March 1, 2021
“My family was treated as if we were irrelevant, not important, not human. The case worker is a white woman and behaved like she wanted us out of her face – that is racism. If one of the mothers in the All African Women’s Group hadn’t stepped forward to house us and we all hadn’t fought together, I could have been sent back which would have been the end of me. But I’m housed and the fight goes on.”
Those are the words of a mother of a mother with two children, who was evicted by Lewisham Council five weeks ago, at the height of the second wave of the pandemic and in freezing weather. But, in the end, she won the fight to claim asylum and be granted housing and assistance.
Marian Okeibunor is a survivor of rape and other violence in Nigeria and fears that her life would be in danger if she were returned – a family member has already suffered attempts on his life. She is a member of the All African Women’s Group and is being supported by Women Against Rape, both based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London.
Marian Okeibunor has expressed her gratitude for all the support she has received, as it means they now have a safe and warm place to live. However, she worries “that other mothers may be treated like me and that, without the help I received from WAR and caring members of the public, they will end up sick and homeless.”
Marian Okeibunor is traumatised by the rape she suffered and had received no help to report this as grounds for asylum. She had been receiving support for destitute families but the Council decided to evict her, claiming she and her children could go back to Nigeria under the so-called “voluntary” returns scheme.
She pleaded with Lewisham to be given more time over Christmas and Women Against Rape wrote to back up this request, explaining that she had grounds to claim asylum and pointing to evidence that rape survivors need time and specialist help to be able to speak about their experiences.
Local people, including Cllr. Alan Hall, rallied to support the family, horrified at the Council’s inhumanity.
Thankfully Marian Okeibunor and her two young children were offered somewhere to sleep by a friend. As her campaign got public attention, Duncan Lewis solicitors, offered to represent her. Her asylum claim was being blocked by the Home Office which was insisting that she travel two hours on a bus to a screening interview where she would be questioned in detail about her experience of sexual violence. WAR protested that this was cruel and insensitive as rape survivors need specialist help and time to speak and shouldn’t be forced to do this with a stranger in a hostile environment.
Just hours before Marian Okeibunor’s request for emergency accommodation was due to be heard in court, the Home Office backed down and offered to provide a taxi to take the family to emergency housing, stopping at the reporting centre, where she had a brief appointment to confirm her identity.
She and the children are now in their new accommodation which, as she requested, is within travelling distance of her son’s school.
Marian Okeibunor’s situation exposes discrimination in public health policy during the pandemic and discrimination against rape survivors:
- The government public health message is Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. Yet Marian Okeibunor was evicted during the pandemic (at a time when over 1200 people were dying a day) and forced to beg another mother to put her and her children up to prevent them being on the street. This meant both families were overcrowded and unable to socially distance/isolate.
- The Home Office set a condition on Marian Okeibunor claiming asylum which meant she would have had to travel two hours on the bus to attend an in-person interview. Other services have arranged for people to apply online and verify their identity locally at a Post Office for example. This is direct discrimination against asylum seekers.
- Marian Okeibunor is a woman of colour, and people of colour are statistically more vulnerable to catching and dying from Covid but there was no consideration of this by the Home Office which therefore amounts to racist discrimination.
- New Home Office asylum screening appointments mean that rape survivors are expected to speak in detail about their experiences, often to male officials, without having the chance to get specialist help or legal advice. This flouts its own Asylum Policy Instruction to officials. WAR’s experience of these new procedures shows that women have been subjected to inappropriate intrusive questioning by male officials in the presence of partners and family members.