Baroness Joan Bakewell is a journalist, broadcaster and backbench Labour peer in the House of Lords
I strongly believe in women supporting women. Call it gender-bias if you will, but human history gives plenty of evidence that gender-bias has consistently worked the other way. So when the journalist Natasha Walter brought to my attention the desparate plight of women seeking asylum, it seemed right to pay attention and then to back their cause.
First thing I asked was what’s so special about women asylum seekers? Plenty as it turns out. Women across the world flee mistreatment in ways that only women know. Women not only suffer arrest and imprisonment from tyrannical governments, but once in custody they are exposed to the risk of rape and abuse from the very soldiers and police who hold them. Given the chance, once released or escaped, they flee the country where they can know no safety. Other women are in flight from forced marriages, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation. The ways the world finds to harass, persecute and harm the very nature of being a woman seems immeasurable.
Women for Refugee Women (WRW) was founded to champion their cause. This week they publish a report that exposes the harsh treatment meted out to them when they reach our shores – the very place where they believed they would be safe and understood. Every year, of some 18,000 people claiming asylum some 5000 are women. They have had terrible experiences to tell, but struggle to get a fair hearing. Some 74% are turned down and are left destitute and friendless, often living on living rough and exposed to all the horrors that involves. Given some support they can appeal their case, and a good number win the right to stay, but only after a prolonged and delayed process that keeps them fearful that they will be sent back to further persecution.
Only this month Lydia Besong, who had been imprisoned, tortured and persecuted in Cameroon for her political activities, won a six year battle to stay in this country. Lydia and not been inactive: she has written two plays about her experience and seen them produced in this country. Now she wants to settle down here and take up the work she did in Cameroon as a teacher.
The problem resides with the UK Border Agency who are too abrupt and thoughtless in their judgement. The case that women often have to make – detailing their sexual abuse to official interrogators – is painful and often inhibiting. The Report Refused: the experience of women denied asylum in the UK calls for improved decision-making from the Agency, access to free legal advice for all asylum seekers and an end to the destitution of those refused asylum. The Report will be launched at a breakfast in the Lords tomorrow morning. It deserves your attention, support and all the publicity you can give it. Please come and join us.