Asylum seekers and refugees are being put in life-threatening situations by the Coronavirus. Women in our network are rape survivors who have escaped from persecution in their home country and have come to the UK with the hope of getting protection and safety. Instead women find themselves confronting a hostile immigration environment and even when they have compelling evidence of the sexual violence they suffered they are turned down for asylum. Many are then left destitute with no income at all and forced to depend on others for their very survival. Where women’s claims are accepted for consideration they get only £37 a week and are often forced to live in substandard and overcrowded accommodation.
We help co-ordinate monthly self-help meetings and weekly work sessions where women get help to understand their case and gather the evidence to submit (or resubmit) a claim, prepare for appeal, get out of detention, claim compensation for wrongful imprisonment, access health care, find a lawyer.
These meetings and work sessions have of course been suspended since the lock down and the support work has moved online.
At a time of crisis we would expect that the Home Office, despite its usually brutal treatment of people seeking asylum, would amend its procedures to at least make them in line with the government’s coronavirus “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” restrictions. But no, women in our group who weren’t able to claim asylum before the lockdown are still being told to travel to the Home Office Croydon office to register their claim. Without a current claim women have had no chance of getting even the miserly level of asylum support.
Many women are living in overcrowded conditions and/or with friends in exchange for household tasks and childcare. Now with more people at home and finances even more stretched, such precarious arrangements are in danger of breaking down. Women are at risk of losing a roof over their head and any means of survival. Some are in difficult and sometimes abusive relationships with men, and even more vulnerable as domestic violence rates soar.
We’re working overtime to help women get access to food parcels, top up their mobile phones, get emergency cash payments from hardship funds, and trigger eligibility for help from the National Asylum Support Services – information about which we will be sharing on forthcoming blog posts. We are highlighting how Home Office procedures, like conducting interviews online where women are expected to disclose details about rape and other sexual violence are discriminatory and re-traumatising victims.
From the start of this crisis we have also been working with other groups to make demands on the government for example, contributing to a petition demanding an amnesty for all so that people can access healthcare, housing and food without fear of deportation.[i]
#PapersForAll was also the focus for an action on 19 April. Nine hundred organisations in Spain called for a twitter storm which was taken up by many people across Europe. Other demands included + Close detention centres + Equal healthcare for all + Right of passage to mainland Europe to migrants imprisoned in camps. As part of the Global Women Against Deportations (GWAD) coalition[ii] we added a demand to end destitution.
We are also supporting a campaign for a Care Income Now. This aims to make visible and demand compensation for the massive amount of unwaged caring work done primarily by women which is so crucial to human survival. Women asylum seekers speak about how they do this work – caring, cleaning, helping raise children, domestic work in other people’s houses – but get even less recognition and visibility than others.
As Hilda, from the All African Women’s Group describes:
“I live with friends and do housework and childcare for them usually during the week in exchange for a little money. But since the virus lockdown they are home and we share the work so I don’t get that money. It is terrible to live without any money of my own. I used to send money back to my children in Uganda to support them and now I can’t do that. Africa is in lockdown too so people are desperate.”
The Refuge from Rape & Destitution Campaign is an initiative of Women Against Rape (WAR) in partnership with the All African Women’s Group, a group of women asylum seekers and refugees based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre.
[ii] GWAD is a coalition based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre made up of the All African Women’s Group, Legal Action for Women, Women Against Rape, Women of Colour/Global Women’s Strike