Female asylum-seekers seeking refuge face the perilous situation of facing sexual threats wherever they go. The threat of extreme weather whilst travelling by boat, or of suffocation whilst travelling in the back of a lorry, are the least of their concerns. Having to undertake sexual ‘favours’ in return for ‘safe’ passage is the norm for most of these women, an experience that will be etched into their mind. Fear is one of the main reasons these incidents never get reported to the authorities.
The needs analysis report ‘Addressing Sexual Violence Against Refugee Women’ (ASVARW), conducted by the University of Bristol, highlights the different types of sexual and gender-based violence faced by female asylum-seekers in the UK. This violence includes sexual abuse within relationships, ‘survival’ sex, human trafficking and exploitation, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation (FGM).
This article will expose the threats of sexual violence faced by female refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK. It will outline the difficulties faced by these women and the current legal framework designed to protect them.
Who are Refugees and Asylum-Seekers?
The UN define refugees as “people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country”. In most cases, they are fleeing war-torn countries riddled with civil conflict or war between countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran and other Mid-East Asia and North African countries. They seek shelter and safety without fear of a vicious attack ripping through the skies. The most sought-after countries for refuge are European countries, with the majority moving through Greece, Italy and France  and travelling further north towards the U.K. Asylum-seekers enter the U.K in hopes of being granted protection and to become a refugee but they need to meet a strict process. Often those who fled because of violence (sexual or gender-based) are granted refuge.
In return for a place on transport or safe passage, women are subjected to ‘transactional’ sex and when travelling from one country to another, women are frequently raped by border police.
Particularly shocking are the reports of male staff within humanitarian organisations and national refugee agencies subjecting women and young girls to sexual violence and selling them for large amount of money.
Once they have made it to their destination, these women are often left with no alternative but to stay in the confines of ‘camps’ made along the border. The resentment of living in camps can lead to the women, girls and other vulnerable children falling victim to sexual abuse by family members or other refugees. Most of the time, these women feel they must accept the violence in order to survive.
Difficulties with Reporting
First of all, it is a human rights violation to deny a female refugee protection against sexual violence.2 The lack of data and information hinders support being provided by humanitarian organisations and governments. This lack of data is caused by a fear and embarrassment, which is likely due to the fact that these women come from cultures where these issues are not openly discussed. Even if incidents are reported, the local authorities have inadequate procedures in place to handle these cases and provide appropriate remedies for a health check-up or general support.
However, the main issue behind failing to report is the fear of repercussions. If diagnosed with STIs or HIV, it can negatively affect applications for housing and create social issues. Most refugees suffer mentally from their traumas, especially the victims of sexual violence, and struggle to find employment, focus on education, and build social connections.
The National Measures
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides a handbook for its member states to implement the protocols for protecting women and girls at most risk of sexual abuse. It has been suggested that member states should partner up with NGOs in order to monitor their borders, conduct assessments and make referrals to appropriate organisations.
Many refugees travel via illegal means, making it difficult for governments to legally intervene. Nonetheless, the UN urge member states to provide support to those who need it. As soon as female refugees are known in the U.K, it should be normative practice for local authorities to have female-led private consultations with those most vulnerable, to establish whether sexual violence has occurred and refer them to relevant organisations.
The ASVARW report highlighted a need for specialist advocate roles to provide consultations and represent the needs of refugee women. Their role would encompass assisting them with finding safe accommodation, immigration status, specialised sexual and domestic abuse support services, counselling or therapy, legal assistance and cultural or language services.
As previously mentioned refugee women are often abused by their spouses, partners or other family members. In light of this, organisations within the U.K such as Refuge and Southall Black Sisters have been campaigning for the Domestic Abuse Bill to include support of migrant women. Unfortunately, this bill amendment was recently rejected, which will hinder further women reporting abuse as they know they may not get the support they need.
The UK’s response to humanitarian relief for those most affected by the Syrian war was to establish ‘The Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Programme’. The aim was to resettle 20,000 vulnerable refugees by the end of 2020.
The latest figures (March 2021) show 20,319 have been resettled under the programme. In addition, the programme endeavours to give them access to education, health and social care, and possible employment.
Female refugees and asylum-seekers encounter many hurdles when fleeing their homeland, including sexual violence. Due to the government programmes and initiatives implemented across the UK, more vulnerable women can be resettled away from the violence.
However, there is still more work needed to be done. More awareness of this issue needs to be founded in order for laws such as the Domestic Abuse Bill 2021 and Immigration Act 2016 to be inclusive of migrant women. Nonetheless, these efforts are a step in the right direction. A positive consequence of which is more incidents reported and reducing the overall number of sexual violence against women.