UK routinely detains rape victims seeking asylum - report

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 29 January 2014 08:30 GMT

A woman looks out at the financial district from a window in The View gallery at the Shard, western Europe's tallest building, in London on Jan. 9, 2013. REUTERS/Luke Macgregor

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Government policy says torture victims should only be detained in “exceptional circumstances”

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A vocal critic of the Ethiopian government, Sarah was arrested by police and thrown into jail where she was beaten and denied food.

Fearing further persecution, a family friend managed to smuggle her out of prison and later, onto a plane to Dubai where she worked for an Arab family.

Subjected to physical assault and rape at the hands of her new employers, Sarah made another bid for freedom during a trip to Britain in 2012. But shortly after her asylum claim was initially rejected, Sarah once again found herself in detention, awaiting deportation back to Ethiopia.

People like Sarah - victims of rape and torture who seek asylum in the UK - are routinely locked up in Britain, despite government guidelines that say torture victims should only be detained in exceptional circumstances, according to a report by Women for Refugee Women.

Sarah was held in Yarl's Wood, one of 12 centres Britain uses to detain asylum seekers while they wait to be sent home or have their case examined.

"I saw so much misery and depression and mental illness while I was in there," the report quoted Sarah as saying. "There is constant crying and self-harm because the women don't know why they are there or for how long."

Citing figures from the UK Home Office, Women for Refugee Women said in 2012, 6,071 women came to Britain seeking asylum in their own right - not as wives or dependants - and 1,902 were detained.

The charity interviewed 46 women who had sought asylum in the UK and been detained, mainly in Yarl's Wood. Thirty-three of them, or 72 percent, said they had been raped in their home countries - mainly by soldiers, police or prison guards, and 19 women (41 percent) had been tortured.

Forty women - 87 percent of those interviewed - had either been raped or tortured, the report said. One woman described being raped at gunpoint by a group of police officers for making a complaint against a forced marriage in South Africa. Another was beaten unconscious by government officials in Uganda.


Women for Refugee Women said the detention of asylum seekers was "inhumane" and should be stopped, arguing that it cost British taxpayers four or five times more to detain asylum seekers than allow them to live in the community - reporting regularly to the authorities - while their claims were being considered.

The report found "alarming levels" of depression and suicidal thoughts among detained women asylum seekers, exacerbated in some cases by indefinite detention.

"I was tortured in my country of origin," a woman who had been jailed and raped by police in Zimbabwe was quoted as saying in the report. "Being back in detention has brought back all the memories of torture."

Half the women said a member of staff in the detention centre had verbally abused them. Twenty-two percent said staff had been racist towards them. Three women said they had been physically assaulted, and one said she was sexually assaulted.

"It is time to ask how our government can promote its policies to tackle violence against women and girls and yet rely on an asylum policy which adds to the trauma of so many rape survivors," the report said.

Britain has announced several initiatives in recent years to combat sexual violence at home and abroad. In 2012, Foreign Secretary William Hague said a British team of experts would be set up to collect evidence to support prosecutions of sexual violence in conflict zones.

Last year, the Department for International Development (DFID) announced 21.6 million pounds in funding to help protect girls and women in emergencies, while in 2011, the government unveiled measures to improve services for victims of sexual violence, especially young women caught up in gang-related abuse.

The Women for Refugee Women report was published on the same day as a parliamentary debate in response to an appeal by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR for Western countries to take in Syrian refugees.

Britain takes in fewer than 2 percent of the world's asylum seekers, Women for Refugee Women said. About 0.3 percent of its population are refugees, it said.

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