The mistreatment of female refugees doesn’t end when they reach our shores
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Female refugees are facing countless threats all around the globe, says Samira Shackle. And their mistreatment doesn't end when they reach our shores.
What struck me about Salma, when I interviewed her several years ago, was how physically small she was. She was sent to England when she was 18 from a village in Pakistan, for an arranged marriage with a British citizen. She was kept as a slave in his house, suffering horrific physical and sexual abuse. Eventually, she escaped to a women's refuge.
When she called her family in Pakistan, her mother told her she couldn't come back. Eventually, her brother snatched the phone and told her that if she did come back, he would kill her because of the shame that her divorce would bring to the family. With the help of a caseworker at the refuge, Salma began the painstaking process of applying for asylum.
The UN Refugee Convention, written in 1951, defines a refugee as someone with 'a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,' with no protection from their own state.
It is not typically enough to simply be fleeing conflict: an individual, male or female, must be able to show that they specifically are at risk of persecution if they return.
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In the simplest cases, someone might have documents to show, for instance, that they were the member of an opposition political party, had escaped army conscription, or were part of a persecuted religious minority. But if a woman faces persecution specifically because of her gender – because of dishonour, divorce, or domestic abuse – it can be much harder to prove, given that there will not typically be a paper trail.
Salma's application relied on a landmark case in 1999, which ruled that divorced women in Pakistan qualified as a persecuted group. Yet subsequent cases overturned this ruling, leaving a legal grey area. Soon after our interview, Salma's application for asylum was rejected. She attempted suicide, luckily survived the attempt, and appealed the verdict. She won, after months of anguish and near destitution.
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This was sadly typical: a 2011 report by Asylum Aid found that 50% of initial rejections of women's claims were ultimately overturned at appeal. The research found that UK Border Agency caseworkers often failed to understand the type of violence that women might flee, and that this led to them doubting the credibility of their claims.
In the years that have passed since I met Salma, the situation for women seeking refuge in the UK has not improved.
Theresa May's 'hostile environment' policy, which explicitly seeks to make life difficult for those who want to live in Britain, received some much-needed scrutiny during the Windrush scandal this year. But it continues to devastate the lives of many. In conjunction with this policy, which actively encourages a sceptical attitude to asylum claims, Britain – like some other European countries – has steadily increased its use of immigration detention in recent decades.
In the early 1990s, there were just a few hundred cells in the country to hold people who were about to be deported. Today, there are more than 3,500 'beds' in detention centres across Britain, where people are locked up as the Home Office tries to deport them.
Each year, more than 1,500 of those detained are women. Usually detention is indefinite – and it is effectively indistinguishable from prison, apart from the fact that those held there have not committed a crime.
Yarl's Wood, a women's detention centre, has become notorious, with a series of scandals over sexual abuse and ill treatment. Labour recently pledged that, if elected, they would end the hostile environment policy and close Yarl's Wood and a men's detention centre, Brook House. This would be practical as well as humane. Research has shown that countries which do not use detention are just as effective in enforcing immigration controls. And there are serious ethical questions around locking up survivors of torture.
Refugees of all genders have frequently experienced severe trauma. This can happen not just in their home countries, but also on their journey to safety. When it comes to women and girls who flee war or persecution, there are a whole host of gender-specific dangers: some might experience restricted movement as a result of their gender, and women generally face a heightened risk of sexual harassment, assault or exploitation.
The UN has acknowledged that refugee women are more affected by violence than any other women's population in the world. In their quest for safety, women refugees – many of whom are already survivors of violence – are subjected to further risk. Research has found numerous cases of women being raped by people smugglers, or forced to 'exchange' sex for a passage to safety in the UK.
As we move towards a post-Brexit future, there are question marks about how the situation for refugees in Britain will change. Ironically, it might become harder for the UK to deport refugees who have passed through other safe European countries back to those countries, because the rule that people must seek refuge in the first safe European country they reach is an EU law.
Given the anti-immigration rhetoric and sentiment that surrounded the campaign, there is a risk that May – who has taken a hard line on immigration throughout her spell as prime minister and home secretary – will be emboldened to push for a more punitive asylum process. However, this is not on the table yet.
In September 2016, she told the UN General Assembly: 'We will continue to champion the rights of women and girls, making sure that all girls get the education they deserve, and tackling horrific abuses such as female genital mutilation and the use of sexual violence in conflict.' It was a reaffirmation of an often-repeated position: that Britain is committed to defending women's rights around the world.
This is to be commended. But if those same women we so staunchly support overseas end up seeking refuge in Britain, they do not find themselves a high priority at all.
While women and girls' rights are promoted abroad, many who make it to the UK face scepticism, detention, and the risk of deportation – not the support they desperately need.
Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, writing for the Guardian, Al Jazeera, New Statesman, Deutsche Welle, Prospect and others
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