Bridget Phillipson, MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, tells how she was inspired to speak up for refugee women
Before I was elected to Parliament, I managed a refuge for women and children fleeing domestic violence. All the women who came to the refuge faced many challenges, but I gradually realised that injustices in the asylum process were creating almost insurmountable challenges for some very vulnerable women. One visit to the UK Border Agency in Croydon in 2009 was a turning point in my understanding.
I accompanied Asma, not her real name, to her initial asylum interview. We set off on the long journey from Sunderland to Croydon, leaving the day before because of the distance. She had to take her small baby with her, who was just a few weeks old. Travelling with a new baby and the anticipation was stressful enough for Asma, but nothing would prepare her for what she would face at Lunar House. Asma’s first words to me after the interview were, ‘Why are they angry with me?’
From the moment we walked in the door to the moment we left, we felt unwelcome. It was incredibly difficult for Asma to open up to a stranger about her experiences, especially as they included sexual violence, but the blunt and often contemptuous attitudes from Border Agency staff made this even more traumatic. I came away from Lunar House shocked at what I’d seen. I had little understanding of the way the system operated until then.
I had already been selected as a Labour parliamentary candidate for the 2010 general election, and after that visit I was determined that I would do all that I could to bring about change.
Since my election to Parliament and particularly through what I have learned through serving on the Home Affairs Select Committee, I believe that it is as clear as ever that change is needed within the Home Office. There remain huge problems in the way the UK Border Agency handles women’s asylum cases. I’m not suggesting that women should receive preferential treatment, but just that they should not suffer inbuilt disadvantage and that Border Agency staff should be sensitive to the experiences and needs of women.
The quality of the first decision on the asylum claim is crucial, and all too often that initial decision is found not to be the right one. In fact, it has recently been shown that more refusals given to women are overturned at appeal than in men’s cases. Women should be offered a female interviewer and interpreter, but we know that is still not always the case. The fact that lone women often have to take children to interviews with them means they can’t speak openly about their experiences, particularly of sexual abuse. If they then disclose such experiences at a later date, this is seen as an attempt to deceive.
Of course, many asylum seekers will be found not to have a case for protection under the terms of the Refugee Convention, and that includes women. But at present, we cannot be confident everyone will receive a fair hearing. We must see greater recognition of the different experiences of men and women and respond accordingly. Apart from the human cost, there are significant costs to the taxpayer of not getting decisions right first time. It’s in everyone’s interests that we see improvements.
Asma’s case still hasn’t been resolved and she and her child are in limbo. For Asma and women like her, we need change.