In 2008, the last year for which figures are available, more than 10,000 women and girls applied for asylum in the UK - nearly a third of the total. The majority were 'principal applicants', with a smaller number named as dependents of family members. Despite these significant numbers, women continue to be let down by a framework that, like the 1951 Refugee Convention itself, was designed by men with male (mostly political) refugees in mind.
United Nations Guidelines on International Protection exist to ensure recognition of the gender dimension of persecution and the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) has its own set of gender guidelines, but in practice they are not adhered to with any consistency.
Most claims for asylum by women in the UK are based on membership of a 'particular social group' or 'political opinion', as defined in the Refugee Convention. Women's political involvement tends, on the whole, to be at a less strategic level than men's. Though it doesn't follow that they are therefore at less risk, this is often presumed.
Women are also more likely to have fled domestic violence, rape, forced marriage, threats of honour killing or female genital mutilation - crimes perpetrated by family members or communities - in contexts where the state is unable or unwilling to offer protection. Their cases succeed or fail on the basis of evidence that the threat is real. This often means a requirement of physical 'proof' of injury and evidence that in their country of nationality they would not be able to find a place of safety. Women continue to be denied asylum on the grounds that they should simply relocate to another part of their country, which fails to recognise that, in many places, women without family ties are ostracised from society. They become extremely vulnerable and isolated, even if they are able to find work to avoid destitution.
Failings in the system
The lack of female interpreters and interviewers at UKBA presents further problems and, despite the agency's own guidelines, women may be required to recall unspeakable events in the presence of their children. As a result, because of the type of persecution they escaping - sexual violence, according to estimates, is implicated in 50 to 80 per cent of cases - they are more likely to avoid or delay disclosing certain details at the point of a claim. This can seriously damage a legal case.
According to Debora Singer of Asylum Aid, 'It's difficult for women in this country to talk about rape or domestic violence, let alone those from a very conservative society. If they later pluck up the courage to disclose that they were raped, it often goes against their credibility, and is seen as being made up to support their case ... A major problem is women not being believed. For a rape victim, that is very, very traumatic.'
Research has shown that high levels of stress make it difficult to remember traumatic events clearly, and yet any discrepancies within a story will be taken to suggest it is a falsified account.
Things are hardest for those assigned to the 'detained fast track' system, which Human Rights Watch and the Refugee Council have denounced as completely inadequate for women's cases. Not only are legal advice and medical treatment routinely denied but the sensitivity needed to help people establish their cases is often also missing. Women's testimonies have indicated violent and humiliating treatment by staff.
But there is more at play here than practicalities and poor management. In a world where rich and poor are increasingly polarised and arbitrary power works with arbitrary borders to protect an economic system based on exploitation and division, the global movement of people is not something that will be 'solved' through legislation.
The recent 'end to child detention' policy is an example of an attempt at reforming a particularly controversial element of the asylum process. Celebrated by some as a positive step towards acknowledging the basic rights of children, it is doubtful that it will go far towards ending the suffering of families. On the contrary, Natasha Walter, founder of Women for Refugee Women, believes that the policy is likely to lead to more forced removals.
Women seeking asylum in the UK are fighting back against the system. In solidarity with comrades from feminist movements, No Borders networks and community groups, and alongside friends and family, they are joining forces to speak out about the injustices encountered both in the UK and abroad. In the words of one Manchester-based group, 'As women asylum seekers, we have always been made to feel worthless, forgotten and isolated. Together as Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) we have had the courage and strength to speak out. We refuse to be silenced.'
Women are also coming together to find new ways of challenging asylum policy and of surviving together in an environment that is often hostile and unpredictable. Lydia Besong, a member of WAST, with her own anti-deportation campaign, wrote the play How I Became an Asylum Seeker in 2009. She recalls: 'When I joined WAST the women there supported me to write this play. We wanted to raise awareness and to offer something back. We wanted to challenge the mentality that asylum seekers are here to take, take, take. We are not empty vessels, we are intelligent women and we have a lot to offer.'
Similarly, Women for Refugee Women produced their play Motherland in 2008, telling the stories of women and children detained in Yarl's Wood, the main detention centre for women and site of hunger strike action in February this year, highlighting the mistreatment suffered by the women held there.
A few weeks earlier, Motherland was performed in Bedford, close to the detention centre, as part of the organisation's campaign to end child detention. Natasha Walter says: 'We wanted to bring the play to a local audience. There were MPs present and local activists, as well as the management from Yarl's Wood and Serco [the private company in charge of the centre], although they refused to engage in discussions. The overwhelming response from the local people was: Not in our name.'
Reflecting the complexity of the issues facing women asylum seekers, the London-based Crossroads Women's Centre is home to a diverse mix of campaigns and support groups. The All-African Women's Group offers practical and emotional support for African women, while Legal Action for Women provides legal support for women with low incomes. Members of the Black Women's Rape Action Project, formed primarily by survivors of rape and child sexual abuse, speak out against the government's inadequate policy on rape as valid grounds for an asylum claim. They also offer support to survivors of rape in immigration detention centres.
Speaking at a feminist conference in Manchester earlier this year, a young woman, Helen, from Uganda, talked passionately about her experiences at Yarl's Wood and the invaluable support that women provide for one another: 'When I was sent to Yarl's Wood I had no legal representation and very limited time to make a fresh application. I wanted to submit my case for judicial review but I had no solicitor and no money to get one. A woman I met there told me what her solicitor had done for her, which gave me what I needed to put forward my own case. As women seeking asylum we support each other in so many ways. We give each other hope.'
In Scotland, members of the Refugee Women's Strategy Group have a direct role in policy making, ensuring that the Scottish Refugee Policy Forum has a gender perspective and that women are properly represented. And as well as asylum seekers themselves, there are national campaigns lobbying for the urgent changes that are needed. A Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum, drawn up by Asylum Aid, has the backing of more than 200 organisations and has led to the appointment of a gender champion in UKBA's senior management team. The
charter's Every Single Woman campaign calls for detained asylum seekers to receive at least the same rights as female prisoners and points out that, while the criminal justice system has 26 laws or policies on working with women victims of crime, UKBA has just two on working with women asylum seekers.
From grass-roots political work and mutual aid through to national lobbying networks, women are coming together to challenge the entirety of the immigration system and the specific ways in which women are disenfranchised. This is a powerful combination that allows women to provide each other with the resources, strength and voice to speak out and be heard.
Women for Refugee Women
No Borders Network
Women Asylum Seekers Together
All African Women's Group and Legal Action for Women
Black Women's Rape Action Project