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Society, Politics & Law

Gendering refugee experiences

Updated Monday, 4th July 2016

More than one million people sought safety in Europe in 2015. This is no small number: Amnesty International have called this  ‘the worst refugee crisis of our era’, paralleled only by the mass movements of people in the Second World War. But what makes a refugee, where do refugees come from, and where do they go to?  

Migrant Crisis or Refugee Crisis? What is the Difference?

The terms ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘refugee crisis’ are sometimes used interchangeably. Neither are necessarily incorrect, but the term ‘migrant’ encapsulates all forms of mobile people: emigrants, immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and economic migrants (each of which is explained here). The term ‘refugee crisis’ refers to people who are fleeing from conflict or persecution, and also respects that some people flee areas of severe deprivation, poverty and even ecological devastation. 

While it is a Human Right to seek refuge from persecution, people fleeing their countries face the difficulty that once a conflict breaks out, many countries close their borders or impose visa restrictions. It becomes illegal for them to enter a safer country. So, when we talk about the current refugee crisis, it is worth keeping in mind that this crisis is itself caused as much by border crossing restrictions, as it is by the conflicts in the regions from which people flee (see more on this in our interactive timeline).

Most people entering Europe do so across the Central or Eastern Mediterranean route, and so are fleeing areas of conflict of unrest such as Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. Of the people arriving into Europe in 2015:

  • 57% of those were escaping the war in Syria;
  • 24% of refugees were fleeing impacts of conflict in Afghanistan;
  • 9% were fleeing the impacts of conflict in Iraq. 

It is very important to note that the majority of refugees seek safety in the region they come from. For example, while over one million people have sought refuge in Europe, 4.3 million Syrians have sought safety in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (EESC 2016, p. 4).

Gendering Migration

One striking aspect of the current crisis is the gendered nature of refugees’ experiences. As Heaven Crawley points out in her interview (below) while women and children are often depicted in the media and public discourse as victims, men are often shown as virile, active and even threatening.


Dr Heaven Crawley - Coventry University



How do you think women and men have experienced this recent refugee crisis of 2015 differently?

DR HEAVEN CRAWLEY, Coventry University

Well, if we’re talking about the refugee crisis specifically in the European context, they were talking about large number of people who were travelling into Europe through the southern border, mostly through Greece from Turkey but also through Italy from Libya, then I think it really depends on who you’re looking at and who you’re talking to. There’s huge variations in people’s experiences not only as a result of gender but also as a result of class, from which country they’re coming and the opportunities that are available to them. So we know that the people who are passing through are the ones that have had to rely upon smugglers and traffickers of one kind or another in order to be able to access protection, because it’s not possible to get protection without arriving in the country that you’re claiming asylum in. So they’re in a vulnerable position and they have to do what they can to navigate access, and they do that by essentially paying to travel on the journey across either the Mediterranean or the Aegean seas.

Now, how vulnerable they are in that context will depend partly on their own status, women especially single women tend to be more vulnerable than men, but also family groups are also quite vulnerable because they’re responsible for children. If you’re from a place like Syria, which has a long conflict but not such a long conflict as a place like Afghanistan, you might have more resources, more cash and be able to pay for a better quality of boat. Than for example a young Ghanaian or Malayan man who’s travelling from West Africa who’s been on the road for some time and has been earning bits of cash on the journey to pay for that final crossing. So there’s lots of different factors that intersect to do with gender, age, nationality and class amongst others that really shake the refugee journey and shake the levels of vulnerability on that final passage into Europe.


OK thank you. So how important is it to include gender-based persecution into refugee law and practice, and what do you think has been achieved so far, what issues have not been addressed?

DR HEAVEN CRAWLEY, Coventry University

Well, it’s a very big question, and a lot of people have been working on issues of gender rated persecution for a very long time, really since the mid-1980s. What we know is that gender very much shapes the experience of persecution. It does that in lots of different ways. It may be that women are politically active but that activism is not recognised or acknowledged because they are taking on particular roles that might be less public perhaps than men in those communities. We know that in many communities gender has become politicised in a way that means that aspects of women’s identity, what they wear, who they sleep with, who they have family relations with, takes on a political significance which may lead them to be persecuted if they don’t conform to norms and expectations about their behaviours. We also know that women in some contexts are subject to certain kinds of gender-based violence. So that might be FGM, it might be forced marriage or sterilisation. So gender can manifest itself in different ways.

The problem that we see in terms of the asylum process is that those gender specific forms of harm and those forms of harm that are associated with being a woman, in the context on gendered power relations in certain contexts, are simply not taken into account. So there is an assumption that you’re only a political refugee if you behave very publically in a political sphere as a political activist or an MP for example, where as I say in reality gender and politics are much more complex in those different areas. And in fact women may not even be asked about their experiences if they travel in a family unit. It might be assumed that the man is the primary applicant, when of course the man in that relationship might be the problem for the woman in terms of domestic violence or issues of violence within the community.

I think the other thing to say is that increasingly of late there’s been recognition that gender is not just about women, it’s about the power relations between women and men, and of course those can impact on men’s experiences too. So when men don’t conform to gendered expectations about their behaviour or perceived as not conforming then they might be persecuted similarly. So again men who don’t conform to ideas about their role in war for example who refuse to be forcibly conscripted, who don’t comply with certain ideas about dress in some contexts so not having facial hair or having facial hair, wearing certain types of clothes. And in particular we see men being persecuted because they don’t conform to gendered stereotypes about masculinity and sexuality. So men who are gay may be particularly subject to persecution because they challenge those norms around masculine sexual identity. Or they’ve been perceived to be gay and therefore challenging those norms because of things to do with their behaviour or the way that they act with others.

So I think gender clearly does shape what happens to refugees.  The extent to which it’s taken into account into the asylum process though I think is largely recognised as being very problematic. Not just because of the absence of understanding of gender, but because of the tightening of the asylum processes more generally.


OK thank you. So, finally, what role do you think do media and other public representations of men, women and sexuality play in the asylum process?

DR HEAVEN CRAWLEY, Coventry University

Well, there is no clearer example of that than the current time. That the images we see of people travelling across the Mediterranean tend to fall into two very clearly gendered stereotypes. One is the image of the young black African man in a boat, usually en mass in a very anonymised form, where you can’t see the face, you don’t hear the stories, you don’t understand anything of the background. It’s very much the image of threat, and that’s a threat that’s masculine and black, predominantly and young. The other image that we see in the crisis is of course the image of the woman. The vulnerable often headscarved woman who is desperate for protection, who’s trying to support herself and her children.  Or indeed images of dead or dying children. So that’s very much an image around vulnerability and victimhood, and again that’s associated with the female rather than the male.

So we see this very strong imagery that feeds through in the media in ways that, on the one hand they reinforce gender stereotypes, because of course the experience is much more complex and messy as I’ve been explaining, but they also I think in the public perception lead to either a concern that refugees are a threat in the case of the masculine image, or in the case of the female image a concern that they are a liability in terms of the cost to social provision and to welfare because they have needs and are very vulnerable. There is not space in that debate or that representation for either the kind of politically active, very autonomous individual who’s trying to get access to rights to which they’re entitled, nor is there space for an individual who’s capable of working, supporting themselves and their family because that doesn’t sit with either of these two stereotypes.

So we’ve always known that the refugee discourse and the imagery of it is gendered, but I think this particular crisis shows it to be gendered in very specific and very clearly differentiated ways.


Thank you very much.

DR HEAVEN CRAWLEY, Coventry University

That’s OK. 

While there are important similarities in women and men’s experiences of migration, there are also differences. Gender-based violence, for example, is defined as ‘violence that is directed against someone because of their status as a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.’ This can influence women’s decision to mobilise, but can also affect her along her migratory journey. While this definition focuses on women, it is important to note that gender based violence can affect people of all genders, including those who do not identify along binary gender ascriptions.

Gendered impacts of conflict

The table below depicts how gender relates to conflict-related violence. It is reproduced from UNFPA 2015: 21. 


Direct impact

Indirect impact


• Higher rates of morbidity and mortality from battle related deaths;

• Higher likelihood to be detained or missing;

• Sexual and gender-based violence: sex-selective; massacres; forcibly conscripted or recruited; subjected to torture, rape and mutilation; forced to commit sexual violence upon others;

• Higher rates of disability from injury.

• Risk of ex-combatants’ involvement in criminal or illegal activities; difficulties in sustaining livelihoods;

• Increased prevalence of other forms of violence—particularly domestic violence.



• Higher likelihood to be internally displaced persons and refugees

• Gender-based violence: being subjected to rape, trafficking and prostitution; forced pregnancies and marriage


• Reproductive health problems

• Women’s reproductive and care-giving roles under stress

• Changed labour market participation from death of family members and “added worker effect”

• Higher incidence of domestic violence

• Possibility for greater political participation

• Women’s increased economic participation due to changing gender roles during conflict

Common Impacts of Violence

• Depression, trauma and emotional distress.

• Asset and income loss;

• Tendency towards increased migration;

• Disrupted patterns of marriage and fertility;

• Loss of family and social; networks, including insurance mechanisms;

• Interrupted education;

• Eroded well-being, particularly poor health and disability from poverty and malnutrition.

Borders and Gender

While both men and women become refugees, the numbers of men and women are in flux: The numbers of refugees worldwide are almost evenly divided between men and women, yet there are differences in the mobility of men and women. While women and children tend to flee shorter distances, men tend to make up a larger proportion of refugees fleeing longer distances, for example, to Europe. While women accounted for 25% of refugees crossing from Macedonia into Northern Europe between June and August 2015 (UNFPA 2015: 13), women and children made up 75% of Syrian refugees in Turkey (CTDC 2015: 5). 

However, since late 2015, there has been a changing pattern with women making up a higher percentage of refugees arriving in Europe, many pregnant or with children. The UNHCR reported that two thirds of refugees who arrived in Europe in the first two months of 2016 were women and children. In addition there is an increase in the proportion of women refugees due to family reunification (with refugee husbands already in Europe), and wives hoping that their asylum applications stand a good chance of success in Europe.

Family reunification is generally quite a long, arduous process and changes in laws make this more complex than ever. One major issue is the difficulty in accessing legal support and being able to afford legal aid, as the Red Cross outlines in their report. The length of the process varies from person to person but, in principle, it is no faster in the UK than Germany or anywhere else in the EU.​

Hardening Borders

The International Organisation for Migration state that 3,770 people died in the Mediterranean in 2015 (BBC, 4 March 2016). European states have reduced opportunities for people to enter countries legally by limiting or closing border. The result is a hardening of borders and the effective criminalization of refugees as people take more dangerous routes to flee their countries of origin and often have to use smugglers.

The hardening of borders and more dangerous border crossings have affected women and children disproportionately : Sharon Pickering argues that crossing borders is more hazardous for women and children. When boats sink or encounter difficulties, women and children are more likely to die because of a range of factors including ‘lower levels of swimming ability, their location below deck, the clothes they are wearing, their vulnerability to sexual violence during crossings, and succumbing to exposure and hyperthermia sooner than men.’

Yet, even for those who survive and arrive, the harsh conditions do not end with their arrival in Europe. A recent report lists ‘Poor reception conditions, smugglers, robbers, incidents of corruption and police and border guard violence, severe weather conditions, closed borders, passport controls and increasingly hostile European citizens’ (EESC 2016: 3) as some of the hazards affecting refugees. In addition to this, women are disproportionately affected by rape, the loss of family members either left behind or lost on their way and these particular traumas have not been adequately addressed in the reception phase of refugees (ibid: 8).

When thinking about the refugee experience, it is important to keep questioning the ethics and politics of migration controls, which lead refugees to rely on illegal means to seek legal protection – and to pay smugglers and force them to use the most dangerous routes into Europe. Nearly all refugees now rely on paying smugglers for at least some part of their journey, and this is becoming big business. Yet, activists point out that helping refugees to cross borders into Europe should be seen as an act of civil disobedience, similar to the ‘Underground Railway’ which helped enslaved Black Americans to escape or those enabling people to flee Nazi Germany. It is worth remembering that the very need to use smugglers is an additional factor of risk for women, who are disproportionately subjected to sexualised and gendered violence at global borders.  

Smugglers and Transit Migration

For many refugees, the journey to their destination country is long drawn out. The term ‘transit migration’ is increasingly used by researchers and policy makers, referring either to ‘ongoing mobility’ or a period of ‘involuntary immobility’, where migrants are ‘stuck’ in a country and cannot move on.

This has particular consequences for women, who need to make a living and attempt to save money for their onward journeys during these periods of being stuck, sometimes for years. During this time, women (like other vulnerable groups like children and unaccompanied minors) can be subjected to sexual exploitation or enter sexual relationships in exchange for accommodation, food or safety from attack. While most female migrants are under male control during these journeys, even those who manage to make at least part of these journeys independently, are vulnerable to sexual and other violence.

Although we often think of smugglers as the main perpetrators of such violence, it is important to recognize that such sexual and other forms of violence are also, often routinely, committed by officials such as peacekeepers in camps, police officers or detention officers in immigration and removal centres. Women who are also responsible for children, either born before or during the migration period, are often further circumscribed in their ability to move on or make a living for themselves and their children, spending much longer stuck in refugee camps or transit migration countries. It is also important to bear in mind that not all so-called smugglers are exploitative members of criminal gangs, but may just as easily be taxi drivers who want to help out a family who is fleeing torture or war. It is recognized in the 1951 Refugee Convention that some people may have to resort to criminal means to escape and should not automatically be cast as criminals for doing so.

It is really important to be aware of the language used in media and public debate which might, even unintentionally, criminalise refugees or reduce their experiences to that of a loosely defined term like migrants.

Case Study: Syrian Refugees in Turkey

In a study on Syrian refugees in Turkey, the Centre for Transnational Development and Cooperation (CTDC: 2015) looked at the experiences of women refugees. They found that poverty is a key issue affecting all Syrian refugees, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. For women this is exacerbated as up to 22% of refugee households outside camps are female-headed, and as Syrian refugees have only restricted access to the legal labour market, many find it difficult to make ends meet.

This situation has led to an increase in early marriage, as many women and their families hope that marriage can help them secure their livelihood. However, this often causes even more problems: for example, some Syrian refugees have married Turkish men and become their second wives. Yet, as this is not legally recognized in Turkey, they have found themselves without legal protection and in the case of a separation, they had no right to their children from these marriages.

Women tend to work in informal employment as traders or cleaners, but often find themselves more exposed to sexual harassment in these jobs. Some women have also turned to sex work, as they lack other opportunities to earn a living.

Thus, the difficult living conditions of refugees in Turkey can create particular gendered vulnerabilities. Yet, some Syrian women felt that the challenges of becoming refugees, and needing to work outside the home also opened up opportunities for empowerment and developing independence and resilience.


Dr Nof Nasser Eddin and Dr Nour Abu Assab, CTDC



So, looking at your research on Syrian women and (free?) refugees in Turkey, can you explain how Syrian women’s experience of being refugees is different from men?


Well, we live in patriotic societies where the structure is male dominated and men are given much more power than women, so it’s very hard to generalise and say well all women have the same experiences, because there are intersecting aspects. So we have other identities which interfere with gender, like class, ethnicity, age, marital status. So really we cannot really have a general idea of women having a set of experiences and women having other sets of experiences.


To add to what Nof said, it’s basically our approach to it is an intersectional approach that takes into account all of these different variables and factors.  And how when we ask how they’re different, we say they are different, but it’s hard to say that women’s experiences are worse than men’s experiences, they’re just different. And this is an important thing to highlight. Of course, the experiences of women are influenced by their gender and gender plays a major role, but I would like to emphasise that it doesn’t mean that they are worse off than men.


So there isn’t a clear cut; there are different complexities and contexts.


OK that’s great. So what do you think are the key challenges they are facing as refugees in Turkey?


Well, I would say that the language issue, because in Turkey they, well, there’s the Turkish language, it’s completely Arabic than from Arabic. So the language is a huge, huge barrier to them. And actually some say in our research that they get bullied and they don’t accept it, because they can’t speak the language. On other aspects, in terms of women experiences, women feel a lot of isolation, so they do have, they feel isolated because there’s the stigma and stereotype about Syrian women as being cheap guests. They’re not welcome; they’re easy targets. So women do not prefer to leave the houses, so instead they stay in the house, and also if they’re exposed which happens, like they get exposed to sexual exploitation and assault and harassment from people, they don’t report it to the police, because also the police may take advantage of their position as Syrian refugees.


So there are experiences specific to women and to challenges that are specific to women, and some of these are to do with access to economic activity.  For example, access to employment, their legal status is usually dependent on a man, who is the main provider. And one of the challenges that specifically Syrian refugee women in Turkey face are to do with being female heads of households. So, for instance, many of them head their household. They have to provide for their children. They face multiple burdens because of the loss of the main breadwinner in the family.  And this is how, these are their main key challenges facing refugee women in Turkey, Syrian refugee women.


Yes, thank you. So your work has a more complex understanding of gender than simply saying these are men’s experiences, these are women’s experiences; how does sexuality transcend intersects affect the people’s refugee experiences?


Well our approach to gender is very broad, so we don’t look at only men’s experience and women’s experiences and their roles; we look at the whole spectrum which has different identities. You have like lesbians, gays, intersex, so we look at gender in terms of different identities and different performances. So, for example, you have the performances of masculinities and femininities, which in typical like conventional societies the men does the, it’s expected for a man to do the masculine roles and the women to do an emasculate role, but however we cannot also generalise because it’s different.  These performances are completely different, depending on culture, depending on where they are from and the context as well. So yeah we look at it as a broader spectrum.


And it is a spectrum that needs to be, I mean the way we conceptualise it is to do with it gender being on a spectrum that is also influenced by culture and it is contextualised. For instance what might be perceived in a country as a feminine trait might be perceived in another country as a masculine trait. So we try to conceptualise gender in more complex ways than simply men and women. And we also focus on the experiences of LGBTQ people and refugees, because they do go through different processes, refugee processes. For instance, they have to register with, in Turkey they have to register with the UNHCR. After they register with the UNHCR they have to, they’re sent to satellite cities which are often times placed in conservative areas within Turkey, and they feel isolated.

The sense of isolation is huge. There also because of their legal status they cannot, they don’t have access to regular employment so they end up doing sex work for survival, especially gay men. And this is for gay men. For lesbians it’s a different story because they face different types of oppression: the oppression of their family being a woman who has to stay with her family and not become independent. Gay men mostly move to Istanbul to work while the women stay in the south of Turkey, yeah.


So how does the legal situation in Turkey affect women refugees?


Yes. The legal situation affects women refugees, in particular when it comes to marriage, because we have, in Turkey polygamy is not allowed. Men are only allowed to get married to one wife. And what’s happening is so many Turkish men are taking on Syrian wives as second wives. Those women do not have any legal rights. Because their marriages are registered unofficially – they’re not officially registered with any governmental body – and because of that they don’t have basically the rights any woman can get under, by the law and they don’t have custody rights.


Also, there’s an issue which we came up through our research is the gender-based violence. A lot of women, because of what happened to refugees, so of course the dynamics of gender has changed dramatically. So the men have lost their jobs, they stay at home all the time. The women go seek jobs sometimes outside because they’re less of a threat. And these gender dynamics have changed, putting women in fear positions in terms of like they were much more exposed to gender-based violence, and of course because they’re not protected by the state of Turkey, they cannot report these cases.


So, for example, is that in the workplace that you’re talking about or?


Yes, for example, a lot of women were exploited. So, for example, a lot of women were, if they want to, like let’s say if they’re working in an office. So they will be exploited by the employer saying if you don’t have like, if she refuses to have sex with him, he will or she will, they will like fire them, and then she cannot report this harassment because of the legality in the country. But also she cannot, they cannot report cases of domestic violence which is done by their husbands, brothers, etc.


Thank you. So what do you think are the differences between the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey and in Europe, especially with regard to gender?


Well it’s important to know that there are challenges in Europe and also challenges in Turkey. They are different in nature, but they exist everywhere for refugees. And perhaps women might have for instance more access to justice or the rule of law or be able to report their sexual harassment in the UK; they don’t have that per se in Turkey. On the other hand here there is the legal protection for women, but this doesn’t necessarily apply in reality because you find that refugee women even in the UK still feel isolated. Despite having that access, they have language challenges and they have challenges of the Islamophobia and harassment on the streets these days, especially to women who are wearing the hijab in Europe.


And also I would like to add one last point is like maybe I would see the differences in like neighbouring countries when they fled Syria and they went to Jordan, Lebanon, these are transit countries, so they know that they’re temporary there. Europe or these settlements in the third country is like, for them it’s like, it gives them some sort of protection because they know that they will be resettled. So maybe that’s the difference between being in these transit countries and in settlement countries.


Thank you very much.


Thank you.


Thank you.

[End of interview]

Gendered experiences of seeking asylum in the UK

When people arrive in the UK, they need to apply for refugee status and during this process are called ‘asylum seekers’. To qualify for recognition as a refugee, claimants must demonstrate that they have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ which prevents them from returning home, and that the persecution they fear is ‘for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’.

When the 1951 Refugee Convention was introduced, the meaning of ‘persecution’ was interpreted in a very narrow way, seeing it as something carried out by the state against political opponents in the public sphere. It was only in the 1990s and 2000s in response to feminist campaigns that demonstrated that practices affecting women in the private sphere or the home can constitute grounds for persecution and legitimate claims to asylum. Following the lead of courts in Canada and New Zealand, the courts now recognize that such sexual or gender-based violence could become grounds for asylum but only if the woman’s home state did not offer her adequate protection.

While the 1951 Refugee Convention recognizes political opinion as grounds for persecution, it had conventionally been interpreted as referring to membership of a political party that has been banned. More recently, women challenging prevailing power structures, for example by refusing an arranged marriage, ending a violent marriage or refusing to dress according to narrow social definitions of appropriate dress have also been granted asylum. In New Zealand in 2008, a woman who had ended her violent arranged marriage, and as a consequence was under threat of so-called ‘honour-killing’ by her former in-laws, was granted asylum as the court found that:

‘The political opinion ground must be oriented to reflect the reality of women's experiences (…) In the particular context, a woman's actual or implied assertion of her right to autonomy and the right to control her own life may be seen as a challenge to the unequal distribution of power in her society (…) Such a situation is properly characterised as"political"’.

Since 1999, it has been established that gender can be defined as ‘membership of a particular social group’. Being a woman and being subjected to institutionalized discrimination without recourse to ways of avoiding male violence can constitute valid grounds for an asylum claim. The case of Shah and Islam in the UK in 1999 found that women facing serious domestic violence and failing to be protected by the authorities could qualify as refugees. Since they suffered from ‘institutionalized discrimination’ the judge, Lord Hoffman, argued that the domestic violence was not a private matter. The claimant could not rely on protection by police, and instead, was likely to be arrested herself as the police would believe her husband’s claim that she had been unfaithful.

Since this groundbreaking decision, women from many different countries have been able to be recognized as refugees on the basis of their membership of a discriminated social group as women. It is important to note that even recognition of the status of membership of a ‘particular social group’ does not always result in being offered refugee status. Many women who are subjected to violence at the hands of partners or husbands are told that they would be safe returning to their country if they move to another part of that country (Internal Relocation).

Refugees are facing more barriers to mobility than ever before, and the result has been increased deaths at global borders, and less protection for those most in need of it. Women seeking asylum can face violence and adversity at every stage of migration. The process of seeking asylum in the UK is also very complex. As well as facing detention, destitution and dispersal, women often feel they cannot speak about their experiences of sexual violence or abuse. Many face disbelief if they do.

Whatever way we look at the crisis, we are looking at a very complex situation that requires political and policy solutions that in July 2016 still seem very remote. Refugees are at the sharpest end of these crises and they are the ones who feel short, medium and long term consequences most. 

Dr Victoria Canning, The Open University



What happens when refugees arrive in the UK?


Whenever people arrive in the UK, they will generally seek asylum, what’s called seeking asylum, and are thus termed asylum seekers. Which can be sort of problematic but very specifically is the period in which somebody has formed a claim, put a claim in to Lunar House in Croydon, to the Home Office, and are awaiting the outcome of that based on reasons for persecution and whether or not the home office deems that person to have experienced the persecution that they’ve said that they’ve experienced.

So that can be a very long process. People might be in the asylum system for a few months, they might be in the asylum system for a few years, and I’ve known more than five women who’ve been in the asylum system for around 13 to 14 years. So whenever people are awaiting their asylum outcome, they aren’t able to access work unless they have very specific conditions and over, and have been here for over a period of time, and thus are in a position where the only access to finances is through welfare dependency, which is also very little per week, so around £36 per week for a single person in the asylum system.


What are the specific issues affecting women asylum seekers then?


Well the asylum system and the process is quite complex and bureaucratic in the United Kingdom. But for women specifically the issues around very little access to finance, for example, can leave women and men in destitution. But if women have children it can be a very stressful period, very difficult to access appropriate nutrition, health care. And if women are pregnant it’s also not always clear what a woman is entitled to with maternity, whether or not she can access, what’s free to access, what’s not free to access. There’s so much to learn when you go through the system that it’s really quite difficult to know what you’re entitled to as well.

The other things as well that can be quite problematic for women are if a woman’s not able to speak, if a woman arrives for example with a man who is the first applicant, what’s known as the first applicant, then a lot of the claim is based on perhaps the male’s experience of or her partner’s experience of persecution, and thus it can become quite dependent on that claim itself. And also if a woman isn’t able to speak English and perhaps might be in a domestically violent circumstances, then lack of interpretation or dependence on her partner as an interpreter doesn’t allow for her to be able to convey maybe experience that she’s had previously or currently to the Home Office  


So how do experiences of violence and sexual violence impact the experience of seeking asylum?


Well one of the things that quite different between women and men’s asylum claims is that women are more likely to have been subjected to sexual violence or multiple forms of sexual violence throughout her life. So maybe even, you know, back to childhood, trajectories at different points, childhood perhaps in relation to state persecution, but also again in the domestic sphere. So being able to access support for sexual violent services can be quite difficult firstly where there are areas where perhaps there isn’t anything available or in particular in the aftermath of austerity measures or the cuts that were implemented by two recent governments. There are very few specific support services for complex traumas for example. But the other thing as well that can be really difficult is conveying the experience of sexual violence, and while I can talk about that in a little bit more depth, later maybe, there was firstly a lack of interpretation, but also perhaps not even able to access services in particular areas.

One of the key issues for women who’ve been subjected to sexual violence is that the asylum system itself is so complex and unsure, there’s a period of real almost a temporal limbo, where women aren’t sure of their time, whether or not they would be deported soon, whether they might be detained in, for example, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. So there’s that constant uncertainty that can put, increase experiences of stress and emotional anxiety that can compound the impacts of previous experiences of sexual violence. And thus the biggest problem is when women’s lives can become the immediate future. What’s going to happen next? Do I have enough money to get somewhere? How do I travel to my interview, my Home Office interview? All of those things are constant, and thus being able to have the time and space to maybe work toward recovery or coming to terms with or even thinking about experiences of sexual violence can be placed on the backburner for women.


OK so these are all really difficult experiences. To what extent can women asylum seekers actually find support here and perhaps to what extent do they also create their own support networks?


I think that’s a really good question. There are very different regional experiences of being able to access sexual violence, like specific kinds of support for sexual violence. So you can’t, like I couldn’t make claims across the UK, but there are certain areas where there are organisations have recognised the importance of interpretation, the importance of outreach work to ensure that women are able to access or know what services there are to access, but also that women who’ve been through the asylum system are really heavily engaged in the support services themselves.

And I think that’s really important because it’s kind of much more experiential. It’s not an add-on; it has to be sort of organic and central to an organisation. So that is regional in some areas. Areas where there may not be high concentrations of non-white populations for example, may not bring that into, there may not be a consciousness around that if that makes sense, but also impacts on funding has across the UK affected women’s access to sexual violence and domestic violence support services more broadly.

So one of the key things I think with asylum, and as an activist I would say this as an activist with women in asylum groups, is seeing when women come together and women have an access to space and what can be done within that is quite phenomenal really. So support might be support for someone who’s been through the asylum system, being able to give advice or just general discussions, but also just women being there as a collective, you know, and sort of moving forward to support each other through what can be difficult times. And also in other ways, just come together for the same reason that anybody would come together if you were having a bit of a tough time, maybe a cup of tea and a chat.

So the range it’s not necessarily that there can be a prescriptive way that women would want support, but that comes from women who have been through the system or who are in the system developing support networks that are most conscious of the needs of women seeking asylum and the value of shared experience in that.


So you’ve been doing many years of research on women, gender and asylum. Based on your research, what are the key issues which are not currently addressed in the UK’s practice of processing applications by women asylum seekers who have been affected by sexual violence?


A number of key issues that have been recurring well beyond my own research include ways in which being able to discuss gender specific experiences of persecution are still not really addressed. They’ve been recognised but not necessarily implemented. So for example inadequate interpretation services for women to be able to convey their experiences, you know, accurately, and also with somebody that they might trust. The point of trust is really important in that. The conditions under which women are expected to disclose for example instances of sexual violence, torture or sexual torture still don’t reflect what has been well recognised within broader psychology literatures and feminist literatures which is women-only spaces, the recognition of developing trust.

Women are often expected in a first interview, so while in a first interview you would say these are the reasons that I’m seeking asylum, these are the forms of persecution that I have experienced, it is quite unlikely that a woman or a man who’s been subjected to sexual violence or sexual torture would find themselves wanting to disclose those instances of abuse or violence to someone that they don’t know or don’t trust. We know from feminist literatures and we know from, or I know from having worked with sexual violence organisations for about a decade now that many people don’t disclose to anyone at all – certainly not in the first instances, very commonly in first instances of meeting with somebody.

So what then can happen is that if a woman were to say, in her second or substantive interview, I’ve been subjected to sexual violence in these cases or outlines forms of sexual abuse or torture that becomes well why have you not included this in your first interview? That leads to disbelief and impacts on credibility. So what you really have there are serious gaps in the implementation of gender guideline which have been in play and in place for almost a decade now as well. So there are real significant issues with that. So basically within that you’ve got the feeling of disbelief, you’ve got a feeling of not having your experiences recognised. And not being believed is one of the, you know, or is a real extra pain for people who have been subjected to violence to build up to being able to tell somebody that and for that to come down as not being recognised or not being believed or being discredited in the asylum process.

So really the asylum process can add a lot of emotional anxiety and as I’ve mentioned earlier stress in the process itself, but also if somebody has been subjected to sexual violence or multiple forms of sexual violence as persecution.



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