We publish this article today to mark International Women’s Day, a small contribution towards highlighting the plight of the more vulnerable women suffering at institutional injustice here in the UK.
In January Asylum Aid published Unsustainable, our research which examines in detail the quality of the decisions made when women seek asylum. A copy of the report can be downloaded from our website. But even before its publication, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) had acted on advance notice of our findings, and had promised to analyse further their own internal data on the decisions made for asylum seeking women. So what did Asylum Aid find, and why is the UKBA right to be so concerned?
As many readers will already know, asylum seekers are routinely disbelieved by the Home Office when they claim asylum. 87% of the women in our sample were initially refused asylum, the majority because UKBA case owners did not accept the credibility of their claim. Yet we found that exactly 50% of these refusal decisions were overturned once scrutinised by an independent immigration judge. In every one of the successful appeals, the judge accepted the credibility of the woman’s claim.
Claims like Samira’s – not her real name – who was helped by Asylum Aid’s legal team.
After arriving in the UK from Iraq to join her husband, Samira experienced sustained domestic abuse. Following months of rape and beatings, she was tricked into returning to Iraq, where her husband had spread malicious allegations of adultery. Samira’s own brothers hunted her down in Iraq to her mother’s house, to avenge the perceived dishonour, and she fled for her life. When she flew back to the UK, she discovered that her husband had cancelled her marriage visa.
Under threat of being killed in Iraq, unable to rely on the protection of the Iraqi police, and unable to return to her abusive husband, Samira claimed asylum.
The UKBA rejected her account of persecution. They dismissed the threat posed by her family in Iraq, the domestic violence she had suffered, and her reasons for leaving the UK. But the immigration judge who heard Sabrina’s appeal considered the case with care, accepted the truth of the violence she had suffered in the UK and the ongoing threat she faced in Iraq, and recognised Sabrina as a refugee.
‘A culture of disbelief’
Why does the UKBA disbelieve women like Samira?
One explanation drawn from Unsustainable was the striking failure of some case owners to understand the types of persecution to which women might be subjected, and the sorts of violence from which they might be forced to flee. One case owner in our study claimed never to have heard of “female circumcision”; another confused forced marriage with arranged marriage. One case owner ignored a wealth of objective information about the potential dangers facing lesbians in Uganda, and issued a refusal decision that relied instead on an article from the Manhattan gossip site gawker.com.
But when these cases came to appeal, many judges applied different standards to assess the credibility of the cases before them, and demonstrated far less doubt about the violence that many asylum seeking women had experienced.
In response to these findings the UKBA has acknowledged – for the first time – that its own figures also show a disproportionately high number of refusal decisions for women asylum seekers overturned on appeal. Unsustainable provides substantial analysis of the possible reasons behind this, and the steps needed to address the problem. We have already started work with the UKBA to ensure that women in urgent need of refugee protection receive it first time, as soon as they ask for it.
A crisis in legal representation
Unsustainable also found that women asylum seekers are affected by a desperate lack of legal representation. Women can – as in Samira’s case – present some of the most complex protection claims, which require painstaking attention from experts in asylum legislation. We have seen that initial decision-making can be very poor indeed; but the current legal aid framework actively discourages legal representatives from taking these sorts of cases to appeal. By issuing a fixed fee to legal practitioners for each case they take on, the Legal Services Commission pays practitioners the same sum for one hours work as for ten.
The implications for women with complex asylum claims are stark: without any financial recognition for the extra hours required, many legal representatives cannot support the work that these cases demand. Asylum Aid found that a worrying number of women lost their legal representation between the initial refusal and an appeal, and faced the immigration tribunal alone. The situation was most severe in Cardiff, where half the women in our sample were unrepresented. Interviewed for the research, the Welsh Refugee Council worried that pro bono providers of legal advice in south Wales were “overwhelmed by demand”; even elsewhere in the UK, support groups confirmed that the situation is “very desperate”.
Access to high quality legal advice couldn’t be more crucial to those seeking asylum. That so many women are left without is a scandal, and one against which Asylum Aid will continue to fight.