This november we witnessed the tragic deaths of 27 people as their boat capsized while crossing the Channel to enter the UK. Of those who drowned, seven were women – including one expecting mother. Despite the efforts of some to minimise and obscure the experiences of refugee women transiting through Europe, the reality is they face a set of distinct challenges when seeking asylum.
Sexual and gender-based violence can be the reason why a woman chooses to flee her home, or even her home country. But women remain at a heightened risk of violence during their migration journey, both while travelling along unsafe routes and at the point of integration when they reach their host country.
In Europe, refugee women have experienced sexual and gender-based violence. Women in Calais and other parts of northern France have also faced a high risk of exploitation, abuse and untreated health concerns, as reported by the Refugee Women’s Centre.
Across Europe the hardening of responses to migration has raised concerns, with the UK government also providing minimal safe and legal routes to enter the country. This is unlikely to change, as the Home Office’s nationality and borders bill proposes primarily punitive measures towards asylum seekers, recognising only those who come via resettlement schemes or other authorised routes as worthy candidates for rebuilding their lives in the UK. Combined with tightened travel restrictions due to the pandemic, these proposals will only force more people into taking perilous journeys across the Channel, leading to yet more tragic and foreseeable deaths.
Even if, despite these challenges, women manage to enter the UK to seek asylum, they are not automatically afforded protection. A recent report from the University of Birmingham found that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence were left ‘feeling broken’ after experiencing harrowing asylum interviews that lacked sensitivity towards their experiences of trauma, and so reinforcing a ‘culture of disbelief’ within the Home Office, often leading to their claims being wrongly refused.
Without secure immigration status, women are likely to be exposed to immigration control measures under the hostile environment policy before they can appeal. IPPR found that under this policy women are more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and modern slavery.
Women may also be affected by the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition, which prevents people from accessing universal credit, social housing, homelessness assistance, and other forms of support. Home Office data suggests that those seeking to lift their no recourse to public funds condition due to destitution tend to be women.
No recourse to public funds also restricts access to support for survivors of domestic abuse. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, UN Women has warned of a ‘shadow pandemic’: a global surge of violence against women compounded by lockdown restrictions and increased burdens from caring responsibilities and loss of livelihoods. Although the establishment of the Domestic Abuse Act in 2021 was viewed as a positive step forward across the women’s rights sector, a stark omission from the act is protection for migrant women. It further silos vulnerable women as either eligible or ineligible for support depending on their immigration status.
At IPPR, we have long advocated for the Home Office to cultivate an evidence-based, non-discriminatory approach to immigration policy. In particular, we have called for reforms to no recourse to public funds, and an expansion to the existing destitute domestic violence concession so that more women will be eligible for public funds and other services, regardless of their visa type.
Another priority must be making safe and legal routes available for forcibly displaced women. Deterrent tactics will only perpetuate a vicious cycle of people crossing the Channel if that is the only option available. For women who are compelled to use this route, specialist training should be given to frontline officials such as the police and border and immigration staff to identify victims of sexual and gender-based violence and refer them on to essential specialist support.
Crucially, trauma-informed and gender-sensitive support must be mainstreamed in asylum and immigration practices. If not, the current approach to immigration will continue to disadvantage women living with precarious status who call the UK their home. Ultimately, gender equality in the UK must mean equality for all women – regardless of their immigration status.