Victims of sexual violence let down by UK asylum system, report says

Study calls on Home Office to integrate gender and trauma sensitivity into asylum system

Victims of sexual violence face further abuse and trauma as a result of the UK asylum process and are systematically let down by authorities, according to a report.

The research found that gender-insensitive and sometimes inhumane asylum interviews, sexual harassment in unstable asylum accommodation and a lack of access to healthcare and psychological support were just some of the factors compounding the trauma of forced migrants in the UK.

The study, conducted by the Sexual and Gender Based Violence against Refugees from Displacement to Arrival (Sereda) research team, is the largest piece of academic research of its kind and calls on the Home Office to integrate gender and trauma sensitivity into the asylum system.

Prof Jenny Phillimore from the University of Birmingham led the study and said: “There’s a lot that we could do that costs nothing, or costs little, and would ensure we could treat women in a way that won’t scar them for the rest of their lives.

“We’ve got a whole range of recommendations but ultimately we want a humane asylum system that doesn’t treat people differently because they are not citizens. We need an ethics of care.”

Some of the recommendations include pre- and post-interview counselling, provision for independent advocates to sit in on interviews, single-gender asylum housing for uncoupled women, as well as special provision for LGBTQI people, and greater investment in psychological support services.

The study involved extensive interviews between 2018 and 2020 with 68 forced migrants in the UK who were victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), as well as 26 service providers working with survivors.

Hane Leshaj was pregnant when she fled to the UK from Albania after escaping her violent husband and being rejected by her family. She spent nearly eight years in the asylum system, was forced to relocate eight times and in one accommodation was physically attacked by another resident.

“It took 10 days for them to move me to a safe place. All these things affect your mental health and your wellbeing. I thought I would be safer,” said Leshaj, who works with Refugee Women Connect in Liverpool.

“They treat everyone the same way. It should be different, especially for women and children. I’m not saying the process doesn’t affect men, but for women and children it’s worse. When you come they treat you like nothing.”

Previous research found that out of 72 women who had sought asylum in the UK, 66% had experienced gender-related persecution in some form, including rape, sexual violence, forced prostitution and forced marriage, perpetrated by partners, family members, soldiers, police and prison guards.

“This is happening on our shores. The women who are on those boats [crossing the Channel], the vast majority will have experienced SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence],” said Phillimore.

“The reason a lot of them are women is because they’re escaping gender persecution. So the report is extremely pertinent at the moment with what’s going on in the Channel and the Afghan situation.”

The Home Office said: “Those who suffer from domestic abuse are victims first and foremost, regardless of their immigration status, and we will give the help and support they need and deserve. Impacts on vulnerable people and equalities considerations are front and centre of our work.

“We are introducing landmark reforms through the nationality and borders bill to provide protection to the most vulnerable. Our new bill is the only credible way to fix the broken asylum system, and at the heart of this plan is fairness and offering protection to vulnerable individuals.”