The government’s New Plan for Immigration will harm women seeking asylum. Today, 30 April 2020, more than 70 leaders of organisations and groups supporting women who have sought asylum write to the Home Secretary to express shared concerns about the New Plan.

Read the full letter below:

Dear Home Secretary, 

Re: Impact of proposed New Plan for Immigration on women seeking asylum 

We are writing to express our serious concerns over the proposed New Plan for Immigration (New Plan) and its potentially devastating effects on women seeking safety. Most of our organisations and groups support women who have fled sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Yet, despite these horrific experiences, many are failed by an asylum system which subjects them to disbelief, detention and destitution. On 24th March, you asked “where are the vulnerable women…that this system should exist to protect?” If introduced, the proposals would make things even worse for women in desperate need of refuge. 

The changes would have harmful effects on both men and women. In this letter we highlight the impact on women, as these experiences are too often unheard. 

  • Treatment of asylum-seeking women who arrive by irregular routes 

We are alarmed by proposals that unjustly differentiate between vulnerable people who have fled danger, based on how they have travelled to the UK. 

Temporary protection status 

Our organisations work with women who have fled rape, forced prostitution, trafficking, honour-based abuse and female genital mutilation. Many of these women are sexually or physically abused again when they travel to the UK, journeys that sometimes involve irregular routes so that they can quickly escape danger. There is a real risk that temporary protection status would result in some of the most vulnerable women being refused asylum – women who instead would be condemned to destitution, detention and possible removal to the countries where their lives remain in danger.

The absence of gender in the UN Refugee Convention makes the assessment of many women’s cases complex, and particularly when they involve persecution by private individuals as opposed to the state. Home Office guidance reminds us that “[v]iolence against women can occur more commonly within the family or community.” Yet, decision-makers have often shown a poor understanding of how private violence falls within the UN Refugee Convention, and the UK’s obligation to grant asylum. Under the proposed temporary status, cases would be reviewed every 30 months with a view to return to the country of origin or removal to a third country. Having to periodically demonstrate the need for safety is likely to be harmful for all women who have survived SGBV, and especially for those who have fled private violence. 

Reception centres 

We are concerned that the proposed reception centres could amount to a form of indefinite detention that would not only be retraumatising for women who have survived SGBV but also a barrier to disclosing their experiences. The New Plan cites the example of Denmark, even though the small amounts of financial support coupled with “the distance between asylum centres…and towns or cities, means people are effectively confined” there.

The same study also shows how asylum centres can be completely inappropriate for survivors of SGBV and trafficking to heal. Detaining women who have already survived trauma and violence inflicts immense harm and retraumatises them, particularly when there is no time limit. The New Plan states that the Home Office will first attempt to remove a person who has come to the UK irregularly and, where that is not possible within six months, will start to process their asylum claim. It is very likely therefore that many women will be deprived of their liberty for several months, if not longer. Research has found that the longer someone is held in immigration detention, the greater the effect on their mental health. In forcing women to relive traumatic memories of confinement and abuse, the reception centres could prevent disclosure and, therefore, a fair assessment of their claims. 

  • ‘One-stop’ process

We are very concerned that the ‘one-stop’ process could result in many women being wrongly refused asylum. The process would force traumatised women to raise all the reasons for why they need protection at the outset, with “minimal weight” given to evidence raised later in the process “unless there is good reason”. Yet there are many reasons for why women who have survived SGBV cannot disclose all relevant experiences at the initial stage; the Home Office’s own guidance acknowledges these barriers, that include “guilt, shame, concerns about family ‘honour’ or fear of family members.” The same guidance also acknowledges that women who have been trafficked to the UK may be facing threats from their traffickers at the time of their asylum interview, such that they are unable to speak openly with officials. Some LGBT women, who have fled persecution because of their sexual orientation, are not able to speak about their sexuality during the time of their initial asylum claim; they may still be coming to terms with it themselves, a process that can take many years. All of these challenges are exacerbated by a lack of specialist mental health and quality legal support. Most women that Women for Refugee Women support have not received adequate legal representation for their initial claim; some women have not had any legal advice at all.

It is vital that our asylum system allows all women to be heard. To that end, Home Office guidance states that late disclosure should not automatically prejudice a woman’s credibility. It is unclear then why the department is now considering changes that go against these standards. 

  • ‘Well-founded fear of persecution’ test

Proposals to introduce a ‘balance of probabilities’ standard are said to be necessary to “[make] it harder for unmeritorious claims to succeed.” Yet the UN Refugee Convention is based on the principle of ‘benefit of the doubt’, in favour of the person seeking safety. A more severe test would only increase the barriers that already exist for vulnerable women to obtain a fair assessment. 

  • Fast-track appeals process and accelerated claims and appeals process from detention 

We are extremely concerned that any form of accelerated processing could have a harmful effect on women with complex gender-based or trafficking claims. We would like to remind the Home Secretary of the Detained Fast Track and the devastating effects it had on women’s chances of successfully claiming asylum. The process was deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal for being “systematically unfair”, with the Home Office refusing a staggering 99% of claims, compared to around 59% of non-fast track applications. It was also inherently unsuitable for complex cases, heavily criticised for its handling of gender-related and trafficking claims. Indeed, women from some of the most oppressive countries who faced persecution were wrongly refused asylum and deported as a result of the Detained Fast Track. 

  • Modern Slavery

We are disturbed by proposals to limit the protection of actual or potential victims of modern slavery. 

Legal standard for a reasonable grounds decision 

Proposals to strengthen the evidence threshold for deciding whether someone is a potential victim are said to be necessary to stop people claiming to be trafficking victims in order to prevent removal from the UK.  Yet it can take many months for a woman who has been forced into sexual exploitation to speak about the abuse she has suffered. It is therefore vital that potential victims are given a window to access support such as safe housing. We would like to remind the Home Secretary that a positive reasonable grounds decision is not the end of the matter; to be officially confirmed as a victim of trafficking then requires a positive conclusive grounds decision. We are concerned that a higher standard of proof at the first stage would harm some of the most vulnerable women, keeping them in the hands of their traffickers. It would also ignore the government’s own statistics which show that the majority of people in immigration detention who are referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) are subsequently recognised by the Home Office as potential victims of trafficking. 

The ‘public order exemption’

We object to amendments to the ‘public order exemption’ that would deny access to the NRM and associated protections to certain women who may be victims of trafficking, including those with a criminal sentence of 12 months or more. Some of our organisations are aware of women who have been subject to sexual and other forms of labour exploitation, who have been prosecuted and imprisoned for criminal offences related to their exploitation, and who need protection. 

Last year, you spoke of your commitment to a “more compassionate approach”, a Home Office that saw “people not cases”. However, a genuine commitment to compassion would not result in these proposals. We strongly urge you to reconsider your approach, and to listen to the women who have sought safety in this country. 

Yours sincerely,

Alphonsine Kabagabo, Director, Women for Refugee Women  

Loraine Masiya Mponela, Chair, Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group 

Ibtissam Al-Farah, Director, Development and Empowerment for Women’s Advancement (DEWA) Project 

Management Committee, WAST (Women Asylum Seekers Together) Manchester   

Rosemary Crawley, on behalf of Women with Hope  

Reynette Roberts MBE, CEO, Oasis Cardiff 

Alison Moore, CEO, Refugee Women Connect  

Jeni Williams, Chair, Swansea Women’s Asylum and Refugee Support Group 

Marchu Girma, CEO, Hibiscus Initiatives  

Zrinka Bralo, CEO, Migrants Organise  

Protection Gap Advocates, Helen Bamber Foundation Group

Andrea Simon, Director, End Violence Against Women Coalition  

Gisela Valle, Director, Latin American Women’s Rights Service 

Rosario Guimba-Stewart, CEO, Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network (LRMN) 

Lora Evans, Committee Member, Sisters United  

Lisa Matthews, Coordinator, Right to Remain 

Denise McDowell, CEO, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit 

Pragna Patel, Director, Southall Black Sisters 

Beth Wilson, Director, Bristol Refugee Rights 

Donna Covey CBE, Chief Executive, AVA (Against Violence and Abuse)  

Ros Bragg, Director, Maternity Action 

Kerry Smith, CEO, Helen Bamber Foundation & Asylum Aid  

Mel Steel, Director, Voices in Exile 

Sally Daghlian OBE, CEO, Praxis  

Karen Pearse, Director, Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS) 

Sara Kirkpatrick, CEO, Welsh Women’s Aid 

Mahlea Babjak, Project Manager, Migrants’ Rights Network 

Jasbindar Bhatoa, Solicitor & Senior Legal Officer, Rights of Women  

Ali McGinley, Director, Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) 

Ellen Waters, Director of Development, Doctors of the World UK 

Nicola Sharp-Jeffs, CEO, Surviving Economic Abuse 

Kat Lorenz, Director, Asylum Support Appeals Project (ASAP) 

Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, Coordinator, Step Up Migrant Women 

Bee Rowlatt, Wollstonecraft Society 

Helen Pankhurst, Convener, Centenary Action Group 

Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns, Liberty 

Halaleh Taheri, Founder & Executive Director, Middle Eastern Women & Society Organisation (MEWSo) 

Abi Brunswick, Director, Project 17 

Dawn Thomas, Co-Chair, Rape Crisis England & Wales  

Wafa Shaheen, Head of Asylum, Integration & Resettlement, Scottish Refugee Council 

Jo Cobley, Chief Executive, Young Roots 

Sarah Taal, Director, Baobab Women’s Project CIC 

Tim Naor Hilton, Interim CEO, Refugee Action 

Sheila Mosley, on behalf of Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network  

Emma Colyer, Director, Body & Soul 

Elli Free, Director, Room to Heal 

Matthew Powell, CEO, Breaking Barriers 

Jo Todd, CEO, Respect 

Gabby Edlin, CEO, Bloody Good Period 

Sarah Teather, Director, Jesuit Refugee Service UK 

Fidelis Chebe, Director, Migrant Action 

Josie Naughton, CEO, Choose Love 

Chai Patel, Legal Policy Director, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants 

Fiona Dwyer, CEO, Solace Women’s Aid 

Lorna Gledhill, Deputy Director, Asylum Matters 

Steve Crawshaw, Director of Policy & Advocacy, Freedom from Torture 

Leila Zadeh, Executive Director, UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG) 

Sarbjit Ganger, Director, Asian Women’s Resource Centre 

Maya Esslemont, Director, After Exploitation 

Bella Sankey, Director, Detention Action 

Annie Campbell Viswanathan, Director, Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) 

Enver Solomon, CEO, Refugee Council 

Cas Heron, Chair, Bradford Rape Crisis & Sexual Abuse Survivors Service 

Jennifer Nadel, Co-Director, Compassion in Politics 

Andrea Cleaver, CEO, Welsh Refugee Council 

Jaqui Cotton, Coordinator, Growing Together Levenshulme 

Mark Goldring, Director, Asylum-Welcome 

Siân Summers-Rees, Chief Officer, City of Sanctuary 

Harriet Wistrich, Director, Centre for Women’s Justice 

Suzanne Fletcher, Chair, No To Hassockfield Campaign 

Samsoudini Abdou Moussa, Co-chair, Tees Valley of Sanctuary 

Gudrun Burnet, CEO, Standing Together 

Alice FookesVice-ChairNational Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO) UK 

Grace Burgess, Community and Partners Manager, TimePeace

Anuradha Chugh, Managing Director, Ben & Jerry’s Europe

Lucy Smith, Policy and Campaigns Coordinator, NACCOM Network

Sawsan Salim, Director, Kurdish Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation (KMEWO)