Women seeking asylum in racist, sexist Britain

Sexual violence dismissed

Women make up a third of asylum seekers in Britain. 70% have been victims of sexual abuse. In a recent report, of 72 women seeking asylum, 39% said they were persecuted because they were women and 36% for being politically active.[1] Sexual violence is frequently used to punish women who resist oppression.

All asylum seekers arriving in Britain confront an entrenched culture of cynicism and disbelief. Interviews conducted in public rooms by officials behind a screen create a hostile atmosphere; for women it is exacerbated by the fact that their interviewers are usually male. Often, there is a shortage of hard evidence of persecution, as well as understandable discrepancies and late disclosure of abuse. The appeal success rate for women is relatively high at 35-41%, compared with 26% for men, because women are overwhelmingly refused asylum at this early stage.

Wilful ignorance is reflected in the comment by a Court of Appeal judge that the rape of a woman was ‘not a matter of persecution [but] simple and dreadful lust’. The Coalition government’s ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ strategy, which claims to tackle the culture of disbelief around gendered violence, mentions asylum seekers just once.

Uncertainty and destitution

Asylum seekers regularly wait years for a final decision on their claims, facing homelessness, poverty and uncertainty. Housing is often unsafe, damp, and temporary, provided by companies making vast profits from contracts with the UK Border Agency. Asylum seekers are forbidden to work; limited support comes in the form of tightly controlled Azure cards, rather than money, which can only be used for specific items from certain shops. Shops can be three miles away, yet travel costs are excluded, as are many basic goods. Women report being unable to buy essential items like sanitary towels. Even this paltry support often stops when asylum seekers are forced to move to cheaper housing. The resulting destitution is particularly difficult for women; more than a third of destitute women experience sexual assault in Britain. Women working illegally face dangerous conditions, receive pitiful wages, and the risk of being forced into prostitution.

Women who become pregnant, or have children, face deeper poverty. Many fail to receive the pitiful additional maternity entitlement because of the restrictive timeframe for applying. Without travel money for check-ups or an adequate diet, maternal health suffers. Between 2003 and 2005, refugee and asylum seeking women made up 12% of maternal deaths despite making up under 0.5% of the population. A recent report described how one woman had to move six times during pregnancy and once soon after the birth.[2] Another mother’s financial support stopped whilst she was in hospital giving birth, leaving her with no money for two weeks. When support did arrive, it did not cover travel, forcing her to walk to appointments shortly after an emergency caesarean section. A recently dispersed mother left hospital in an unfamiliar area, without warm clothing, transport fares or a baby-carrier, and had to walk, carrying her baby, in cold weather.


Asylum seekers face detention at any stage in the asylum process. The impact on women and children is particularly barbaric because additional needs, such as nappies for young children, are often denied. The same disbelief and racism is ever-present in detention; women report that their medical records claim they are lying about their health.

For private providers contracted by UKBA, like Serco and G4S, the sector is booming; the number of detention places increased from 250 in 1993 to 3,408 in 2013. Last year, approximately 30,000 people were detained.

Resistance at Yarl’s Wood

Protests by women at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre have been persistent. Until recently the biggest detention centre in Europe, it has a brutal history. In 2010, 70 hunger-striking women were locked in a corridor without water or toilets.

In November 2012, a woman was dragged naked out of her cell by guards in riot gear to force her removal. Hundreds of women immediately responded by refusing food. Their demand to meet with UKBA was rejected; Serco told them they could only meet one by one. When they refused this divisive tactic, they were similarly locked in an airless corridor with no food, water or access to toilets for eight hours.

The abuse is systematic. A job advert for a laundry assistant at Yarl’s Wood offered £1.50 a day. While the state prevents ‘failed’ asylum seekers from working legally, Serco is free to exploit their labour for its own benefit. Women who protest are sacked. The valiant resistance of these women challenges not only the racist state, but also threatens the profits of private providers.

Rachel Francis

1 Refused: The experiences of women denied asylum in the UK, Kamena Dorling, Marchu Girma and Natasha Walter (Women for Refugee Women), May 2012.

2 When maternity doesn’t matter: dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum, Rayah Feldman (Refugee Council and Maternity Action), January 2013.

Racism and lies: Hassanat and her children

Hassanat Aliyu fled Nigeria to protect her daughter from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a brutal practice which leaves women at risk of death, infection and infertility, and was trafficked to Britain. Despite being here six years, having two children and settling in Newcastle where the girls went to school, the family were snatched, detained for three days and then deported in early March. Her deportation exposes the lies of the racist British state. The government’s claim to support victims of trafficking did not apply to Hassanat. Its stated intention to protect girls and women from FGM did not apply to Hassanat’s daughters. What do the rights of women matter compared to British oil interests in Nigeria? On International Women’s Day Home Secretary Theresa May called for everyone to ‘speak out, stand up against violence against women and girls’. Hassanat and her daughters were deported the following day.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 233 June/July 2013


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