We regularly see women in this situation at the Refugee Council – 15% of the women accessing Refugee Council therapeutic support during the last year were destitute. Many of those women have been severely affected by conflict or disasters and have complex psychological and health needs. They come to receive therapeutic support to help them come to terms with traumatic experiences they have been through in their home countries and during their journey here. But some women may not be able to access such services. New Home Office statistics released yesterday show 1159 women were detained in the last 3 months. Whether in detention or destitute, it is impossible for women to heal from violence they have suffered when they still do not feel safe.
The Government has said its vision is a society in which no woman or girl has to live in fear of violence. This is laudable but if the Government is truly committed to achieving this vision, it needs to ensure that women forced to flee from their homes can find the protection they need and can rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. It is not acceptable to use women’s immigration status as an excuse for failing to address the violence that they experience.