Refuge from Rape & Destitution launch, Brighton 2017

Rape survivors who have escaped from persecution in their home country come to the UK with the hope of getting protection and safety. Yet many face stigma, discrimination and a hostile immigration environment which frequently makes it impossible to speak about what they have suffered and if they do, they are disparaged and dismissed. When rape victims are refused asylum their support and accommodation is withdrawn, leaving them destitute.

Our project aims to address this injustice by campaigning to remove key structural injustices that women victims in particular routinely face in their legal cases and highlight how destitution increases victims  vulnerability to rape and sexual violence.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed women into life-threatening situations, leaving many in exploitative and abusive situations where they are dependent on others. We’ve focused on finding emergency help like food vouchers and other essentials and campaigning to prevent destitution and homelessness so that women aren’t forced to risk their own and others’ lives, and can follow public health guidelines. 

Destitution is a deliberate government policy to try to drive asylum seekers and other immigrants out of the UK.  People seeking asylum are cut off from all support when their legal case is refused. Destitution is a cornerstone of the “hostile environment”.  Pre lock-down, we co-ordinated fortnightly, sometimes weekly, collective self-help sessions, using our tools. Women from the All African Women’s Group (AAWG) used the sessions to help reopen or keep open their legal cases and so keep/get support and accommodation. In the sessions women do more in-depth work on their cases to: share information about the decision-making process; understand each other’s cases; work out how to get the most out of your lawyer; get help from MPs to challenge.  Find out more about what happens in the sessions here. During the pandemic we have been meeting online but are looking forward to resume meeting in person as soon as that’s safe.

93 of a sample of 100 women we worked with during the project’s first three years (2017-20) were unable to report rape before getting its support and encouragement, firstly and most importantly from other women who have suffered similarly.

When their asylum claims are closed women are made destitute and become part of the many thousands of people in the UK struggling to survive with “No Recourse to Public Funds”. Vulnerable and traumatised women who have fled here to escape rape/domestic violence/forced marriage find themselves with no income at all and forced to depend on others for their very survival.

The majority of women using the project are in the process of making a “fresh claim”, having not been able to report sexual violence in their initial asylum claim. It is up to the Home Office to decide whether or not reporting rape should trigger a woman’s eligibility to full support from the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) and right to appeal against its decision. But it invariably takes many months, even years, to get any decision, leaving women and children in limbo and destitute. The government likes to talk about being against “modern-day slavery” but has organised for many hundreds of thousands to be available to gang-masters and slavers of all kinds – making it perhaps the biggest gang-master and slaver in the UK?

Even when women are able to report rape, they’ve suffered appalling treatment by the Home Office, including brutal and cruel interviews in which officials – often men and now increasingly online – focus on finding reasons to disbelieve them.

 In the many hundreds of cases we have worked on with women, notoriously bad Home Office decisions, unjust judgements, poor or no legal representation and misunderstandings because of language problems invariably play a part. Rape and domestic violence victims face additional disadvantage because rather than get help to overcome trauma and stigma, their difficulties are used to disbelieve and dismiss their accounts. 

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

At a time of crisis one might 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 were still being told to travel to the Home Office Croydon office to register their claim or remain destitute. Many women were left living in overcrowded conditions and/or with friends in exchange for household tasks and childcare.  With more people at home and finances even more stretched, such precarious arrangements became even more difficult.

Even where women’s claims are accepted for consideration, they get only £37 a week and are forced to live in privately-run substandard and overcrowded accommodation which has posed great dangers to their own and the general public’s health during this pandemic. Many thousands of elderly people died unnecessarily from the virus being spread in care homes. It’s now well-documented that BAME people’s lives have also been particularly at risk. No wonder women told us that NASS accommodation is “a death trap” and elected to stay dependent on others for a roof over their head. This was often despite having to remain in horrible and sometimes frightening situations.

Previously victim to domestic violence in the country she fled and in the UK, Ms K hadn’t been able to apply to NASS for fear of her current partner’s reaction. The process demands evidence from whoever has been supporting women previously, thus notifying violent partners and other abusers of victims attempts to escape. With WAR’s support, Ms K successfully insisted she be granted financial support without supplying her address or any evidence from her partner. But these applications for financial only support aren’t treated as urgent and take weeks for NASS to process. One woman recently waited a month just for the charity responsible for forwarding applications to NASS, Migrant Help, to send it on for a decision.

Over the past three years women have had a 100% success rate at appeal using collective self-help to pursue their cases, the project’s resources and WAR’s specialist expertise. Before the pandemic we shared what we’ve learnt about how to work together and win in workshops around the country. Hopefully we will be able to resume these soon.

We have been working with other groups during the pandemic to make demands on the government for example, nine hundred organisations in Spain called for a twitter storm #PapersForAll which was taken up by many people across Europe last year. Other demands include + 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.”

For more information about us visit WAR’s website here and AAWG’s Facebook page here