Today, Women for Refugee Women and regional partners publish their new report, Will I ever be safe? Asylum-seeking women made destitute in the UK. The report explores the experiences of 106 destitute asylum-seeking women who have struggled to survive in the UK, making it the largest piece of research on the topic.

Asylum-seeking women are being made homeless, hungry and vulnerable to abuse in the UK:

  • 32 of these 106 women said they were raped or sexually abused in their country of origin and again when destitute in the UK.
  • Almost half were street homeless while destitute in the UK. ‘Rosie’, who was trafficked from Nigeria, slept outside for a continuous period of six months, while she was pregnant.
    • 25% said they were raped or experienced sexual violence while sleeping outside.
  • 95% were hungry while destitute.
  • 95% felt depressed; a third tried to kill themselves.

These women have already experienced abuse and violence in their countries of origin:

  • 78% of these 106 women said they had fled gender-based violence in their country of origin.
    • A third said they were raped by state authorities in their countries of origin.
  • A quarter of them came from DR Congo, where women have been targeted in ongoing conflicts and repression.
  • 16% are lesbian or bisexual and were targeted because of their sexuality, in countries where homosexuality is illegal, such as Uganda and Cameroon.

Most of the women in the survey were made destitute after their asylum claim was refused, but when they were unable to return to their countries of origin due to their fears of further persecution. Some women were made destitute after getting leave to remain, due to the challenges of moving on to mainstream benefits.

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, says:

“It is shocking to see how women who have already survived extreme violence and abuse are being left with no support when they come to the UK to seek safety. These punitive policies are leaving women who have already gone through rape and torture vulnerable to abuse all over again in this country. Too often, our government is ignoring the needs of women who cross borders. It is time to build a fairer asylum process in which women are protected from harm and in which they can be supported to live with dignity.”

‘Mary’, a refugee woman who was persecuted by the state in Uganda, says:

“It was not safe for me in Uganda. I was captured and locked up by soldiers who raped and tortured me because they thought that I was supporting the opposition. When I got to the UK and claimed asylum the Home Office refused me because they mixed up my story with another woman who had a similar name. It broke my heart that they refused me, after everything I had been through. And it made my life in the UK dangerous. I had nowhere to go so I had to sleep outside; it’s not safe for a woman. Men abused me and I couldn’t tell the police because I was afraid of the authorities after what happened to me back in Uganda. I thought that if I told them I would be sent back to Uganda where I would be killed. Being homeless made me feel so depressed that I tried to kill myself. I got refugee status in the end, but after so much pain and suffering.”

‘Evelyn’, who was trafficked to the UK from west Africa and caught in a cycle of sexual violence, says:

“I was trafficked to the UK by a man who kept me locked up and raped me. When I managed to get away I claimed asylum, but the Home Office didn’t believe what had happened to me. I had no accommodation or support for six years. It was so hard for me. I met a man who said that I could stay with him, but he forced me to have sex with him and abused me in other ways. I didn’t want to be with him but I had no choice. Then I became pregnant. It was a difficult pregnancy and getting medical help was nearly impossible because I had no money to get anywhere. I felt so alone and scared of how I would look after my baby, when I had nothing at all.”

On 14 February, refugee women will gather in Birmingham to share solidarity and support on this issue and launch a new campaign against the destitution of asylum-seeking women, #SistersNotStrangers.

Zarah Sultana MP will give the keynote address.

Agnes Tanoh, of Women with Hope in Birmingham, will say at the conference:

I came to the UK escaping political persecution. When I applied for asylum, I was not believed. I spent 7 years as a destitute woman in Birmingham. Being destitute, it breaks you, because you have no choice over your life. You feel like you are disappearing as each day, month and year passes. If you are given £20 by a charity for the week, you have to make really hard decisions. Do you get a bus pass to get around to meet a solicitor, or tinned food for the week, or toilet paper? Those are the decisions I had to make. After so much suffering, I now have my refugee status, but I am not going to stop campaigning. Because I have a dream that one day, everyone who seeks asylum will be treated with dignity and their human rights respected. I encourage you all to join this fight, because we have to support each other and stand in solidarity with our sisters.”

It’s time for change, join the #SistersNotStrangers movement