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.