I sat down to write this blog on Wednesday hoping to highlight just some of the realities of how the Home Office treats women asylum seekers in the UK. I had lined up a short telephone interview with a woman from WAST, a truly remarkable group of asylum seeking and refugee women in Manchester who run a self help and support group. I was to speak to Sofia Kalu, WAST member and management committee representative, about her experiences of destitution. Before I could pick up the phone an urgent email came through – her husband, also an asylum seeker, had been taken into detention. There were no more details about where he had been taken and what was happening to him.
Concerned that she had more pressing things to worry about than to talk to me, I phoned Sofia to express this, only to have her tell me, bravely “ We need to talk about this, we need to tell people just what is happening, I want to talk about this”.
This is the reality of women in her position, living from day to day not knowing when or where they or their loved ones, will be detained, threatened with the risk of deportation and the horrors that await them should they be. Regardless of the trauma that they have experienced to apply for asylum in the first place, or the often horrific journeys they have endured in order to get to the UK, they are then subject to further abusive practices once they reach English shores. Sofia knows this only too well as do the 74% of women who were refused asylum in 2010.
“I have been in this country for 6 long years” she tells me “and in that time I have learnt that the UK Border Agency has a policy of lying and denying our existence and experiences. What we tell them is disbelieved. I have learnt that the system will grind you down – that I am useless, have no dignity or self esteem and I am some kind of rubbish”.
Having fled political persecution in Zimbabwe where her previous husband had been murdered by the ZANU PF and her home burnt to the ground, Sofia knew her life was also in jeopardy. Once in the UK, an application for asylum was submitted but later refused by the Home Office on the grounds that they did not believe she could not return or that her life was in danger. Now, she is destitute – a refused asylum seeker, denied access to safe accommodation, money, vital health care and support by the state. Although each woman’s story is different, a common theme emerges; women are subjected to a life of indefinite limbo- invisible and ignored by society, one of exploitation, detention and the threat of deportation at any moment.
For Sofia, destitution has meant a transient and precarious life moving from one person’s sofa to the next, dependant on the convenience of her hosts. On one occasion, when staying with a family, she was told by them to babysit their child. Whilst happy to offer some support, the demands become more and more exploitative and eventually she was thrown out of the house, a common experience amongst those seeking asylum. On another occasion, she lived in a property where there were no locks on any doors, even the toilet. Her property and belongings started to go missing, what little she had was being stolen.
It is unsurprising then, that women are often forced into vulnerable situations – prostitution, forced labour akin to slavery, living at the whim of others. A recent report by Women for Refugee Women highlights the specific trauma women asylum seekers face where their vulnerability exposes them to an under world of victimisation. Of the women interviewed, 96% had relied on charities for food and 56% had been forced to sleep on the street and 16% having experienced sexual violence while destitute. Unsurprisingly, the figures for mental health distress amongst this group are extraordinarily high with 97% reporting depression and 63% at risk of suicide or reporting suicidal feelings.
Sofia has since been able to receive some charitable support from the BOAZ trust. She now has temporary accommodation, some access to essential toiletries and a minuscule budget of £12.50 per week. With so little to live on, Sofia spends Monday to Friday supporting other women in similar positions, she is one of the main spokeswomen for WAST, a tireless campaigner and activist. In another voluntary capacity, she is a befriender in a local charity for the elderly. Given her gruelling circumstances, it is amazing that she finds the conviction, she tells me “Every morning I look at myself in the mirror and I tell myself how beautiful I am, how special I am, that I am a human being and my name is Sofia – I have an identity”
With such courage and strength she survives, but only just.
When I ask about the future there is a pause on the phone “ I have to look away from destitution, I have to believe that I will find a home here with my husband and start life over again. I don’t know when the Home Office will make their decision but I have to have hope”.
For countless women in her position, the Home Office and their punitive immigration policies operating a culture of disbelief means that experiences of rape, torture and domestic abuse are routinely refuted, lesbian women are asked for “proof” of their sexuality in order for their application to be verified and more often than not, the Home Office reject claims that lives will be in danger should they be deported.
Does the fact that hundreds of thousands of people would rather live in poverty and in constant fear of deportation – reliant on friends, transactional relationships, forced prostitution or low-paid illegal work – rather than return to their country of origin, not suggest a different story, that there is a systematic (strategic?) failure in policy?
From the forced virginity testing of the 1970′s to the recently released Family Migration Policy, there has been a progressive clamp down by successive governments on migration and movement as borders tighten disproportionately affecting those from the Global South. This can only mean that the thousands of women like Sofia will continue to live as some of the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society. If Refugee Week can achieve anything, it must serve to remind us of the cruelty and inhumanity of destitution which is sanctioned by the state. Isn’t it time to change this?
Both Sofia and her husband Johnson remain destitute.
Please support Sofia and Johnson’s by vistitng her campaign website and signing their petition.
- Sandhya Sharma