In 2014, Angelina Jolie and William Hague travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bosnia together to campaign for the end of the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Their trip culminated in a global summit in London, where the former foreign secretary pledged to "end one of the greatest injustices of our time." It was a humanitarian PR stunt to top all others, with the government conference costing £5.2million – five times more than the entire annual UK budget to tackle rape in war zones.
But while the Foreign Office repeatedly pledges to end sexual violence in conflict zones overseas, in the UK we deny women escaping these same conflicts the most basic protection. Despite the fact that 70 percent of women seeking asylum in the UK have suffered rape and other sexual violence, domestic policy fails them time and time again.
Not only are female asylum seekers forced to tell their stories to male interviewers and translators who have little to no understanding of their trauma, they are given zero information about their rights as a woman in the British asylum system. What's more, childcare is not provided for the interviews, so women are routinely made to discuss deeply haunting experiences in front of their children. Forced to jump through a series of rigid bureaucratic hoops, it is common for women to hold back on issues that are difficult to discuss; the same issues that could be the difference between being granted asylum and being sent home.
Femi Mariah*, 30, has first hand experience of the British asylum system. "I left Sudan in 2010 because of the war. The government was trying to apply Sharia law to a country that was multi-religious and multi-cultural. The situation was especially bad for women and girls," she explains. "I was leading campaigns against FGM in the Student Movement and campaigning for women's rights".
As you'd expect, life as a woman was tremendously difficult in Sudan. "I wasn't allowed to wear trousers. I experienced physical and psychological abuse from the Public Order Police," she tells me. "After I was arrested at a protest, I experienced rape and witnessed rape. But there is no law in Sudan. There is nobody you can go to for justice."
Mariah was in her mid-twenties when she fled Sudan. "I left my job. I left my parents and my sister. I left everything, home, friends," she says. "Coming to the unknown is scary when you don't know anything and you don't have English as your first language and you don't have family support."
Mariah claimed asylum the same morning her plane touched down in London.
"I had my meeting in Croydon. I was there from six in the morning till 11 at night. I don't know how the elderly people managed it. I was drained and exhausted. The meeting was in a small room with a table and three chairs and not many windows," she recalls. "It felt depressing and for some reason I felt cold the whole time."
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Like all asylum seekers, Mariah was made to recount her experience of sexual violence. "The interview was three hours long but I wasn't given any information before the interview. I wasn't told how long I had," she explains. "It was a very traumatic experience. I wasn't given the chance to feel comfortable, to take my time, to remember everything. There were so many detailed questions and they were rushing me. Their body language was giving me the impression that I should speed up."
Interrogated by a male interviewer and male translator, Mariah was not given the option of speaking to a woman. "Coming from my culture, we tend not to talk about certain issues to men. A female interviewer would've helped me feel more comfortable," she reflects. "Also the translator wasn't translating exactly. Sometimes he was just saying headlines, other times he was saying completely different stuff to what I was saying."
In the end, Mariah's application for asylum was rejected. "I wasn't well at all. I needed to feel comfortable to answer the questions properly but I wasn't. Unfortunately that affected the result of the interview," she explains. "The Home Office decision was very clear – they didn't believe me. I think they assume that some cases aren't genuine. They make up their minds before you start. It's just the assumption that you're lying."
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Unsurprisingly, Mariah took the decision badly. "It was the most frustrating news I've ever heard. I thought I'd lost everything," she tells me. "I had to appeal. I went to court and the judge saw that I was a credible person and he granted me appeal and asylum."
While it took a year for Mariah to be granted asylum, the psychological repercussions linger on. "The experience of sexual violence is extremely traumatising. I still feel so angry. It's something you can't forget. I wasn't offered counseling. I didn't know there were laws against domestic violence and rape," she says, her voice catching in her throat. "All I wanted was protection. It means a lot to people who come from a country, which doesn't give us the basic rights and don't consider us as human beings."
But Mariah isn't alone. The Home Office gets over a quarter of its initial decisions in women's cases wrong and the rate of wrong decisions is higher for women than men. Thrust into the unforgiving hands of UK Border Officials, survivors are immediately expected to recount the goriest details of their sexual violence or risk irreversibly ruining their "credibility". In other words, if any new information is provided at a later date, the case is deemed "inconsistent" and the application is likely to be rejected and they may be immediately detained.
This can pose real problems for asylum seekers who come from profoundly different cultures. After all, if you're unaware that domestic violence is illegal in Britain, how are you supposed to know that you should tell your interviewer your husband hit you? What's more, if you come from a culture where discussing personal matters with a male who is not a family member is taboo; it can be unimaginably difficult to divulge information to a male interviewer, let alone a bureaucrat. Indeed it's not difficult to see why the opaque asylum system can quickly feel like an impenetrable fortress. To make matters worse, the trauma and pain of rape can radically distort memory, making it nigh on impossible to recollect painful, harrowing memories in exact detail or in chronological order.
Evidence also throws up real difficulties for female asylum seekers. Unlike a political defector, survivors of rape and gender oppression struggle to prove and verify their experiences because it occurs in the private sphere. In turn, women are precariously reliant on their own oral testimony.
Like Mariah, Amara Keita*, 52, also struggled with the British asylum system. "I left Nigeria in 2008. I had a very bad case of domestic violence and sexual abuse. My husband raped me several times," she tells me. "He was even abusing young girls under my care. That destroyed me."
It was after he kidnapped her children that Keita decided it was time to leave her job as a lawyer in Nigeria behind. "I left with my three children. I had to keep it a secret. I just bought my ticket. I was a broken woman. My mental state was a mess."
Once in London, Keita too found the asylum process distressing. "I didn't go into lots of detail about the sexual violence because the questions made me feel uncomfortable. I kept having panic attacks because of the way they were acting. The only sympathy I got was, 'Do you want a cup of water?'"
Although Keita wasn't provided with childcare for her children, fortunately her appointment coincided with school hours. "I don't know what I would've done otherwise. I definitely wouldn't feel comfortable talking about the abuse and the marriage in front of my children," she explains.
Bombarded with questions, Keita struggled to hold her own. "The same question is asked in ten different ways. I found most of their questions very judgmental. You should be interviewed by someone who is specially trained on sexual violence because that person would empathise more," she maintains. After the whole ordeal was finished, Keita's application was rejected. "I went to a tribunal and won but it was a very slow process. It took me three years to be granted asylum."
Asides from the absence of basic compassion shown to women fleeing sexual violence, day-to-day life is far from easy for these women. Without stating the obvious, asylum seekers do not arrive in a country where the white cliffs of Dover are paved with gold. Forced to live on a meager £36.95 a week as their sole source of income, unable to legally work and residing in the notoriously appalling conditions of "hard to let" – the name says it all – council properties, asylum seekers live in dire poverty. And to top it all off, we continue to deny women courageously risking their lives to escape sexual violence the most basic, rudimentary level of protection.
In the words of Zoe Gardner, Communications Officer at Asylum Aid, "From FGM, to forced marriage, honour crime, or rape in detention or in conflict – they come to this country hoping that here they will not be allowed to be abused any more, hoping to find protection and a chance to rebuild. They deserve a fair and compassionate system to evaluate their claims."
In order to raise awareness about the issue, Asylum Aid launched 'The Protection Gap' campaign exactly a year ago. As well as providing legal representation and indispensible advice to female refugees, Asylum Aid drew up a list of demands, which Zoe Gardner, their Communications Officer, sums up as, "The possibility of speaking to a trained, female caseworker without their children present and with a decent level of support and understanding of the process they are involved in is the least we can do for any woman".
Thanks to Asylum Aid's hard work, every single one of their demands has been included in the Home Office's Women's Asylum Action Plan. Now they are working hard to keep the pressure on the government up and ensure their demands are actually implemented. But until this happens, women arriving in Britain will continue to be cruelly failed.
*Femi Mariah and Amara Keita's names have been changed to protect their identity.
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