Standing up for refugee women

Natasha Walter explains why she set up the charity Women for Refugee Women and discusses the dangers of being a female asylum seeker.

A few years ago, when I was working as a journalist, I met a woman called Angelique, who had come to this country from the Congo. Sometimes you really do have a life changing encounter, and Angelique was one of mine. She had come here as a refugee – she had been imprisoned in her country because of her father’s political activities, and repeatedly raped in prison.

When she came here, though, she had been refused asylum, which meant that she was expected to go back to the Congo. Because she just couldn’t do that, she stayed here in a legal limbo, with no right to work and no support. She had ended up on the streets of London, walking around from church to charity in search of food and a bed for the night. She had become pregnant while living like that, but even pregnant she had remained homeless, dragging herself about the streets until she could literally walk no further and had been taken to hospital.

I sometimes wonder why it was that meeting Angelique had such an effect on me. Maybe it was because I’d recently had my first child. Never had I been more grateful for the comforts of my life and the support of my partner. The idea of women in our country being left as vulnerable and isolated as Angelique was during her pregnancy horrified me. Or maybe it was because I’d long been out there talking about women’s rights, and I suddenly realised that if you were concerned about women’s equality you couldn’t ignore the massive human rights abuses that lots of women are still facing across the world – which for some women might even mean being raped or tortured or trafficked and having to flee to your country to seek safety.

I couldn’t forget Angelique, and the more I looked into the issue the more I realised she was far from alone. Too many women who cross borders fleeing persecution struggle to find safety. Women for Refugee Women advocates for these women. We recently published our first report: Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK. Some of the key things we’ve discovered are:

  • Nearly half the women we spoke to who had come here seeking asylum had been raped;
  • Almost all had been turned down for asylum;
  • Of those refused more than half had ended up destitute and more than half had contemplated suicide.

Those are depressing figures, and just as saddening for me personally is that I’m still meeting women like Angelique every week; women who have fled terrible abuses, including sexual violence, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation, but who get refused asylum and deported or detained or left destitute in the UK.

Obviously I’m not saying that men don’t have a hard time too in the asylum process and I’m also not advocating for open borders. But we do have an asylum system here that in theory should mean that women fleeing serious human rights abuses should be treated with dignity. Other women are now speaking up for women refugees; take a look at our short film in which supporters including Juliet Stevenson, Joan Bakewell and Livia Firth say why they are standing up for refugee women. In it, Mariella Frostrup says: ‘‘Women who have crossed borders and fled persecution have suffered fates that we can barely imagine. A civilised country would give them a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives.’ That’s all we’re asking for – a fair hearing for women fleeing persecution. For women like Angelique it would make a world of difference.

This blog was first published on Mumsnet.

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