Women for Refugee Women Time for Action

Time for action!

Beatrice Botomani, chair of Why Refugee Women and co-ordinator of the Bradford Refugee Forum, explains why she has organised the event on Refused Asylum Seekers’ Experiences in Bradford on 30 November

Women for Refugee Women Time for Action
I was impressed by the research that Women for Refugee Women published in Refused. It shows a full picture of the issues that concern women asylum seekers, and I was glad to be able to come to London for the launch at the House of Lords. A lot of the research for Refused was actually carried out in Bradford, as I enabled the researchers to come and interview the women I work with here in my city. So I wanted to bring the report to Yorkshire and Humber and make sure that our region works with Women for Refugee Women to take the campaigning forward. That is why Why Refugee Women has organised this conference for 30 November.
Why Refugee Women is a network in Yorkshire and Humber which is made up of women who have sought asylum, and the organisations which support us. We campaign on all the issues that women refugees face. It is traditional for experts and professionals to tackle these issues but women refugees are the ones who are experiencing the heat and it is time for us to be in the driving seat. I want to show other refugee women that the time to suffer in silence is over. We must no longer be murmuring in the darkness. We have to step forward and do what we can now to create change.
I myself sought asylum in the UK  because of the domestic violence I suffered at home. This kind of gender-based persecution is not taken seriously by UK Border Agency. But  it is the same as political persecution or war. Women’s lives are at stake.
I was told over and over again by the Home Office that I was a liar. I was even put in detention with my two children. It is really painful to suffer these things. I see so many women who have been waiting for years for a decision, who are detained, who are destitute, who are not able to speak up; they are too depressed and their health has suffered. Now I do have leave to remain I will not be silent.
This conference will come up with action points and we will make sure we carry them through. Because the time for being quiet is over. It is time to  act together to make sure that women no longer suffer in this way.

Women for Refugee Women Our Life on the Streets

Our life on the streets: a destitute mother speaks

Mariana claimed asylum in the UK, but when she was refused she and her young son became destitute. For years, she had to rely on the kindness of strangers for their survival.

I know that I am lucky to be alive. I escaped from the civil war of Angola after my father and brother were killed because of my father’s political activism. I would have been killed if I had stayed and so my father’s close friend got me on a plane bound for the UK.

Women for Refugee Women Our Life on the Streets

Destitute women in London; photograph by N Yemane

At first it was fine in the UK because I was studying and living in a shared house with other asylum seekers but then in 2000 the Home Office wrote to me at an old address inviting me for an interview. Because I didn’t know about the interview they refused my claim in my absence. I tried to get a lawyer to help me, but he said that I had to pay him £2000 and I had no way of finding that sort of money.  So when my appeal hearing came up  I had no legal support - it was just the judge, the home office lawyer and myself. I found it really hard to speak, it was so frightening.  Three weeks later they refused me again and said that I didn’t have the right to appeal against the decision. The day I received this letter my legs were so weak. I was sitting down reading the letter again and again.

Then I become destitute. I was not entitled to any support or housing, so I was  moving from friend to friend and having to rely on food parcels from charities. I had to get rid of most of my belongings because people became less welcoming when they see you arrive with a lot of things. Once I took a big suitcase to a friend who was letting me stay for a while but when I left she put it out on the street and the council took it away.

In 2006 I became pregnant but my boyfriend was unhappy about it and left me when I was only 20 weeks pregnant. At this time I was staying with a lady with two children. I was helping her with her children and housework. Something went very wrong with my birth; I was bleeding and in so much pain and I had to have an emergency caesarean. When I came round from the birth my baby wasn’t with me – they told me he was in an incubator and they didn’t take me to see him. I didn’t know how to insist, so I was lying there longing for him. It was three days later that a nice Irish midwife put me in a wheelchair and took me to the special baby unit. As soon as I held my son my life changed. Before, I had only thought about myself. But then all I wanted was to protect him and love him.

When I came out of hospital my friend could not have me there anymore so I went to social services. I walked in holding my son. He was just three months old. I didn’t have a pram so I carried him everywhere. The manager of the social services told me that they cannot help failed asylum seekers. She said that the only support they can provide was to take my baby to another family.  That made me so frightened that I felt sick. I got up and somehow made my way out of the room. I remember leaving the office and walking down the street, crying and holding my baby and wondering what I should do.  I could not give my baby son to a stranger.

I went to another friend, but she wasn’t really a friend. She told me I could sleep on the floor, and gave me a blanket. It was cold and hard and my son and I were awake much of the night.  In the day I didn’t have a key to her home so I was walking the freezing streets. My back hurt very badly from the birth and I still had high blood pressure, so I often felt faint. But I had to walk and walk all day, or sit on a park bench, or maybe in a library for a few hours.

One day a nice lady noticed me sitting at the bus stop in the morning and then again in the evening and asked me what was wrong. She told me to go to a place called Sisters Home, which provided accommodation for refused asylum seekers who are pregnant or have children up to one year old. When I got there they told me there was no space. I was so desperate, that I begged them to let me stay even if it is in the living room. This was the first time my son and I slept in a bed, and it was a sofa bed. When he reached his first birthday it was a sad occasion for me because I knew we would have to leave and I would be destitute with him again.

Again we stayed with friends or people I met at the church. I was grateful to each of them for giving us shelter, but you are not treated well if you have nothing. Once I was staying in a family and I was looking after my son and six other children, and then the mother would shout at me if she came back and the dinner wasn’t ready. During the day we were always outside. That made us vulnerable. Once a neighbour  assaulted me but I couldn’t call the police. I thought I would be arrested if I did. As my son started to walk and talk it became even harder to make sure that the people we were staying with did not get irritated by him. I had to try and keep my son quiet and not let him be a normal child. One lady I stayed with would shout at my son whenever he cried. I became anxious about him making a noise, even if it was the happy, sweet sounds that babies make. This was our life for four years.

Mariana's name has been changed.

Women for Refugee Women The Woman Called 258

Denied, detained, deported: the story of Mrs Saleh

by Lucie Jade of Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Wales

Women for Refugee Women The Woman Called 258

I first met Mrs Saleh in Cardiff in 2010 with one of her daughters. Her claim for asylum had been refused and she had no understanding of the asylum process and no legal representatives. She was frightened and confused about what would happen to her and her children. At that time the fear showed visibly on her face and she found it very difficult to relax or communicate.

We invited her to join Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group (WSSAG) Wales, a grassroots self-help group for women seeking asylum in South Wales. When Mrs Saleh started coming to the group, she was very quiet, just listening and taking in the information, over time she received emotional support and began to feel able to speak about her situation, which is when I gradually came to hear her story.

Mrs Saleh had been abused and threatened by her violent husband in Egypt for many years, but was unable to seek help from the authorities because of his close ties with the police and judiciary.  Her husband had also made one of their members of staff pregnant, and the staff member's  father then threatened Mrs Saleh and her children.  Mrs Saleh knew that her life and the life of her children were in danger from this vendetta feud and no-one in Egypt would protect them. This led her to claim asylum in the UK in 2007.

Refugee case law shows that if a woman is at risk of serious harm from family members or other individuals, in a situation where her state refuses to provide any protection, she may cross borders to seek sanctuary. Unfortunately, Ms Saleh ran into many of the problems that women face when they claim asylum from gender-related persecution. She was confronted by the culture of disbelief which has long been documented at the Home Office.  Ms Saleh began her claim using another nationality in order to safeguard her youngest daughter, who was still in Egypt. She was scared that her daughter would be targeted if it came out that she had claimed asylum in the UK. As soon as her youngest daughter got to the UK Ms Saleh corrected her story, but this initial falsehood, which she created for understandable reasons, has been used against her throughout her claim.

Mrs Saleh had other difficulties during her asylum claim. She had poor translation from interpreters who were provided during interviews, and she went to court in the early stages without legal representation. Her first lawyers did not properly authenticate documents that were provided as evidence, including a crucial “House of submission” order that her husband had issued in Egypt,  which would mean that if found anywhere in Egypt the police had powers to bring Mrs Saleh to her husband. Mrs Saleh's current legal representatives also recently brought new evidence to the UK Border Agency, including an expert witness report with clear detail about the danger for someone in her position in Egypt. However, these documents have not been considered. Last week Ms Saleh was still living in hope that she would receive a fair hearing from the UK Home Office as an upcoming oral hearing for judicial review had been set for November.

Yet without warning on 18 October at 6am in Cardiff, Ms Saleh and her two younger children were dragged from their home by UK Border Agency staff. A video of this dawn raid has been viewed more than 12,000 times on Youtube; in it you can see Ms Saleh’s older daughter, Shrouk, crying on the steps as her mother is dragged away. Shrouk has an independent asylum claim and was not detained or deported.

Due to a security mix-up, the family were not immediately forced on a flight to Cairo, they were instead driven to Cedars family detention centre in Crawley. The UKBA then chartered a flight to Egypt, at a cost of £60,000, a price we have never heard of before for the removal of one family. Mrs Saleh and her children were only made aware of the charter flight late on Tuesday evening, just before offices were due to close. The flight was booked for 8am Wednesday morning, before any offices were due to open, forcing the legal representatives to seek an out of hours judge and try and gain an injunction to cancel the flight.

Supporters were beside themselves with worry. Mrs Saleh said this to supporters:  “When I first arrived here, [in the UK] I felt human again, that me and my children deserve to live a life with no fears and with freedom, but now, after they have been trying to remove me forcibly, I remember life in Egypt and how we would be treated as slaves and the danger that would be waiting for us. I look at my children and my eyes are immediately full of tears.”

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, at the thought of being forcibly removed, Mrs Saleh cut her wrists in the bathroom of the detention centre and wrote in blood on the walls that she only wanted to save her children. Mrs Saleh has been through tremendous ordeals in her home country, and was clearly not in any fit state to be detained, let alone to be deported. She received no care or acknowledgement of what she did by staff at the centre, instead being asked to remove her blood soaked clothes and given new ones to hide what had happened. This directly violates procedures which staff at Cedars and other detention centres are meant to follow for those at risk of harm to themselves or others.

That night the legal representatives managed to secure an injunction which effectively cancelled the flight. However, after around half an hour, without following proper procedures to appeal this injunction, the UKBA called the judge and asked him to change his mind, due to the enormous expense they had gone to by chartering a £60,000 private flight. Friends and supporters had driven to Cedars detention centre on Tuesday night to show their support for Mrs Saleh and her children, and once they found out about the unjust actions of the UKBA, attempted to block the coach from leaving. They received heavy handed treatment.

One supporter wrote this afterwards: “So my friend's family were deported. I am distraught. I am also in shock and a great deal of pain, having been subject to a completely unprovoked physical assault by two police while trying to peacefully prevent the coach that was to take them to the airport from entering the Cedars Detention Centre. All I did was stand in the road, linking arms with other friends of the family. I did nothing aggressive, didn't even say anything that could in anyway be construed as aggressive. Yet I was assaulted so forcefully (hit in my back as I was held face down in the mud, arms twisted up behind my back) that I was screaming in pain and left incapable of standing, even moving.”

The coach left Cedars at around 6.30am and drove to Stansted Airport to remove the family on the private plane. We heard that Mrs Saleh's son experienced force from the private security guards who were escorting him,  something he had expressed fear over when speaking to his sister, as he had heard this has happened to other people in the past. As he is only 17, this is directly opposed to the recommendations from the Director of Prisons, who had just released a report on Cedars, saying that force used against minors and pregnant women should not be used.

The current legal representatives have since made an application to the Court of Appeal, believing as we do that this forced removal was not only unjust, but unlawful. Mrs Saleh and her children are in hiding in Egypt, but should the Court of Appeal decide that this treatment was unlawful then the UKBA may be asked to locate them and bring them back.

WSSAG Wales is a grassroots advocacy group run by asylum seeking and refugee women. We have heard countless first hand examples of the mistreatment of people seeking sanctuary and know only too well how mistakes can cost the lives of those who should be protected. We hope that the bravery of Ms Saleh and her children in speaking out about their treatment will help others to understand what is happening to those who seek asylum from persecution in the UK.
We call for the safe return of Mrs Saleh and her children, back to Cardiff and the community where she had been rebuilding her life.

For more information, please go to the Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Wales website. To join the campaign created by family friends and supporters, please go to http://www.facebook.com/savesalehfamily.

Women for Refugee Women We Are Women We Are Sisters

We are women, we are sisters

Marjorie Nshemere Ojule, trustee of Women for Refugee Women, delivered this speech at the rally for the Feminist Lobby of Parliament on 24 October

Women for Refugee Women We Are Women We Are Sisters

Marjorie Nshemere Ojule (left) and Hannah Pool, chair of UK Feminista, at the Feminist Lobby of Parliament/photo by Aliya Mirza


It is wonderful to see so many women coming together to campaign for a more equal world. I am here to talk to you about women who are often forgotten, about women who are very often not heard, about women who are often invisible. I am here to talk to you about women refugees.

I came to this country as an asylum seeker and so I know firsthand how women refugees are treated by the Home Office. Women come here for sanctuary, because this country has signed the Refugee Convention, which says asylum should be given to genuine refugees.

Women come here having experienced imprisonment, or rape, or female genital mutilation, or forced marriage. But too often when we speak the truth we are not believed. Very often we are told that we are liars. This means that even if we have fled genuine persecution we are refused asylum.

If a woman is refused asylum that means she can be left with no support, homeless, destitute, or she can be detained, locked up, or she can be dragged to an aeroplane to be deported back to a place where she will be  in danger all over again. I myself was told by the Home Office that I was a liar. It took me six years to prove my case and get leave to remain.

If you have experienced these things like rape or forced marriage, and then you are told you are a liar, that makes you scared. It makes you frightened of speaking up. And that is why you do not often hear about women refugees. Our experiences are hidden.

I am a founder of Women for Refugee Women. We exist to make sure that women refugees are not forgotten. We are asking for justice for women refugees. Please join us.

You are often told by the media that asylum seekers are all bogus or scroungers. But our recent research showed that half of the women coming here to seek asylum have experienced rape as persecution. Half of them had been imprisoned. Yet most of them were refused asylum and most of them were told they were not telling the truth.

Today, when you meet your MP, please ask him or her to show leadership and to challenge the culture of disbelief in the Home Offfice. It is not right that people in UK Border Agency should tell women that they are liars when they talk about rape and sexual violence, about torture and imprisonment, about forced marriage and trafficking.

And when you meet your MP tell him or her that we need good lawyers to deal with our asylum claims. The system is so complicated that without lawyers we cannot put our case.

Above all I am asking you not to forget us when you are out there campaigning today. Because asylum seekers are women too, we are sisters, we are mothers, we are daughters. We need your solidarity, we need your strength, if we are ever to find justice.

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Women's inequality knows no borders

Kat Banyard, the founder of UK Feminista, explains why justice for women seeking asylum is a key demand for today's Feminist Lobby of Parliament

Today I am going to Westminster for UK Feminista's Feminist Lobby of Parliament. We will be calling on MPs to stop the growing attacks on women's rights and to start driving forward progress on equality. Among us will be a number of women refugees. Because central to our demands is a call to end the culture of disbelief at the UK Border Agency (UKBA) which denies so many women justice when seeking asylum in the UK.

We are making a number of demands at the lobby. 84 years on from women finally winning the right to vote feminism today remains an unfinished revolution. Women are outnumbered four to one in parliament. The full-time pay gap is 15%, and 40% of ethnic minority women live in poverty. Up to three million women and girls in the UK experience rape, domestic violence, stalking or other violence each year.

These inequalities are being compounded by new threats to hard won rights. The Government's program of cuts are disproportionately hitting women and rolling back women's economic independence.

Complacency is also a huge threat to women's equality. All too often, women's equality is treated as a side-issue in parliament, an afterthought. Women's voices are not being heard, and women's experiences are not being properly taken into account in Government policy and practice.

This is only too clear in the case of asylum.

Women's inequality knows no borders. Every year, many women come to the UK seeking asylum from gender-based persecution. This persecution can include sexual violence, female genital mutilation, forced marriage and commercial sexual exploitation. If women are fleeing genuine persecution they do have a right to asylum under the terms of the Refugee Convention. But the people who make the decisions on asylum in the Home Office do not adequately understand the scope and impact of  gender-related persecution. There is a culture of disbelief that particularly surrounds women’s claims and leads to the UKBA doubting the credibility of applicants’ accounts for no good reason.

In research conducted by Asylum Aid, 87% of women’s cases where initially refused, the majority because the women were not believed. However, at appeal 42% of these decisions were overturned and this figure rises to 50% when including decisions made after the reconsideration of an initial appeal. This figure is far above average for all asylum cases which stands at 28%. The poor initial decision making in women’s claims leads to a high number of unnecessary, lengthy and costly appeals. But most importantly, it exacts a heavy toll on the individual women whose claims are refused. Women for Refugee Women’s recent research into the experiences of women whose claims have been refused reveals the devastating hardships that these women experience.

The changes needed to make the asylum system fair for women are well known. The problem is a lack of political will to put these into action. It is crucial that Ministers and other politicians show leadership on breaking down the culture of disbelief in the Home Office and add to the pressure on the UKBA to implement further necessary changes.

At today’s Feminist Lobby of Parliament women seeking asylum are coming to lobby MPs. Side by side with them are women and men from around the UK, as well as a broad range of women's organisations, united in their quest to make equality a reality for all women.

Women seeing asylum are demanding justice. It's time for politicians, and all of us, to join them.

This article was co-authored by Elli Moody, Policy & Campaigns Manager at UK Feminista. For more information on the Feminist Lobby of Parliament, go to www.ukfeminista.org.uk

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Sparks of survival

Bruce Goodison, BAFTA-award winning director, describes how he was drawn to tell the stories of young people seeking sanctuary for his first feature film, Leave to Remain.

A few years ago I started to research the lives of parentless young people. I stumbled across the stories of the many children who are forced to flee their homes each year, who arrive alone in the UK and are left to fend for themselves. Learning about their experiences for the first time, I struggled to contemplate how teenagers could be cast away from everything familiar to them, plunged into an alien society and expected to build a life. I felt compelled to explore their stories further.

One young woman I met, whom I’ll call Zaria, had arrived from her home in West Africa following a horrific ordeal. Zaria had been married off at the age of 12 to a Nigerian man, and after one year of marriage fell pregnant with his child. Upon discovering that she was carrying his baby, Zaria’s husband became violent towards his young wife, beating her so severely that eventually she lost her child, less than a month before she was due to give birth. Prevented by her husband from accessing medical attention, she suffered extensive internal injuries and was left permanently scarred, unable ever to have children. As soon as she was able, Zaria ran away from home, hoping to escape. She was soon found and brought back to her house where she continued to be repeatedly brutalised, and raped both by her husband and his friends.

With the secret help of an aunt Zaria eventually managed to escape and made her way to the UK. Telling her story to immigration officials she was granted only a male translator, a Nigerian man, who upon hearing her testimony hissed to her that she was lying. His fellow country-men would never treat someone like that. Her asylum case was eventually refused.

It would be easy when faced with a story like Zaria’s to feel overwhelmed by its horror, but actually what moved me most in this young woman was her effervescence, the spark with which she recounted her strategies of resilience to me. Zaria explained that when in need of strength she listened to her favourite song, Hero by Mariah Carey. She never understood the words but it became a source of solace to her, steadying her in her bleakest times. As she learnt English in the UK, she painstakingly took to studying the lyrics of the song, eventually translating them to French to understand their meaning. Animated, she told me that in the moment of finally comprehending the words, she felt her own story immortalised. A story of survival.

Zaria’s tale and the unfathomable inner resources that enabled her to share it are remarkable. It is she, along with the numerous other young people who have told their experiences to me over the last three years, which have moved me to make this film. Entrusted with such powerful testimonies I feel a responsibility to tell their stories with integrity.

In Leave to Remain I have combined elements of Zaria’s story with those of other people I have met. By doing this, I hope to have removed the burden for my collaborators of seeing their intimate experiences fixed as a single narrative on screen. I also reduce the possible risk to those I have met, by concealing the identifiable elements of their personal stories. I have made the decision to recruit non-professional young migrants to be mentored and trained to act all our major roles. This way, their depth of shared experience will contribute an honesty to the film. Shooting of the Leave to Remain feature begins in November, ready for the film’s cinematic release next year. I hope that by holding a mirror to these hidden stories we can effect change in the lives of these neglected children, and learn something about the country we call home.

You can keep up to date with the Leave to Remain feature film, action campaign and training academy by liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter. Or, if you would like to support the making of the film, visit the Leave to Remain Buzzbnk page to discover how to contribute.

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'The dream I hope and strive for'

Helen came to the UK 9 years ago  after she was imprisoned in Ethiopia for her political activities. She claimed asylum but was refused, and looks after herself and her three children on £50 a week.

I’ve been in the UK since 2003. I have three children aged one, two and four. Things have got easier for me recently because my eldest goes to nursery just round the corner and he loves it. The past year has been very difficult because my daughter was born premature and suffers from reflux and was in hospital for eight months. My first child was also premature and also had reflux but as he get older he is able to keep much more food down, and is sick less, so I am hoping the same will be true of my daughter.

We live in North London and the hospital was two hours away, so I had a journey for four hours a day with my other two children on public transport. Sometimes my very dear friend would look after the other two so that I could go to the hospital on my own, but often I had to take them with me for the long daily journey. At the time I was living off £50 a week including travel so it was very difficult, but I felt it was very important to make sure the mother and baby have a strong bond and that my daughter should be with me every single day.  There were some premature babies on the ward that didn’t have regular visitors and it was very sad to see them crying on their own without the comfort of a mother. I think the daily journey for eight months was really worth it because after all that my daughter is a happy baby who knows her brothers and me very well.

I had to leave Ethiopia in 2003 because I was in trouble with the government.  I was young and had many ideals and protested against them. It is hard for me to remember the person I was that was brave enough to do that. I was imprisoned and many terrible things happened to me while I was in prison. My family was affected too and we still don’t know what has happened to my father. He has been missing for a long time.

My family paid a lot of money to get me out of Ethiopia because they thought that I would be killed if I stayed. I didn’t really know where I was going - just that it had been arranged that I should go somewhere safer.   When I arrived in London the man who was accompanying me took me to a café and then he said he was going to the toilet and just disappeared. I was so frightened. I didn’t know where I was and had no money and didn’t know what to do.  I felt completely lost and without anyone who cared about what happened to me.

I was taken to the Home Office in Croydon to tell them my story and a group of us had to sleep outside in a doorway waiting for it to open. When I finally got to speak to someone and she asked where I had stayed the night she didn’t believe that we had slept outside. From then on she didn’t believe much of what I said and my English wasn’t good enough at that point to be able to explain the situation I was escaping from.

I was taken to a place in Crystal Palace and then to Dover, but my case was refused. My friend let me sleep in her room and she wouldn’t let me walk by the window because I had no status and we were afraid that I would be seen and taken into detention and then sent back to Ethiopia. It was after that that I met my children’s father. He was the wrong man for me, I see that now, and we are not together any more. But many women make this mistake, and they are able to rebuild their lives after that. I am now trying to make what is called a fresh application for asylum. It is very hard to do this because to do so you must present fresh evidence, How do I prove what happened to me nearly ten years ago?

I think what is so difficult is the indecision. It really damages your confidence and I need to build a life. I want to work and contribute. I would like to be an independent person earning my own money. I am not allowed to work, but that is the dream that I strive and hope for.

I know that I have a very happy looking face, with a big smile and dimples which my kids have all inherited but inside I sometimes feel so afraid for my and the kids’ future.  Some days I feel very depressed because I don’t want us to be stuck like this in limbo.

Helen’s name has been changed. She told her story to Sophie Radice.

Women for Refugee Women Home Office Failing Refugee Women

“If you tell anyone, we will kill you and your husband”


Frances Harrison, author of Still Counting the Dead, explains how Sri Lankan refugee women are living in fear.

All I had was an address in East London. The interview was set up by a series of lawyers and priests and I still don’t know the woman’s real name. We sat in a tiny back room of a terraced house and she told me, a complete stranger, the story that she’d never told her mother or husband. Then, understandably, she never wanted to see me again.

Manimolly, as I’ve called her, is a Sri Lankan Tamil who has sought asylum in Britain. Growing up in the capital Colombo, the civil war between the Tamil Tiger rebels and the predominantly Sinhalese army was just a distant backdrop to her early life. Her family was  from the Tamil minority, but she didn’t come from the conflict areas and she was about as apolitical as it’s possible to be in such a situation.

Yet her entire life crashed one day in May 2010, a year after the guns had gone silent and Sri Lanka was supposed to be at peace.  Policemen came to Manimolly’s house, looking for her husband who was travelling for his work. He came from a family connected to the Tamil Tiger rebels and the police wanted to question him. They dragged Manimolly screaming into the waiting van, leaving her sixteen month old baby with her mother. They beat her and interrogated her, but Manimolly didn’t mind that as much as what happened after midnight. She was taken to a residential house to identify some suspects and then locked in a room. Next door she could hear the policemen getting increasingly drunk and singing in Sinhala.

Two police officers raped Manimolly, handcuffing her to a chair. They didn’t know she was forty days pregnant at the time and she started bleeding heavily. “If you say anything or tell anyone we will kill your husband and kill you. Nothing happened here. Do you understand?’ the men warned as they drove her back to the police station. There the Sinhala police women just brought sanitary towels to mop up all the blood, unsurprised by Manimolly’s condition. Two young girls sharing the same cell had clearly been through the same treatment.

Manimolly was released when her husband surrendered himself to the police. They then tortured him, instead. Manimolly tried to kill herself  - twice. She stopped looking after her baby. Her family guessed what had happened to her. The stigma in Tamil society against rape is so intense that, shockingly, suicide is often considered the only honourable way out for a woman. This shame creates a second form of abuse for survivors. Manimolly was extremely fearful that someone in the Tamil community in London might find out she’d been raped because then, she said, they’d all gossip about her. She only agreed to see me if I was alone  – there were strict instructions not to bring a translator, even a female one.

As we spoke, Manimolly’s husband tactfully took their toddler out of the house to buy sweets. He knew what we were discussing and supported her decision to speak out, but she has never spoken even to him about it.  Manimolly says she is still frightened of every man she sees, and still doesn’t want her own husband to touch her.

Manimolly and her husband sold everything they had to come to London on student visas. Once here they claimed asylum. Back home the Sri Lankan police have continued to visit their house and even detained Manimolly’s elderly father-in-law for three months when they couldn’t find her husband.

The Sri Lankan government and their supporters argue that it’s safe in Sri Lanka since the war ended in 2009, and that only those who have a background of political activity or armed struggle are at risk. Manimolly’s case unfortunately shows how the wider violence against Tamils has not stopped.

At the end of the war, horrifying photographs and videos appeared online of dead, half naked, bound Tamil women, their breasts exposed. They were female rebels and the comments on the videos by the soldiers strongly suggested sexual violence. But it’s not only the defeated rebels who’ve encountered rape. It’s housewives like Manimolly, grandmothers, female aid workers, wives of humanitarian workers – women who are gradually finding their way abroad in the hope of safety and anonymity.

Unfortunately, safety is hard to find even if they make their way to the UK. They may be refused asylum even if they have evidence of persecution. Recent research by the Refugee Council found that a third of the women accessing one of their  projects were Sri Lankan, that nearly all had been tortured and raped, but that nearly half had been refused asylum in the UK. Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch have documented that failed asylum seekers who are removed to Sri Lanka may be tortured on arrival.

These women therefore live with uncertainty, fearing they could be deported  back to Sri Lanka. They recount their traumatic experiences to lawyers and immigration officials, but keep them secret from their extended families and friends. Some women even fear going to counseling organisations lest they meet other Tamils who will automatically know why they’re there. It’s a very lonely life.

Frances Harrison is a former BBC foreign correspondent. Her book of survivors' stories from the end of the Sri Lankan war, Still Counting the Dead, is published by Portobello Books on 4 October.  

Women for Refugee Women We Are Women We Are Sisters

Standing up for refugee women

Natasha Walter explains why she set up the charity Women for Refugee Women and discusses the dangers of being a female asylum seeker.

A few years ago, when I was working as a journalist, I met a woman called Angelique, who had come to this country from the Congo. Sometimes you really do have a life changing encounter, and Angelique was one of mine. She had come here as a refugee – she had been imprisoned in her country because of her father’s political activities, and repeatedly raped in prison.

When she came here, though, she had been refused asylum, which meant that she was expected to go back to the Congo. Because she just couldn’t do that, she stayed here in a legal limbo, with no right to work and no support. She had ended up on the streets of London, walking around from church to charity in search of food and a bed for the night. She had become pregnant while living like that, but even pregnant she had remained homeless, dragging herself about the streets until she could literally walk no further and had been taken to hospital.

I sometimes wonder why it was that meeting Angelique had such an effect on me. Maybe it was because I’d recently had my first child. Never had I been more grateful for the comforts of my life and the support of my partner. The idea of women in our country being left as vulnerable and isolated as Angelique was during her pregnancy horrified me. Or maybe it was because I’d long been out there talking about women’s rights, and I suddenly realised that if you were concerned about women’s equality you couldn’t ignore the massive human rights abuses that lots of women are still facing across the world – which for some women might even mean being raped or tortured or trafficked and having to flee to your country to seek safety.

I couldn’t forget Angelique, and the more I looked into the issue the more I realised she was far from alone. Too many women who cross borders fleeing persecution struggle to find safety. Women for Refugee Women advocates for these women. We recently published our first report: Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK. Some of the key things we’ve discovered are:

  • Nearly half the women we spoke to who had come here seeking asylum had been raped;
  • Almost all had been turned down for asylum;
  • Of those refused more than half had ended up destitute and more than half had contemplated suicide.

Those are depressing figures, and just as saddening for me personally is that I’m still meeting women like Angelique every week; women who have fled terrible abuses, including sexual violence, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation, but who get refused asylum and deported or detained or left destitute in the UK.

Obviously I’m not saying that men don’t have a hard time too in the asylum process and I’m also not advocating for open borders. But we do have an asylum system here that in theory should mean that women fleeing serious human rights abuses should be treated with dignity. Other women are now speaking up for women refugees; take a look at our short film in which supporters including Juliet Stevenson, Joan Bakewell and Livia Firth say why they are standing up for refugee women. In it, Mariella Frostrup says: ‘‘Women who have crossed borders and fled persecution have suffered fates that we can barely imagine. A civilised country would give them a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives." That’s all we’re asking for – a fair hearing for women fleeing persecution. For women like Angelique it would make a world of difference.

This blog was first published on Mumsnet.