Refuge from Rape & Destitution launch, Brighton 2017

Research, including our own, has found that over 70% of women seeking asylum in the UK have fled rape. But instead of helping victims come forward, the Home Office fails to inform women that their experiences are grounds for asylum. We found that 94% of women coming to us for help in the three years before the pandemic hadn’t reported what they’d suffered. Then even when victims do report, they are met with disbelief and open hostility from officials operating a system designed to find reasons to refuse.

WAR’s research found that 88% of women reporting rape were disbelieved by the Home Office, often because of delay. This despite a precedent that WAR helped win that victims may be too traumatised to report rape earlier and despite Home Office guidance cautioning its officials against using delay to “automatically” disbelieve them.

Legal aid cuts have made it very difficult to find good free representation to challenge Home Office refusals. Many women end up with private lawyers who have no interest in finding out if their clients have grounds to claim asylum, as this would trigger access to a legal aid lawyer and so lose them their fees. Cases are often closed without women being able to present the reasons they fear going back to the country they fled.

When cases are closed asylum support and accommodation is withdrawn, leaving women and children destitute and vulnerable to further rape and other violence. The pandemic has pushed even more women into exploitative and abusive situations. They are threatened with being reported to the Home Office and deportation if they seek help. We’ve focused on finding emergency help like food vouchers and other essentials, accessing the National Asylum Support Service and money available from council Social Services, keeping cases open or getting them re-opened, and helping women win asylum!

To win, victims have to overcome structural injustices in the asylum system. We have publicised and helped women use four key tools to achieve this.

  • The Home Office’s gender guidelines about how women’s asylum claims should be considered. These are now widely cited, including in opposition to the Nationality and Borders bill.
  • Judges guidance about how they should treat “vulnerable witnesses”. WAR pioneered using this guidance to overturn very poor decisions by the Home Office and judges, who were simply rubber-stamping them. In 2017 we helped Ms YF, who was in Yarl’s Wood and facing imminent removal, go to the Court of Appeal unrepresented using the guidance. It agreed with us that a judge’s dismissal of her appeal without reference to the guidance was unlawful. She was released, won refugee status at a new appeal and got substantial damages for unlawful detention too. Now the guidance is always referred to in the appeal rulings we see,f and it has been critical to a number of rape victims winning their appeal. Other significant victories have been won using the guidance, including an important precedent about how children are treated.
  • Exceptional Case Funding for those otherwise ineligible for legal aid. Meant to be available to those too traumatised, or with too important/complex cases, to represent themselves, this scheme was initially just a facade of help which was almost always refused. Some lawyers gave up even trying as you practically had to do the same work to win the case. We helped rape victims press their lawyers to apply nonetheless. A kind and committed lawyer might be ready to work pro-bono but experts providing supporting evidence often can’t/don’t. We supported a successful Judicial Review establishing an important precedent that a vulnerable witness couldn’t be expected to present her own appeal. Other women have used the scheme to fight for Family Reunion with their children and it’s now much more widely accessed – although you still need a lawyer to demonstrate your eligibility.
  • Article 14 of the UN Convention Against Torture: victims’ right to the means to recover. Women Against Rape always flags this up in our expert evidence supporting victims but it has never come to court because women have won on Refugee Convention or Article 8 human rights grounds. With these other grounds under attack, Article 14 may prove an important alternative.