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Who will defend the rape survivor asylum-seekers who face destitution?

NIKI ADAMS of Legal Action for Women describes how women fleeing male violence are confronted by sexist double standards from British officialdom, as revealed in a new report

THE discrimination faced by rape survivors who claim asylum in Britain and the harm of enforced destitution are exposed by a new report, Up from Destitution: Women and our Children Escaping Persecution, War and Ecological Devastation Have a Right to Asylum and Support.

Sandra has lived for seven years in Britain without any income of her own. She was married in Uganda at a young age to a man who beat and tortured her. 

He came from a prominent family so Sandra didn’t even consider going to the police because she knew they would side with him, tell her it was a private family matter and force her to go back home. 

She came to Britain on a visitor visa and stayed. She says she didn’t think of claiming asylum: “Asylum is for politicians, for journalists, for people that oppose the government, not for women like me.” 

Sandra describes how she was “living in her own war zone with as much danger to my life and my children’s lives as any man.” 

It is a sexist double standard that prevents this being counted as persecution and therefore grounds for asylum.

Sandra now lives in Britain with a man who is heartless and overbearing. She has to wait on him hand and foot. He controls whether she can eat, go out or use her phone. 

A friend referred her to the All African Women’s Group (AAWG), an organisation of women asylum-seekers and refugees which is part of a coalition, Global Women Against Deportations (GWAD), based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London. 

With the help of Women Against Rape (WAR), also based there, and encouraged by being a member of a women’s group, many of whom had suffered similarly, she started to speak about what she had suffered. 

Sandra’s experience is typical. A recent survey, Up from Destitution, conducted by GWAD, of women claiming asylum in the UK or making other immigration applications, found that 73 per cent are survivors of domestic abuse and 44 per cent rape survivors. 

Sexual violence was a primary reason women had to flee their home country. 

Rape survivors’ accounts of violence are routinely disbelieved by a hostile and discriminatory Home Office. 

Asylum claims are closed without the sexual violence women have suffered and its devastating impact being considered. Women are then left destitute as all support is terminated. 

The survey, which was conducted by AAWG members, documented the impact of this. Of the women sampled, 48 per cent had no income at all, 60 per cent were classified as destitute (that is they were living on less than £70 a week), and all were living below the poverty line. Forty-four per cent are mothers of children under 18. Organising for children to go hungry seems to be standard protocol for this government. 

Financial support for asylum-seekers, who are forbidden from seeking employment, is provided by a separate system from mainstream benefits and is set at a much lower level. A single person gets just £39.63 a week. This compares to £75 a week for single people on universal credit. 

During the pandemic, universal credit was raised by £20 — an acknowledgement that it wasn’t enough to live on — whereas asylum-seekers got just £1.65 extra. 

The weekly income needed for a single person not to be living in poverty is £245 outside London and £269 in London.  

If women are desperate for food, shelter and clothing, and are denied the ability to do waged work, they are forced to put themselves in exploitative, abusive situations to survive.  

Sandra described this as a deliberate government policy to promote rape and violence.

At a recent event to launch the survey, women from AAWG described not only the impact of destitution but how they as a group of grassroots women, organised to conduct research during lockdown. 

One mother described her successful campaign to be rehoused when Lewisham council callously evicted her and her two young children in freezing weather and in the middle of a pandemic. 

They offered her “voluntary return” as an alternative, exposing the brutality of this policy, and implied that her children could be taken from her by social services.  

Another woman described being interrogated about gang rape by a male Home Office official via video link and the devastation it rained down on her and partner who knew nothing about what she had suffered. 

This collective campaigning has meant that scores of women each year have been saved from being deported to almost certain death and have won the right to asylum and safety Britain.

The deliberate policy of enforced destitution was described by Cristel Amiss from GWAD as corrosive: “It is a way of lowering everyone’s standards and expectations and of indicating that some people’s lives don’t count.”  

She spelled out how the issue of immigration was used by governments to divide people: “Immigration legislation is economic policy because if asylum-seekers are made destitute this creates an army of desperate people who employers can point to keep everyone’s wages down and boost their profits. 

“It is part of the same policy of zero-hours contracts and austerity cuts which mean workers have less power to refuse exploitation and low pay.” 

Sara Callaway from Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike, which is also part of GWAD, spoke of how “women have a right to safety and protection, and a right to be here to claim back the wealth that has been stolen from Africa and other countries over generations during slavery and colonialism. 

“Women pay the highest price for this theft with horrendous workloads to ensure the survival of families and communities. 

“Over £14 trillion is owed in reparations for slavery by Britain alone (a gross underestimate) and the theft continues to this day.” 

This unspeakable injustice is now better known thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The survey was launched as the Nationality and Borders Bill makes its way through Parliament. 

This Bill aims to further erode people’s rights to escape persecution, wars, poverty and climate disasters and seek safety or a better life. It criminalises people for travelling via so-called illegal routes. 

Under this Bill, no-one will be safe from deportation, as the Windrush scandal showed.

“Defending people of colour and immigrant people from the Nationality and Borders Bill has to be part of the anti-racist movement,” Callaway commented. 

“Footballers’ anti-racism has invigorated this movement as it pushed Home Secretary Priti Patel and Prime Minister Boris Johnson onto the back foot to defend their racism.  

“Hundreds of hunger strikers in Belgium, who with massive public support, won important concessions from their government have shown how this movement is international. 

“Increasingly people are understanding that in defending asylum-seekers we defend ourselves.” 

Niki Adams, Legal Action for Women (LAW). LAW is a grassroots legal service for low-income women based and is part of Global Women Against Deportations, based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London.

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