Turmoil of Female Asylum Seekers and Non-Gendered UK Refugee Laws

Originally published at The International Community Project

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My mother was an asylum seeker. Even worse, she was a female asylum seeker with infant children. Luckily, my father had organised a flight for her to London. My parents were born and raised in Afghanistan, they were used to civil war and poor prospects in a country that has experienced war for so long that it has been dubbed the “graveyard of empires”.

My parents lived good lives in Kabul, but once they had my older sister and I, they realised that it was time to leave Afghanistan. They wanted opportunities for us that would have otherwise been unavailable in their homeland. We travelled to New Delhi, India from where we would be able to fly to London. My father had heard great things about the United Kingdom and was eager to get us all in there.

Once we arrived in India, my father sent my mother, my older sister (5 years) and myself (3 years) on a flight to London in hopes that we would be offered refuge once we arrived at Heathrow Airport. My mother was definitely one of the lucky ones in order to be able to fly and not use other means of transportation that has taken the lives of so many refugees.

My mother tells me that arriving in Heathrow airport was one of the most nerve-racking experiences of her life; unaware of whether she would be sent back to Afghanistan; the fear of not finding any shelter; the loneliness she felt from travelling with two infants and no partner. My mother was a brave woman, I don’t know if I would have had similar strength to survive such a vulnerable situation.

Our story is one of the few positive stories that saw us placed immediately and taken to a hostel, with questionable living conditions, but at least we were in London. We received citizenship in the early 2000s and everyone in my family is a British citizen today. The same cannot be said for those who are forced to go through a Detained Fast Track system created in 2003, it is part of the UK 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. The problem with this is that migration and asylum policies have not been sufficiently gendered; refugee laws still interpret through the framework of male experiences (Hajdukowski-Ahmed, 2008).

Never mind that 31 per cent of asylum applications in the UK are female (Home Office, 2003) and that half of them have been victims of rape, who needs catered gendered laws? The government continues to fail women or provide adequately customised treatment to female asylum seekers who suffer serious human rights abuses, including rape, imprisonment, violence from soldiers or police, forced marriage and forced prostitution.

The deplorable absence of a gendered approach in refugee law and asylum claims contributes to a denial of specific claims. The threats of forced circumcision, honour killings, domestic violence and forced marriage almost go unrecognised. The mainstream asylum system also works within a framework that takes extra time to gather evidence of persecution, such as the expert testimony required to make the case and the gendered-sensitive procedures required to help them discuss matters such as rape.

As Samira Shackle states: “To attempt to process these claims in two weeks — with just a few days to appeal — is nothing short of a travesty of justice”. 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.

Detainment centres are hugely traumatic experiences for women as sexual abuse is rampant across such institutions. Some of the women in these centres have just arrived in the UK and others have been battling the asylum system for years. A recent report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons published in October 2013 describes one of these centres as “a sad place.. a place where some detainees look to the future with real fear”. In one case, a woman visited a male nurse who sexually assaulted her on three separate occasions.

Women’s experiences of persecution have long been excluded from the dominant interpretation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Despite the unique suffering they experience. “However, it is also important to understand the difference between gender-related persecution and gender-specific forms of harm. The concept of women being persecuted as women is not the same as women being persecuted because they are women.” This means that people who are persecuted and just so happen to be women are more common with asylum seekers. It is less common that women are persecuted specifically because they are women, it is rather that they are not given the catered treatment that they need and this results in their specific persecution because of the fact that their unique needs are not met as women. The government doesn’t target women, but their neglect of gender specific needs results in a form of inadvertent persecution. Race, religion, nationality and political opinion also exacerbate these processes.

Women are the biggest losers in the British immigration system; they suffer with higher intensities and in greater depths. Yet, refugee laws and asylum claims omit the anomaly of their oppression and treat them the same as men. This is preposterous and unacceptable.

Not only does there exist procedural and evidential barriers preventing women’s access to asylum, the interpretation of the Refugee Convention does not take into account women’s unique experiences. Female asylum seekers simply don’t stand a chance in our system.

The government must take immediate measures to produce gender-sensitive laws that do not see the process of a woman’s claim reduced to a mere two week process—even when she has been raped and abused. My mother was a tremendously lucky female asylum seeker, but the turmoil of the majority of women seeking asylum is one of urgency and the longer we omit this issue, the more women drown in our repudiating and quixotic immigration system.

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