Women for Refugee Women give evidence in Parliament on how the Borders Bill will harm women

On 23 September 2021, Women for Refugee Women's director, Alphonsine Kabagabo, and Research and Advocacy Coordinator, Priscilla Dudhia, gave evidence to the Nationality and Borders Bill committee, a group of MPs who are currently examining the proposed legislation.

The proposed Borders Bill would harm women who are seeking asylum in the UK, by punishing them and making it harder for them to be granted refugee protection.

Alphonsine opened our evidence, explaining:

"A lot of women in our network have survived gender-based violence. They have been traumatised through being raped, being forced into marriage, being forced into sexual exploitation or through FGM. This Bill makes it even harder for those victims to access safety."

The Bill will punish women who are forced to take 'irregular' routes to get to the UK, or who are not able to claim asylum 'without delay'

The Bill proposes to offer different levels of security to refugees based on how people travel and when they claim asylum.

People fleeing danger don’t usually have a choice about how they travel – they need to take whichever route to safety they can. But under the Bill refugees who are forced to take ‘irregular’ routes, including by boat or lorry, will not be allowed to stay in the UK permanently, or reunite with their loved ones.  Alphonsine shared her own experience:

Priscilla highlighted that safe and legal resettlement routes are by far the best way of enabling people to reach the UK safely, and that these routes should be made available to more women:

The way to deter [traffickers and smugglers] is to create more safe and legal routes—to expand the global resettlement scheme; to set a number; to prioritise women who have survived sexual and gender-based violence; to expand family reunification laws, but is also to look towards other routes. We strongly urge the Government to explore humanitarian visas. Right now, there is no asylum visa. We think that all that would minimise the risk of people taking dangerous journeys.

However, not everyone would be able to access these routes. It is vital that the government does not shut the door on women who are forced to travel in other ways:

The Bill also distinguishes between refugees based on when they claim asylum, and punishes those who have not claimed asylum soon after arriving in the UK. Priscilla explained why it may not be possible for women to claim asylum immediately:

"There are situations in which women might not be able to claim asylum at the earliest opportunity. For instance, many of the women to whom we have spoken in our network had no idea that they could claim refugee protection on the basis of the gender-based violence that they have faced. There are other women who have fled violence and did not intend to stay in the UK for a long time—who came here on a visa, wanting to escape persecution but with the intention of going back—but later discovered that, 'Actually, no, there is a grave threat to my safety still, and I need to stay.'”

In order to give an example, Priscilla shared the story of our colleague Agnes Tanoh:

"I would like briefly to share the story of one such woman, called Agnes, who is a refugee from a west African country. Agnes fled political persecution. She fled her country—she was in danger—and eventually decided to go to the UK, where her daughter was studying. She was the only family member that she could be with. She wanted to return, but once she was here she realised that political opponents were still being targeted. A lady for whom Agnes was working as an assistant was in prison at the time when Agnes was in the UK, and she realised that it was not safe for her to go back.

Agnes said that she was expecting to go back home quickly, but she could not: “When I realised my visa was going to expire, I went to Croydon to ask what to do to apply for asylum, and that is what I did.” Unfortunately for Agnes, she was locked up in detention, which she found hugely traumatising given her previous experience of incarceration. Her claim was refused at the initial stage and on appeal, and she had to lodge a fresh claim. Today Agnes has refugee status and we are immensely honoured to say that she is part of our team at Women for Refugee Women, where she works as a detention campaign spokesperson. I say all this to highlight that there may be legitimate reasons why vulnerable women are not able to claim right away, and we do not think that it is acceptable to be punishing them."

It is wrong to differentiate between refugees based on their mode of arrival or when they apply for asylum.

The Bill will punish women who are not able to open up about their traumatic experiences immediately

The Bill will require traumatised women to give all the reasons for their asylum claim immediately – and if they do not their credibility will be questioned. Alphonsine explained why this part of the Bill is particularly harmful to women who have survived rape, torture, trafficking and other extreme violence:

Priscilla went on to explain how this part of the Bill is turning back the clock on Home Office guidance that was introduced to correct for disadvantages that women face when claiming asylum:

"Those issues are well acknowledged in Home Office policy. [The Gender Issues in the Asylum Claim guidance] talks about the barriers that feelings of shame and guilt can create, the stigma that comes with sexual violence and the fear that some women might have of reprisals from community and family members. That same guidance goes on to say that late disclosure should not automatically prejudice a woman’s credibility. In [the Bill], we have a direct contravention of that acknowledgement of the very real challenges that women who have fled gender-based violence face in sharing their experiences."

It is wrong to punish refugees who are unable to disclose all of their experiences immediately, because of the trauma they have faced. This provision would mean that more women would be wrongly refused refugee protection and put at risk of further danger.

The Bill does not recognise the humanity of people who seek protection in the UK

Alphonsine reminded the MPs that this Bill is dealing with the lives of human beings. Refugees are people who want to be safe and rebuild their lives.

The Nationality and Borders Bill has been designed to punish, not protect. We hope that MPs and policymakers will listen to the evidence that Alphonsine and Priscilla provided, and to the many refugee and asylum-seeking women in our network, to build an asylum process founded on humanity.

You can watch the evidence session in full, including powerful evidence given by Lisa Doyle at the Refugee Council and Mariam Kemple-Hardy at Refugee Action, here. For further information, you can read our full written evidence submission here.

TAKE ACTION

Now, more than ever, we must stand in solidarity with our refugee sisters and defend the right to asylum!

Join us on Wednesday 20 October, 4.30-6.30pm, for the Refugees Welcome rally at Parliament Square, London.


Women for Refugee Women submits evidence to the Borders Bill committee

Women for Refugee Women has submitted written evidence to the Parliamentary committee examining the Nationality and Borders Bill on the harms that the proposed legislation would cause women seeking safety in the UK.

Women for Refugee Women is deeply concerned about the particular harm that the Nationality and Borders Bill will have on women seeking asylum because of their specific vulnerabilities and their particular experiences of violence. Our research has documented how many women seeking asylum in the UK have fled gender-based violence in their countries of origin – including rape, domestic violence, forced marriage, forced sexual exploitation, and FGM.

Women already struggle to get protection from the UK’s asylum system. Women and men who seek asylum face a culture of disbelief at the Home Office, whose unfair and irrational decision-making is well documented. But women are disadvantaged further because of the inadequate understanding among some Home Office decision-makers of gender-based violence. In addition, women who have experienced sexual violence or exploitation often face severe challenges in disclosing their stories.

When women are wrongly refused asylum they are generally forced into destitution, which has devastating impacts on their safety. Our recent research found that a third of women who had been raped or sexually abused in their country of origin were then raped again or subjected to further sexual violence in the UK after becoming destitute. Women who are refused protection also become liable to immigration detention. Being locked up in detention is highly traumatising for already vulnerable women.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will make it even harder for women to be recognised as refugees and live in safety in the UK. We believe that a number of the proposed measures will have a disproportionate impact on women, as a result of the particular nature of their asylum claims.

To date there has not been a genuine attempt by the government to listen to women who have been forced to cross borders for safety. The consultation on the New Plan for Immigration, a 52-page document, was open for only six weeks, and the format of that process made it impossible for many women in our networks to respond.

In its Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, published shortly after the Nationality and Borders Bill was introduced to Parliament, the government recognised the ‘devastating impact’ of gender-based violence on women and insisted: ‘We want to ensure that victims and survivors can be confident they will get the support they deserve’. At the same time, the government has committed to a foreign policy that ‘consciously and consistently delivers gender equality’.  Yet, the provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill undermine such claims.

Rather than providing asylum-seeking women who have fled gender-based violence with safety and support, the Bill will actively harm and retraumatise them.


5 ways the Nationality and Borders Bill threatens women

The government is currently trying to push through legislation that will prevent women from getting refugee status in the UK. As one refugee woman, 'Sara', put it: “They might as well be ending the asylum system completely.”

The Bill will put even more women, who have fled persecution, in further danger of violence, abuse and exploitation. Instead of offering sanctuary to women who have been forced to leave their homes and cross borders, the government is drawing up a law that actively causes harm to them. Now more than ever, we must speak up alongside our refugee sisters.

The Bill is currently being examined by a small group of MPs. On Thursday, our director Alphonsine Kabagabo and our policy and advocacy coordinator Priscilla Dudhia will give oral evidence to these MPs, explaining how this Bill threatens the safety of the women.

Five ways the Nationality and Borders Bill threatens women:

1. Women who are desperate for safety will be punished.

People fleeing danger don’t usually have a choice about how they travel – they need to take whichever route to safety they can. But under the Bill refugees who are forced to take 'irregular' routes, including by boat or lorry, will not be allowed to stay in the UK permanently, or reunite with their loved ones.   

2. Women will be denied a fair hearing.

Many women need mental health support, proper legal advice and to feel safe before they can open up about the violence and abuse they have fled. Yet the Bill will require traumatised women to give all the reasons for their asylum claim immediately – and if they do not their credibility will be questioned.

3. Principles vital for women’s protection will be eroded.

The Bill changes the test for deciding if someone is a refugee, making it even harder to satisfy. Since gender isn’t listed in the Refugee Convention, many women also have to prove that the persecution they have faced makes them a member of a ‘particular social group’ – yet the Bill introduces an additional hurdle to women being recognised as refugees in this way. 

4. More women will be locked up in detention centres.

The Bill will allow the government to set up ‘offshore’ detention facilities outside of the UK, where women could be locked up while their asylum claims are processed. Women in offshore detention are at risk of sexual violence and abuse. The Bill will also reintroduce a ‘fast-track’ asylum appeals process for people in detention – even though the previous process like this was ruled unlawful, and abolished by the government. 

5. More women who have been trafficked or trapped in modern slavery will seriously struggle to access safety.

The Bill raises the test for being recognised as a trafficking victim, making it more difficult for them to get protection. It also forces victims to disclose information about their exploitation by a certain deadline – or they may be deemed untrustworthy and refused help. Yet it can take months, sometimes years, for a woman who has been forced into sexual or other exploitation to talk about the abuse she has suffered. 


For more information and to help us spread the word about how this Bill will harm women, please read and share our short explainer:

TAKE ACTION:

Please join us on 20 October 2021, at the Refugees Welcome rally in London, to hear from refugees and to show your solidarity. We’ll be gathering from 4.30-6.30pm outside Parliament.


Dear Sister

A letter to women arriving in the UK from Afghanistan, from members of the Writing Group at Women for Refugee Women


Dear Sister,

Firstly, we would like to say, “Welcome!”

We can imagine this time is a time of great challenge for you. Relief that you are safe, but also grief for the home, the people and the life you left behind.

You’ll meet so many women who’ve had different problems and troubles but the same pain in your heart as you have now. Maybe you think the pain in your heart will continue forever. Maybe you think you can’t have a different life with new opportunities. But there are many ways to have a better life here. You just need to discover the best one for yourself.

We want to tell you that you are not alone here. Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out, speak out, be bold. You have people around that understand what you are going through and are there to walk alongside you, to be there for you and with you in your new journey.

We also want to tell you that it is also all right if you want to be by yourself. To be alone, quiet, to want to wrap yourself up and be still, for as long as you need. Then, when you are ready, we will be here.

Take care of your body. Keep warm. Get some thick socks, a good winter coat. Be kind to yourself. Eat good, nourishing food. Listen to music you love. Dance. Go on walks, explore your new home. And watch British telly, it is a spectacle.

In this country you will be able to find your traditional food and clothes. Each nation is free to live their own culture. You don’t have to give up your culture, religion, friends here. Just don’t forget that you also have a chance to see and live the cultures of the UK. You will see so many different rules here. Try to accept official rules. It will make your life easier and better.

Take care of your mind. Reach out to people, to organisations. There is no shame in this. We have all been there. Get the tools you need to cope, to survive and then ultimately, to thrive and thrive well.

Knowledge is power. Try to learn English, the health system, job options. Try to have routines, to go to the park, have a walk, attend workshops or courses according to your interests and abilities.

You’re safe here. You can get help whenever you need. You don’t need anything special to be important and accepted in this country. You are valuable as you are.

We want you to feel alive again, to find hope and love and support and belonging, to live freely in the community.

Be strong. Don’t hide. Ask for help. You are not alone.

With love,

Your Sisters


Agnes Tanoh's speech for local demonstration against Hassockfield detention centre

Today, Saturday 21 August, local campaign groups No To Hassockfield, Abolish Hassockfield and the Durham People's Assembly are demonstrating against the planned new detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham. Our Agnes Tanoh shares this speech in support of this demonstration to stop Hassockfield.

 

 

My name is Agnes.
I am a 60 year old woman.
I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, when I was seeking sanctuary.

In my country, I was the assistant to the First Lady.
When civil war broke out my life was in danger. Friends and colleagues were killed. Escaping was the only way to survive. So I came to the UK.
I needed safety. But instead, I was locked up for more than 3 months.

After 7 years of waiting, telling the same story, I finally got my refugee status.
The government finally agreed I needed protection.
So, why was I locked up?
Why was I harmed?

Can you imagine the things I saw in detention?
Detention destroys a woman, destroys our mental health, destroys our hope.
I saw a woman try to kill herself.
I saw guards abuse women.
I saw families broken down.
Can you imagine what happens to a child separated from their mum because she is in prison?
Detention achieves nothing except making a few private companies richer.
All it does is harm our fellow human beings.

My heart is here with you today.
Together we are standing against the detention of vulnerable women.
Together we want to support women who have fled persecution, torture or slavery.
Together we will keep fighting to stop Hassockfield.
Together we will win.

The Home Office promised to detain fewer women.
We must hold them to account!
No more detention centres should be built.
Instead, shut them down!

I say, 'SET HER FREE'!
Give her a chance to rebuild her life.
Give her a chance to be a human being.
Give her a chance to be free.

Let us say something,
Let us do something good,
Let us be compassionate,
Let us share love.

Can we women who are seeking safety count on you?
If yes, then let us say together ‘No to Hassockfield’!
NO TO HASSOCKFIELD!


Take action with Agnes! Please sign and share Agnes's petition against the proposed new detention centre for women at Hassockfield: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women


Our response to the government announcement of a resettlement programme for Afghan refugees

In response to the recent government announcement (18 August 2021) of a resettlement programme for Afghan refugees, Women for Refugee Women states:

The government should increase the resettlement programme urgently

The government has proposed to take 5000 refugees this year, as part of a scheme to resettle 20,000 over a five year period. This is clearly inadequate given the scale of the crisis and the UK’s responsibility to the citizens of Afghanistan. Already, there are hundred of thousands of displaced Afghans within the country and in neighbouring countries. Women for Refugee Women has joined calls for the UK government to commit to an immediate resettlement programme for 20,000.

The government should do more to protect women at risk

The Home Secretary has stated that women and girls will be prioritised on this programme but has given no indication of how this will be achieved. For too long, women in Afghanistan have been given promises by the West that are then broken. Civil society organisations on the ground are already reporting violence and abuse by Taliban against women in public life, and are reporting that women are going into hiding. The UK government must work proactively with civil society organisations and individuals in Afghanistan and the region to identify women at risk and ensure they can journey to safety.

The government should ensure equal treatment for all refugees

The new Nationality and Borders Bill proposes measures that will punish those who seek asylum by irregular routes, outside of resettlement programmes. Many Afghans arrive already by irregular routes, and many more will now be following them. This is particularly the case given the small scale of the resettlement programme and the lack of other safe routes. Under the measures proposed in the Borders Bill, Afghan women who are forced to flee without official permission, and get into the back of a lorry or a small boat to get to safety, would be criminalised and have their asylum claim ruled inadmissible. The government should abandon its plan to distinguish between refugees based on how they travel to the UK.


Women for Refugee Women Contact Us

Solidarity with Afghan women

As the Taliban retake power in Afghanistan, Women for Refugee Women urges the UK government to step up and do all they can to ensure that women and girls are protected.

It is essential that the UK upholds its stated commitment to women’s rights in practice, above all by offering safe passage and asylum in the UK to women who need to leave the country for their own safety, and also putting resources into local organisations who support women and girls in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.

This pressing situation is a clear reminder of the need to uphold the right to asylum. The government should now abandon its plans for the harmful Nationality and Borders Bill and ensure that those who have to cross borders for safety are protected, not punished.

The Taliban’s abuse of women’s rights is well documented. Women who have been educated, have spoken out, have taken part in public life and built careers over the last 20 years are now at risk. It is vital that the international community now stands together to protect women. This is not a time to turn our backs on women. This is a time for solidarity.

Our director, Alphonsine Kabagabo, says:

"It is horrifying to see what women and girls are now facing in Afghanistan. The scene at Kabul airport reminded me how lucky I was with my family to reach Kigali airport in the middle of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and to be allowed to board a plane and to find refuge in a safe country like Belgium. Straightforward humanitarian action can change people's lives forever. I urge the UK government to step up and do all it can to help women who are facing horrific threats to their lives and safety, who are being forced to go into hiding and flee the country in order to survive."

Rahela Sidiqi, director of the Rahela Trust and former trustee of Women for Refugee Women, says:

"Women of Afghanistan are calling on the world to uphold our rights and protect our lives. Being given asylum in the UK saved my life when I was threatened by the Taliban. Now I ask the UK government to help save the lives of my friends and sisters in this horrifying emergency. Do not abandon us at this time of crisis."

Update 18 August 2021:

In response to the recent government announcement (18 August 2021) of a resettlement programme for Afghan refugees, read our statement here.

 


The Home Office’s reckless approach to detaining women

By Gemma Lousley, Detention Policy and Research Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women

In February this year, it emerged that the Home Office is planning to open a new immigration detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham. This is despite the fact that the number of women detained is currently at a historic low. Five years ago, at the beginning of 2016, there were over 300 women in detention. By the end of March this year, this number had fallen to just 25.

The Home Office could end its use of detention for women today, then. Instead, it has decided to open a new immigration prison which will hold around 80 women.

The Home Office is fully aware of the immense harm that detention inflicts. Women for Refugee Women has been supporting and listening to women in detention for many years – and the research we have published has repeatedly shown that the majority of women detained are survivors of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and trafficking. Locking these women up devastates their mental health.

Our 2014 report Detained, for instance, found that one in five of the women we interviewed who had been locked up in Yarl’s Wood – until recently the main detention centre for women – had tried to kill themselves there.

One woman who we interviewed for the report told us:

‘I was tortured in my country of origin and now I am getting a second torture by the Home Office. Being back in detention has brought back all the memories of torture.’

Another woman said:

‘I saw so much misery and depression and mental illness while I was in detention. There is constant crying and self-harm because the women don’t know why they are there or for how long. These are women who are desperate.’

Nonetheless, the Home Office is planning to open the new Hassockfield detention centre for women in early October. Attempting to justify this decision, the Immigration Minister, Chris Philp, has recently stated that the operation of Hassockfield will ‘reflect the lessons learned from detaining women at Yarl’s Wood’.

Yet there is very little evidence of this. In fact, what we know of the Home Office’s approach to Hassockfield so far indicates that it will also be characterised by the lack of concern for women’s dignity and rights with which Yarl’s Wood became synonymous.

One of the most significant issues that we highlighted through our research on Yarl’s Wood was the complete lack of regard for women’s privacy and dignity there. Our 2015 report I Am Human showed how, for instance, women were being subjected to pat-down body searches by male officers, or while male officers were present. Male staff were also searching women’s rooms.

Additionally, women were routinely being watched in intimate situations by male staff. So, women who were deemed to be at risk of suicide, and placed on ‘constant supervision’ – meaning that they were watched at all times by detention centre staff – were being watched by male officers while they were showering, on the toilet, or getting undressed.

One woman we spoke to for I Am Human said:

‘I felt ashamed. A total stranger just saw you naked and you have to see them all day. It breaks your confidence.’

When we initially raised these concerns with the Home Office, they denied this was happening, and stated: ‘Male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm.’

Yet, the Prison Inspectorate’s subsequent report on Yarl’s Wood, published in late 2015, corroborated our findings. Following this, the Home Office accepted the recommendation that, in women’s detention centres, at least 60% of staff in direct contact with women should also be women – to ensure that male staff are not used in inappropriate situations.

Despite this, the Home Office has been deliberately vague on this issue in relation to Hassockfield. In a recent parliamentary answer, for example, the Immigration Minister gave the weak response that: ‘It is our aim that around 60% of uniformed staff will be women.

The reasons for his non-committal answer seem clear. Yarl’s Wood consistently struggled to reach the minimum target of 60% and recruit enough female staff. Two years after the Home Office accepted this target, in 2017, the Prisons Inspectorate went to Yarl’s Wood again and found that the proportion of female officers there ‘was still too low, at 54%’.

Alongside this, the Home Office has contracted a private company to run Hassockfield that has recently had allegations of sexual harassment made about its staff. In July this year, a woman quarantining at a hotel in Birmingham said that a male security guard provided by Mitie – which has been given a contract worth £166 million to run Hassockfield – had sexually harassed her.

The Home Office’s careless approach to conditions for women at Hassockfield demonstrates how little they are concerned with treating women with dignity and respect, and upholding and protecting their rights.

The Home Office also knows that detaining women is usually completely pointless. The stated purpose of detention is removal from the UK. Yet, figures that we recently obtained show that in 2019, just 122 of the 1,550 asylum-seeking women released from detention were removed from the UK. That’s 8%.

The vast majority – 1,428 women, or 92% – were released back into the community, to continue with their cases.

Soon after the decision to open Hassockfield became public knowledge, the Immigration Minister said: ‘The public rightly expects us to maintain a robust immigration system, and immigration detention plays a crucial role in this’. But, as the Home Office is well aware, immigration detention is not a necessary or inevitable part of the immigration system.

In early 2019 the Home Office began an ‘alternative to detention’ pilot scheme, focused on resolving women’s immigration cases without the use of detention. This scheme has now been abandoned, even though fewer than half the number of women the Home Office intended actually participated in it.

But it is not too late to reverse this harmful change in direction. We are calling on the Home Office to halt its reckless approach to detaining women, by cancelling its plans for Hassockfield immediately. Instead, it should invest in programmes that support women to resolve their immigration cases, and rebuild their lives, in the community.


Please sign and share Agnes Tanoh's petition to stop Hassockfield detention centre for women from opening: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women


Our year: 2020-2021

Women for Refugee Women supports women who are seeking refuge from persecution, including rape and torture, to rebuild their lives and communicate their own stories.

We believe that every woman who comes to the UK in search of safety deserves a fair hearing and the chance to rebuild her life with dignity. But too often, women find new challenges when they arrive here and their stories are silenced or denied, with many women becoming homeless, hungry and at risk of further abuse, or locked up in immigration detention.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the increasingly hostile rhetoric around migration have made the last year even more difficult for refugee and asylum-seeking women to find safety and move forwards in their lives. Against this harsh backdrop of challenges, women seeking asylum are energetically advocating for a fairer world for all, with huge creativity and strength.

This year we welcomed our new Director, Alphonsine Kabagabo, to the team; supported hundreds of refugee women through this challenging period; worked with journalists to share women's stories with wide audiences; continued our work with policy makers to advocate for a fairer asylum process and enjoyed real moments of solidarity and sisterhood.

We are so proud that we were able to sustain and grow our work this year. This brief review shares some of our highlights from April 2020 to March 2021.

We are so grateful to all of our supporters who made this work possible. It is with thanks to your compassion and generosity that we have been able to support refugee women through this difficult period and continue to advocate for a fairer and more welcoming asylum process.

We hope you enjoy reading it!


Women for Refugee Women is seeking a freelance consultant in communications (now closed)

Women for Refugee Women is seeking a freelance consultant in communications.

WRW is starting an exciting new strategic communications project.

We are planning to carry out research on how we can change attitudes among our key audiences, in order to step up our communications work at this challenging time, to build more support for asylum-seeking women.

Before we get started, we want to look at where we are now and what we already know.

So we are commissioning a freelance consultant to carry out a literature review on existing knowledge about how to improve public support for progressive narratives in women's rights, migration and anti-racism.

We would also like this consultant to carry out a workshop with our team, to lay out this existing knowledge and its practical implications for our work.

If you would be interested in carrying out this literature review and this workshop, please take a look at the brief for the work and how to apply.

We'd like to hear from you by the end of July.

Please email samantha@refugeewomen.co.uk or natasha@refugeewomen.co.uk if you have any questions.