Women, asylum and the UK Border Agency

By Gauri van Gulik
March 2, 2010

gvgGauri van Gulik is a Women’s Rights Advocate and Researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report “Fast-Tracked Unfairness: Detention and Denial of Women Asylum Seekers in the UK. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.–

Last week, the Home Office Minister Meg Hillier said on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour programme that the UK Border Agency ensures that very complex cases brought by women asylum seekers do not go through the UK’s so-called “detained fast-track” asylum process, a route designed for straightforward asylum claims that can be decided quickly.

The experience of Laura from Sierra Leone suggests otherwise. According to her asylum claim, Laura witnessed her father’s beheading, was raped several times, was imprisoned, was forced to have an abortion by having her stomach cut open, and was trafficked into the UK. Cases are rarely more complicated than Laura’s. Yet she was still sent into the “detained fast-track” system designed for straightforward claims.

Human Rights Watch’s new report “Fast-Tracked Unfairness: Detention and Denial of Women Asylum Seekers in the UK”, looks at how women end up being locked up in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in the “detained fast-track” system, despite complex claims, and what they go through once they are there. We did not assess the validity of claims but simply looked at whether these women are getting a full and fair examination of their asylum claim – which is everyone’s right under international law.

The conclusion of the research is that women with complex asylum claims are regularly put into a system designed for straightforward ones. The claims involve female genital mutilation, trafficking, rape and domestic violence.

They are complicated for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of women claim asylum based on violence inflicted on them by their husbands, relatives or other non-state people. That means that they also have to prove in their asylum claim that their home country does not offer them protection from that violence. These claims are legally complex and require expert evidence.

Secondly, these types of claims require sensitivity, time to build a basic level of trust, and knowledge of women’s rights and how they react to trauma.  That’s why the fast-track rules already make an exception for torture and trafficking claims. The same exception should apply to claims based on sexual and gender-based violence.

We’re talking about a small group of about 500 women a year, all from countries outside Europe, including Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, Uganda, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, places where women have suffered profound violations of their human rights.

The system is too fast to be fair. There is a general lack of information on women’s rights in the countries they come from, women’s credibility is sometimes wrongly assessed,  and not enough time is allowed to talk about sensitive issues such as rape and other forms of gender-based violence. On top of this the asylum claim takes place while the claimant is locked up in detention.

Human Rights Watch’s main recommendation is that the screening process should improve drastically so that cases that do not belong in a fast-track asylum system stay out of it.

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