Having fled violence, asylum-seeking women’s right to safety in the UK is further threatened by the government’s newest asylum legislation.
The Home Office is pushing for major reform of UK’s “broken” immigration system, and it has been nothing less than controversial. The Nationality and Borders Bill, which will enforce many of the measures outlined in the Government’s New Plan for Immigration policy statement, promises a ‘firm but fair’ system to better protect and support those in need of asylum. Instead, the legislation puts the lives of the most vulnerable at further risk, breaches commitments under the Refugee Convention, and criminalises asylum seekers altogether.
Currently at the Committee stage of the House of Commons, the Borders Bill has been widely denounced as ‘anti-asylum’ legislation, proposing to create a ‘two-tier’ system that unfairly treats some refugees as bad and some as good depending on their means of entering the UK. Headlines have emphasised the injustice that anyone who arrives by boat without prior permission could be criminalised, while changes to asylum housing laws will legalise camp-style ‘housing’ across the UK, and allow for the processing of asylum claims in offshore asylum centres. However, the danger surrounding the proposals to limit people’s ability to bring evidence to their asylum case later in the process has been widely overlooked. There will no longer be the opportunity to make additional claims at a later stage of the asylum process, and the appeals process will be further convoluted. In an asylum system that already has an historically low success rate for asylum claims, these measures will inevitably deny even more people the right to asylum in the UK. And it is women who are really going to suffer.
Indeed, this legislation will disproportionately affect victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), which itself reflects a profoundly gendered issue. Robust barriers to mental health support, legal advice, and justice for asylum-seeking women, and women in broader society, mean that many women require time before they are able to disclose the violence they have experienced. As highlighted by a report from Women for Refugee Women published in February 2020, 78% of the women had experienced gender-based violence in their country of origin. Alarmingly, the reality of sexual violence and sexual exploitation is likely to exceed the statistics for multiple reasons, including personal shame, the trauma associated with SGBV, and the risk of being rejected from the community. Indeed, this is a systemic issue, which cannot be overlooked. However, it is clear that the proposed changes to the UK asylum system fail to recognise and understand the reality and experiences of victims of SGBV, therefore leaving many asylum-seeking women unsupported and in limbo. It is imperative that these women can disclose their experiences of violence at a later stage of the asylum process, if they feel safe to do so.
Undoubtably, this is reflective of a gender-blind approach to asylum claims in the UK and the 1951 Refugee Convention more broadly. There is a growing reality of oppression and violence for women worldwide — a notion that has gained increased saliency during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, under the Refugee Convention, facing persecution based on gender does not constitute grounds for seeking asylum. Consequently, decisions upon asylum applications often overlook women’s experiences of a spectrum of violations, leaving their voices unheard and their right to asylum protection denied. Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur between 2009 and 2015, stated that “poor quality decision-making in women’s asylum claims leaves them vulnerable to VAW in the UK”. This reveals how the asylum system serves to perpetuate the risk of abuse for asylum-seeking women, if not actively contributing to it.
At JAN Trust, we work to empower asylum seekers, migrants and other marginalised groups to play an active role in their communities, including by providing advice and guidance on issues like asylum seekers and refugee status. Find out more about our work here.