Self-help workshop on asylum benefits

The second workshop brought a new influx of people and was also very well attended by women who are currently fighting for benefits.  Some of the people from the previous workshop who had planned to leave, decided to stay.

Unlike with single mothers’ and disability benefits, benefits for women and children seeking asylum are not available from or managed by one Department.  Different Council departments, agencies, as well as the Department of Work and Pensions are responsible.  This is further complicated by frequent changes in legislation which for example, affect from what date an asylum seeker can get what.  This makes it much more difficult for women to know what the rules are and what they entitle them to, especially since advisers and lawyers often don’t have the time to keep up with the changes.  It is easy for each authority to refuse responsibility and pass women on elsewhere, misinform and even make up the rules.  So it emerged, for example, that two mothers in the workshops in almost identical circumstances, had very different level of benefits.

Women were furious that they had been refused housing benefit which they were entitled to and would have allowed them to find their own accommodation; instead they had been put in sub-standard hostels where the living conditions were appalling.  They had no privacy, were often one of a few women in a hostel full of men, suffered from abuse from staff, were cold and sometimes hungry as the food was inedible or insufficient.  It emerged how landlords were profiteering from the arrangement with National Asylum Support System as they charge exorbitant rents but are not held accountable for the conditions in which people are housed.  A number of women described how they had managed to get re-housed.  One woman did win housing benefit and was able to get her own flat.  

Women from Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape described how many voluntary agencies were well-funded to provide services to asylum seekers, yet when they tried to get emergency help for women, the agencies refused to help.  These agencies also refused to challenge the introduction of vouchers and other repressive measures and instead were now working very closely with government and implementing policies which were causing widespread hardship.  A man from Notre Dame Refugee Centre said that the staff he often dealt with were young and inexperienced and couldn’t be held responsible for the policies of the agencies they worked for.  Women disagreed, saying that whether they were inexperienced or not there was no excuse for racism and other discrimination or for brutality and a lack of compassion.  We discussed documenting women’s experience of advice agencies with a view to raising these problems with them.

Rights of women asylum seekers I:

Preventing Dispersal, 18 April 2002

Over 50 people attended this workshop including representatives from agencies such as Notre Dame Refugee Centre, Asylum Aid, 10 women asylum seekers, 10 lawyers and a number of psychiatrists and other professionals. 

Nina Lopez-Jones introduced the workshop.  Cristel Amiss from Black Women’s Rape Action Project outlined women’s experiences of dispersal under the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) set up by the Home Office to administer the allocation of vouchers to asylum seekers, the provision of accommodation and dispersal.  She described how hard it is for rape survivors to get the basic legal, medical and other help to which they are entitled.

Several women dispersed out of London described their personal experiences of these difficulties.  Some had successfully fought dispersal, enduring terrible conditions and prolonged battles.  One woman was threatened with homelessness when the hostel she stayed at found her mother had sometimes stayed in her room.  Others described how women, some with children, had lived for months in mixed, dirty, crowded, unsafe accommodation run by private contractors where they were sexually harassed. 

Rights of women asylum seekers II:
Preventing detention and removal, 25 April 2002

Over 50 people also attended this workshop including representatives from agencies such as UNHCR, various law centres and community centres, over 15 women asylum seekers and representatives from seven lawyers firms. 

Emily Burnham from LAW gave an overview of the current system for detaining asylum seekers.  She said that under the government’s new proposals detention will extend to all asylum seekers including children and victims of rape and other torture. 

Women from Women Against Rape said that because of the difficulties rape survivors face speaking about their experience they are disadvantaged since the full facts of their situation aren’t known.  Women may have been raped in detention in the country they have fled from but are then detained when they arrive in the UK, compounding their trauma.  They spoke about the devastating consequences of careless and negligent legal representation.  In some cases it seemed the lawyers would prefer the woman to stay in detention and even be eventually removed.  Niki Adams from LAW described our emergency work defending immigrant prostitute women arrested by police and immigration raids on flats in Soho.  We had to work through the night to find lawyers to get women out of detention and prevent their removal. 

Women from China, Cote D’Ivoire, Eritrea, Kenya, Romania, Uganda among other countries spoke movingly (often through an interpreter) about their experience of detention and being threatened with deportation.  One woman wept as she described trying to kill herself at Oakington “Reception” Centre because she was so frightened about being sent back.  Another described how women held in detention had to hide their distress so that they wouldn’t be sent to the medical wing, where women are held in isolation and heavily sedated.  All had been raped and unable to speak about their trauma to the authorities.  Women described the inventive ways they and other women had resisted deportation.  One woman had prevented her removal several times on one occasion by speaking to people on the plane who persuaded the pilot to refuse to take her.  The point was made that the fight women are making in defence of their rights is most hidden. 

At each workshop one of the solicitors with whom we work closely was asked to do a brief presentation about the legal challenges which have been made and how everyone can use them.  It was very encouraging to find out how much could be done legally to challenge the inhumane treatment people are receiving. Many suggestions were made about how those legal actions could be made more effective when combined with women’s resistance and other campaigning.

Much of the discussions centred on the devastating impact which the new Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, if passed, will have on women, their children and families.  The government plans to introduce more “Reception”, “Accommodation” and “Removal” Centres – imprisonment by another name.  Children, who have been accused by the Home Secretary of “swamping” schools, will no longer be entitled to attend school and will be taught separately in these centres.  Someone commented that while the government claims to condemn Le Pen and the British National Party, their anti-immigrant apartheid policies owe much to the extreme right wing.

There was a very useful exchange on the role of professionals, who often claim that nothing can be done instead of insisting on the highest standard of representation for women asylum seekers as for everyone else.  People agreed on the need for ongoing initiatives in which all those concerned could participate, including making visible widespread opposition to the proposed legislation.  Many felt that the best funded organisations were keeping quiet when they should be speaking out!  Without their acquiescence the government could not implement their plans.  Some people commented that lucrative contracts rather than the best interests of asylum seekers are determining the response of these organisations.

The workshops were a unique opportunity for women who have escaped rape, other torture and even death, often with small children, to discuss what can be done with each other and with legal representatives, health and other professionals, campaigners and concerned individuals generally.  It was striking to see how much women’s own determination and the committed work of grassroots organisation and a few lawyers, can achieve.  The workshops closed with a new resolve to exchange information and work more closely together from now on. 

Follow up to the asylum workshops

We were determined not to let the momentum of these successful workshops fade away so we drafted a letter that organisations could sign opposing the new asylum Bill based on the issues which had emerged from the workshops.  We aimed for it to be published to coincide with the Third Reading of the bill.  Over 80 organisations and prominent individuals had signed by the time the letter was published in The Guardian on 15 June (see enclosed).

A substantial amount of service work followed the workshops.  For example, we worked with WAR to take one woman’s case, who spoke at the workshop and who since then has started volunteering with LAW, to the House of Lords.  She lost and we are now considering going to the European Court.  However, the network which came out of the workshops has provided practical help for this service work.  We were able to find accommodation for two Moldavian women who had been trafficked and came to us for help, having escaped from men who raped and beat them and forced them to work in the sex industry.  They had run away in the night and consequently had no papers.  Notre Dame Refugee Centre was able to recommend short stay accommodation with some nuns.  Also, as a result of the workshop we were invited by solicitor Jerry Clore to intervene in a key case before the House of Lords which would force local authorities to continue to provide help to vulnerable asylum seekers. 

We have also been asked by a group of mothers and other carers to help distribute information about their initiative which has brought together parents, teachers and students to speak out against the government proposal to segregate the children of asylum seekers in detention centres and prevent them attending mainstream schools (see enclosed).   On 8 October, we will be participating in a Briefing in the House of Lords on this issue.

Reports of the two workshops have been published in various publications and a substantial article is due to appear in the journal of the Green Party as a result of its editor and a barrister who is their spokesperson on Home Affairs attending the last workshop.


Self-help workshops on the rights of women asylum seekers:

Preventing dispersal                                Thurs 18 April

Preventing detention and removals          Thurs 25 April

5-8.30pm, Crossroads Women’s Centre, 230a Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2AB (entrance on Caversham Road)

Dear friends,

We are writing to invite you to two forthcoming workshops on preventing the dispersal, detention and removal of women asylum seekers, especially those who have been raped. The workshops will bring together women with organisations and legal representatives who have supported them, or who want to find out how they can be helpful.

We will hear from: rape survivors who have been dispersed, detained and/or threatened with removal – their experiences of these brutal processes and how they fought against them; campaigners who have supported individual women and campaigned against the introduction and use of these procedures; and legal representatives who have helped to fight and win key legal cases.

Whilst women asylum seekers fighting injustice in the asylum process have developed vital expertise, this expertise is not generally recognised nor is it available to others.  An estimated 50% of women asylum seekers are fleeing rape and sexual violence, yet the government does not recognise rape as torture and grounds for asylum.  The stigma of rape often denies women the support of family, friends and community other victims of violence might expect.  Instead of receiving sympathy and support, rape victims are frequently blamed for what happened, or hide their experiences from those around them in fear of an unsympathetic, even brutal response.  Dispersal, detention and the constant threat of being removed increases their vulnerability, denying them the protection, support and services available to other rape survivors.  The government’s new proposals will further institutionalise the sexism and racism women currently face and exacerbate the obstacles to getting protection.

Poor legal representation has often left women undefended and at risk.  Women in detention are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous lawyers who do nothing to press for their release or to present a thorough case to the authorities.  Even conscientious lawyers representing women’s asylum claims may do little or nothing about support and accommodation procedures which impose dire poverty and horrendous living conditions on women and children.  As distinguished immigration solicitor David Burgess has pointed out: ”In the field of asylum work it is a truth known to practitioners that legal representation can kill”.

Working with Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape, we aim for these workshops to bring together asylum seekers, experienced legal representatives with service providers and campaigners focussing on these issues: we aim to increase the resources on which women can draw.  We hope that the workshops will encourage lawyers and others to take on these crucial areas of work, on which women and children’s safety and welfare depend.

Some refugee organisations have not opposed successive government attacks on asylum seekers’ rights.  Instead, they have been instrumental in drawing up and implementing the current brutal regime: the Refugee Council and others are funded by the government to administer and arrange dispersal; the Refugee Legal Centre and the Immigration Advisory Service have contracts to provide legal advice to those held in “reception centres”.  We have seen that where advocacy groups have a financial stake in implementing government policy their advice is often inaccurate and people are misinformed about their rights.  The workshops will hear how this has affected women and how opposition to this collaboration is growing and can be strengthened.

These will be the third and fourth in a series of workshops organised by Legal Action for Women. The workshops are not general advice sessions.  Instead each workshop will begin with women’s experiences of these asylum procedures and address the following

  Women’s experiences of the current regime.  How rape survivors are particularly vulnerable to dispersal, detention and removal.

How women have fought against these procedures and what obstacles stood in their way.

How women’s experiences can be publicised so that any discussion on what changes are needed is based on the reality of women’s lives.

What statutory guidelines, international agreements and legal precedents exist to protect rape survivors.  How internal official documents contradict or undermine safeguards. 

How women can get the best from their legal representatives.

What additional materials need to be gathered or written to increase protection for women.

What can be done to stop voluntary agencies collaborating with these policies and ensure humane and respectful treatment for all asylum seekers.

For those not familiar with our work

Legal Action for Women (LAW) is a grassroots anti-sexist, anti-racist legal service for all women.  Since it began in 1982, it has focussed on providing free legal advice and support to low-income women who are more likely to be denied justice.  LAW combines access to a network of sympathetic lawyers, with experienced lay workers from similar backgrounds to the women using its services.  We have helped prevent many injustices and set important precedents, including with the first private prosecution for rape in England, which resulted in an 11-year conviction.  We enclose some information about our work.

This workshop is open to the public and you are welcome to pass this invite on to anyone you think may be interested.  Light refreshments will be provided.  Please contact us if you need to book a place in the crèche. 

Power to the sisters

Nina Lopez-Jones
Workshop co-ordinator

Please note: these workshops are not advice sessions.

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