They Fled Sexual Violence. The UK Made Their Trauma Worse

Women don't feel able to share their trauma with border authorities and so don't get a fair hearing for their asylum claims, a survey shared with VICE World News says.
September 16, 2021, 4:14pm
A protest outside a UK migrant detention centre. Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo

At 17 years old, Becky was called into the office of her Catholic priest, also the headteacher at her school, to help with Christmas decorations. “When a priest tells you to come, you have to yield to that,” she says.

At the time, Becky was living in Cameroon with her Christian family of six. “My dad was really violent to my mum – physically and emotionally. Where I come from, it is a normal thing.” Although witnessing abuse was part of Becky’s daily routine, she didn’t expect to experience abuse herself, especially at the hands of a priest. “He told my mum there were other girls coming, but then I discovered I was alone. He came closer to me, holding me by the shoulders. I was telling him to stop. And then he raped me. The first thing in my mind was wondering who would believe me.”

Becky tried to tell her mum what happened, but she wasn’t believed. She carried her shame into school each day, where she had to continue interacting with the priest. “He tried to abuse me again in his office. I started screaming and he pushed me out of the room. He tried several times, but didn’t succeed.”

Becky fled her abusive home in 2007 to study for a degree in the UK, with the goal of seeking asylum after her studies ended, far away from her trauma. But as it turned out, her trauma was to be compounded by the migration system in the UK.

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Becky, shared her history of abuse and immigration to the UK with VICE World News on condition of anonymity in order to protect her from her ex-partner. She said she was speaking up to expose the insufficient support for asylum seeking women who have experienced rape and abuse.

In a survey conducted by Global Women Against Deportations among a small group of women seeking asylum and shared with VICE World News, it was found that 33 out of a group of 45 respondents had suffered domestic violence and 20 had experienced rape, contributing to their reasons for claiming asylum in the UK. Nearly half of the women were survivors of torture, the survey found.

However, while many women are fleeing sexual violence and domestic abuse, the survey found that few felt able to disclose this to immigration enforcement, meaning they don’t get a fair hearing for their asylum claims. This means that, having escaped sexual violence, they are then vulnerable to further abuse or exploitation to provide for the needs of themselves and their children.

This is what happened to Becky.

After finishing school at 18, Becky attended university in Cameroon, eventually attaining her degree in geography. During her time at university, she was again sexually abused, but given that no one believed her the first time, she didn’t bother disclosing what happened. “I just held everything within me,” she says.

Becky completed her course and applied for a master’s degree in Environmental Technology at the University of Hull in northern England, travelling on a student visa. A friend, who was an EU national and had helped her get to the UK, showed up at her rented accommodation with all of his belongings, asking to move in with her. “I thought he was my love,” she says.

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She quickly realised he was a controlling abuser. He didn’t let her have friends, forced her to get rid of a baby she had conceived, made her pay for everything, and kept tabs on her computer usage.

In 2011, once she had finished her degree, she was given a five-year resident card based on her relationship with an EU citizen. The abuse continued, but Becky was scared to disclose it in case she would be deported. She didn’t realise she could claim asylum in the UK based on the rape and domestic abuse that she had suffered in Cameroon, but even if she did, it isn’t certain she would have been believed.

Sian Evans, of Women Against Rape, says, “Women fear being judged and shamed as a rape survivor. This fear is justified as immigration officials are often unsympathetic or even brutal in their treatment of victims. Some are openly sexist and racist. Most women keep the rape they suffered secret from everyone, so it’s even more difficult to speak about rape to officials who are openly hostile. Officials commonly seize on women’s difficulties in speaking about what she suffered, including any delay in reporting, and use that to disbelieve them.”

Five years after the relationship began, in 2013, Becky left her abusive partner and sought legal advice from a lawyer about how to stay in the UK. After making initial contact with a lawyer, she visited a friend in Germany for one week, and when she attempted to return to the UK, she was stopped by Border Control and told she couldn’t come back. The relationship she was in, which gave her right to reside in the UK, had ended, and when she attempted to tell them about the domestic abuse and legal support she was accessing, Border Control ignored her and put her in a detention centre to go back to Cameroon, her home and the place where she was first sexually abused. “It was a nightmare,” she says.

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Becky was released on bail from the detention centre by a supportive charity when her case went to court in Birmingham. “The heart-breaking thing was that I was being released with nowhere to stay. I had lost everything.”

“Most women we work with haven’t reported rape in their initial asylum claim,” Evans says. “So they are destitute while they wait for many months and even years for the Home Office to consider their new evidence.”

Since Becky was subject to immigration control, she had No Recourse to Public Funds – a condition placed on migrants denying them access to certain benefits. This meant that Becky was unable to access income support or housing benefit. She was forced to stay with a friend, where she faced further abuse. When she went to the police station to sign on, she was detained again, for reasons she was not told. “Detention centre is torture. In detention, I saw slavery again,” she says.

While in detention Becky struggled to get legal representation, as do many migrant women escaping rape and domestic abuse. With lack of support, Becky took it upon herself to appeal her own case on the grounds of rape and domestic violence, but this was refused. Crossroads Women’s Centre found a barrister to ask for a reconsideration appeal but that too was refused. Women Against Rape and Becky then prepared a case, went to the Court of Appeal unrepresented, and won.

In 2017, four years after she was told she could not return to the UK, she was granted asylum based on the fact that she was a victim of rape and domestic abuse. “It was such a difficult fight. I was exhausted,” Becky says.

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Becky was destitute for years in the UK while she made asylum claims, enduring abuse, and trauma. Sadly, Becky is far from the only one. When desperate for food, shelter, and clothing, without the ability to work, women are forced to put themselves in exploitative, abusive situations to survive.

Marian Okeke grew up in a poor home in Nigeria. At 14, a family friend molested Okeke, and when she attempted to tell her parents, they told her what she was saying wasn’t true. Not long after, she was walking home from a birthday party one evening and suddenly felt a hard thump on her head. While barely conscious, she heard the voice of a boy who had been pestering her to go on a date with him, saying “I got you”. “When I woke up, I had pain all over. I had been raped and three months later, I found out I was pregnant.” She wanted to abort the baby, but her mother convinced her not to. When her baby boy was born, they sent him to live with a family member to give her a chance of finding a partner.

Okeke married into one of Nigeria's royal families. These families trace their lineage back to the families that ruled kingdoms before British colonial rule. They have no constitutional status these days, but their members have an important status in Nigerian society. She came to the UK soon after as a dependent on her husband’s student visa. He started to abuse her consistently, but newly arrived in a foreign land, she felt she couldn’t leave him.

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After nine years of a toxic, abusive marriage, Okeke packed her things, her two young children and fled. She was too traumatised to report the abuse and rape, but spoke to a private lawyer hired by her church. The lawyer submitted a family life application to the Home Office, which if accepted, would have entitled her leave to remain in the UK on the basis of her children being settled in the UK. When the application failed, Lewisham Council withdrew the housing and financial support they had been providing for Okeke and her children, and advised her to voluntarily return with her children, where her abusive husband was well-known, and her memories of brutal rape resided.

“I had never told anyone about the rape,” Okeke says. “Every time I remember it, I am traumatised. I have nightmares about it.”

Cllr Kevin Bonavia, Lewisham’s Cabinet Member for Democracy, Refugees and Accountability, said that the case “demonstrates why the current asylum system is not fit for purpose. We have a proud history in Lewisham of supporting refugees and migrants… but we are often restricted by national legislation.

“The Home Office should ensure that asylum seekers are able to speak openly when reporting their experiences of persecution or violence, without fear of being judged or stigmatised. Sadly, the Government seems intent on making it harder for people to seek asylum, rather than fixing the current problems with the system.”

Women Against Rape has fought to make sure Okeke was given financial support and accommodation from the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). Her asylum case is ongoing.

Gloria Peters, Co-Coordinator of the All African Women’s Group, a self-help group of 100 women asylum seekers and refugees, says, “The detention system with all its predatory layers is designed by the Home Office to make us give up and go back – it’s a violent and hostile environment – it’s inhumane, often criminal and always negligent.”

VICE World News contacted the Home Office for comment but received no response.