Now It’s Our Turn

Debora Singer MBE is the Policy & Research Manager at Asylum Aid and has worked extensively with women in the asylum system. Asylum Aid is an independent, national charity which works to secure protection for people seeking refuge in the UK. They provide free legal advice and representation to the most vulnerable and excluded asylum seekers.

Along with many other Jews, my family were refugees. So when I think of women refugees, I think of my mother and my grandmother who fled Nazi Germany in 1939.  Like women seeking protection in the UK now, they fled persecution and had to build a new life here.  Like today, there were restrictions on my grandmother’s right to work and many Jewish refugees were interned in the same way that asylum seekers are detained today.

It was because of the Second World War and the Holocaust that the UN Refugee Convention was written in 1951.  It defines a refugee as someone who is outside their own country, unable to obtain protection from their state and risking persecution for one of five reasons.  And here’s the key problem for women.  Because the reasons are political opinion, race, religion, nationality and membership of a Particular Social Group.  Nowhere does the Convention mention gender.  And yet gender-based persecution such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage and trafficking are a key reason why women flee their countries.  So what does that mean for women seeking asylum today?

Take Malaika.  Malaika comes from a country where there are no laws against domestic violence.  When she seeks protection in the UK, she is expected to provide evidence of the harm she has suffered.  But you don’t get a certificate for domestic violence.  She also has to show that her state can’t protect her.  By contrast, a man or woman who has been persecuted for being politically active is likely to have a membership card or photographs as evidence.  The oppression by the states which he/she has experienced will be recognised by our journalists and historians.  Finally Malaika has to show that the persecution she faced was due to one of those five reasons.  Hard to do unless you’re a lawyer and understand what Particular Social Group means.

Malaika is additionally disadvantaged by being expected to tell her narrative to Home Office officials and interpreters who may or may not be women.  And if she has children with her, she might have to speak in front of them.

Most women are refused asylum because the Home Office officials do not believe them.  But even if Malaika is believed, the Home Office may say that she can go and live in another part of her country.  However, in many countries women are unsafe if they don’t have the protection of a male family member.

You can see my film about the process a woman like Malaika goes through here.

While she is waiting for the decision to be made she will be provided with accommodation and a limited amount of money.  Her children will be able to go to school.

Malaika has 60% chance of being refused asylum at this initial stage.  But when she takes her case to appeal (if she can get legal representation to do so) she is more likely to have her refusal overturned on appeal than a man.  So something is going wrong with the initial decision making.  The Jewish Council for Racial Equality, Réne Cassin and the League of Jewish Women are just some of the 360 supporters of the Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum.  The Charter’s current campaign to close the Protection Gap is urging the Home Office to put in place measures that would make it easier for women like Malaika to navigate the asylum process.

Amal’s situation is different.  In Syria soldiers killed her husband and raped her.  She and her two children fled and have been living in a refugee camp in Lebanon.  Now the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified her as being vulnerable because she experienced sexual violence and does not have male support.  UNHCR allocates Amal and her children to the British Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme.  On arrival in Glasgow, Amal is immediately provided with a house and benefits.  Her children are enrolled in school and she is encouraged to join English classes.  In time, she hopes to get a job.

Over the course of 11 years working at Asylum Aid I have met many women asylum seekers and refugees.  The struggles they face in obtaining protection and then settling into a new country reminds me of my grandmother.  And the children who arrive in our office, having been sent away to safety by their parents in the hope that someone will look after them, reminds me of my mother who arrived here on the Kindertransport aged just ten.

As the Support Refugees website so strongly demonstrates, now it’s our turn to look out for refugees.


To find out more about the work that Asylum Aid does for women in the asylum system click here.