Online court hearings have become the new normal during the Covid-19 crisis because of concerns about public health and the need for social distancing. But protests have also been growing about how such “remote” hearings can penalize women and “reinforce the institutional sexism of the courts”.[i]
The Home Office has relied increasingly on “online” interviews with people about their asylum claims and now, as a result of the crisis, has put a halt to face-to-face interviews. But there has been little or no reference to the impact of this on “vulnerable witnesses” and traumatised victims of rape and other torture.
A rape survivor in our group endured just such an interview recently and found it a deeply upsetting and unsettling experience from which she still is recovering. She came to Women Against Rape never having spoken about what she suffered. After meeting other women asylum seekers in the All African Women’s Group[ii] (AAWG) and attending the self-help sessions WAR co-ordinates, she began to overcome her fears and feel sufficiently strengthened to embark on the process of claiming asylum.
She travelled to Croydon to register her claim at the Home Office, prepared for a short ‘screening interview” where she would confirm her identity and give just a few basic details about her situation. She explained how even this was going to be difficult for her.
“I am very scared to open up because of the things I went through. I grew up a camp in Uganda without my family with militants, police officers and prison officers. I faced a lot of problems, of rape and child abuse. So I am fearful and scared of officials.”
She took her partner along with a “buddy” from AAWG for support. To her dismay she found herself trapped in a lengthy and distressing online interrogation by a male officer:
“I was so shocked and embarrassed when this man asked me whether I was raped. Some things you do not rush to tell your partner and he was right there so what could I say? I said no, that I hadn’t been raped. Then I stopped the interview and asked if my partner could go out. That was not good for my relationship with him. He thought I hadn’t been honest with him. He was very upset. It has really undermined our relationship, to the point that recently he nearly asked me to leave which was really frightening, especially at this time.”
Left alone, Ms C insisted that her supporter from AAWG be present as the interview continued.
“I had to speak about the rape I suffered to this man on a screen. When I was crying the interviewer didn’t say anything, he waited while my supporter was trying to calm me down, then he just proceeded. He fired questions at me – was I gang raped, did the men have guns. I was not able to explain what had happened to me. I just said no. It was so upsetting.”
Ms C was left devastated by this experience and we have helped her to lodge an official complaint.
Most of the women WAR works with haven’t been able to report rape as grounds for asylum because of the stigma and discrimination victims face. Apparent contradictions, blurry recollection of details, delay in reporting and other issues, are all seized on to disbelieve and dismiss a claim. Other women have described interviewers openly sneering at them, showing a salacious and gratuitous interest in sexual details, telling them to hurry up and brushing aside what they say as if it is of no interest.
The anti-rape movement has established over decades that rape is a horrific crime which leaves lifelong psychological and sometimes physical scars, and that the very least that victims have a right to expect when they come forward to report, is that they should not face hostile, insensitive, stigmatising treatment. The conduct of the interviewer that questioned Ms C breaches even the Home Office’s own guidance which states that: “A reassuring environment will help to establish trust between the interviewer and the claimant, and should help the full disclosure of sensitive and personal information.” [iii]
For the Home Office to allow, and even worse organise, for rape victims to be subject to interrogation about intimate details of sexual abuse by a hostile stranger is confirmation that, far from helping women report sexual violence, it’s focussed on deterring women and finding ways to refuse them.
We are demanding acknowledgment of the harm caused to Ms C and that she receive an apology. That interviewer must be removed from this job. We also want to see the Home Office consider Ms C’s case on the written evidence that has been submitted, rather than subject her to a further “substantive” asylum interview.
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This pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of everyone being able to access health care, housing and an income. Women asylum seekers, immigrants and refugees, like other women, are most likely to have the care of children and other people, but this contribution is often not recognized. Many are joining the campaign for a care income as well as for an amnesty and #papersforall.
[ii] A group of women asylum seekers and refugees based with WAR at the Crossroads Women’s Centre
[iii] Page 31, The Interview, “Gender Issues in the Asylum Claim. Version 3 published for Home Office staff on 10 April 2018”. See our Self-Help Tool No. 3 for more information about how we are using this guidance.