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Report says victims of sexual and gender-based violence are systematically let down by UK immigration and asylum policies and practices


New research report by SEREDA academic project led by the University of Birmingham's Professor Jenny Phillimore

Date of Publication:
30 November 2021

Report says victims of sexual and gender-based violence are systematically let down by UK immigration and asylum policies and practices

30 November 2021

A new report by academic researchers looks at the experiences of victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) who were forcibly displaced in their countries of origin and who came to the UK to seek asylum.

CoverThe 28-page report was published by the Sexual and Gender Based Violence against Refugees from Displacement to Arrival (SEREDA), which is an academic project led by the University of Birmingham's Professor Jenny Phillimore.

For the report, the SEREDA project interviewed 68 forced migrant SGBV victims and 26 service providers in the UK working with victims.

The report finds: "Different kinds of violence were evident at different stages of forced migration along a continuum of violence. Some respondents experienced SGBV at all these stages, including restriction of movement, physical and verbal abuse, humiliation, torture, starvation, human organ trafficking and slavery, sexual violence, labour exploitation, blackmailing, being thrown into the sea (or threat of), deprivation of possessions including medicines and official papers, or being left in the desert. Incidents of SGBV took place in the country of origin, transit countries, during the journey and/or in the UK."

In terms of experiences in the UK, the report finds many SGBV survivors were placed at risk of further abuse or trauma by immigration and asylum policies.

Victims are being systematically let down by British authorities, the University of Birmingham said in a news release.

Service providers and victims generally referred to immigration and asylum policies and practices in the UK as being harmful and likely to exacerbate existing trauma, generate new trauma or increase victims' likelihood of experiencing SGBV.

Researchers noted, for example: "Asylum interviews were particularly problematic with service providers highlighting the lack of caseworker knowledge about difficulties associated with SGBV disclosure, lack of awareness of gender sensitivities and vulnerabilities and the absence of after-care, potentially increasing risks of retraumatising claimants. Asylum applicants were expected to provide evidence of SGBV at early stages in their claim which was often unavailable. Gender insensitive and male dominated environments could prevent women victims from disclosure during interviews."

As other research has found, the report finds that victims were discouraged from reporting SGBV incidents they experienced in the UK due to fear of immigration authorities.

The report notes: "Women's precarious immigration status which in some cases was dependent on their remaining in an abusive marriage, and their lack of knowledge of the Domestic Violence Rule meant men were able to abuse, control and exploit them using the threat of ending relations and associated destitution, detention and deportation if they did not obey."

Lengthy waits for an asylum decision by the Home Office was also identified as a particular concern in the report.

SEREDA stated: "The length of time awaiting a decision and inability to work or study (and thus be distracted from traumatic memories) while waiting was described by many as highly problematic exacerbating psychological distress with some respondents living in terror of being returned to persecution. The uncertainty associated with waiting in fear for many years undermined integration after a positive decision … Many respondents had experienced periods of destitution associated with bureaucratic errors or with failed claims (later going to, and sometimes overturned, in appeal) which increased vulnerability to SGBV. Lengthy waiting for asylum decisions undermined wellbeing and increased risks of SGBV."

Victims experienced both physical and psychological health problems in the UK and the report finds that the victims' immigration status again often acted as a barrier to seeking help.

"Although some respondents had been able to access health and psychological treatments they needed either through GPs or civil society organisations, the majority received no support. Individuals who were refused asylum seekers and undocumented migrants were too fearful to seek medical assistance or report abuse to the police in case they were detained and/or deported," the report states.

SEREDA makes a number of recommendations in the report to the Home Office, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and the National Health Service.

Professor Jenny Phillimore said: "To improve the treatment of SGBV survivors, increased gender and trauma sensitivity needs to be mainstreamed into asylum and immigration systems and services with contractors working for the Home Office paying far greater attention to the safety of SGBV victims in their care. Improved coordination between sectors is necessary to strengthen people-centred service delivery among forced migrants in the interest of public health and protecting human rights. It is important that the harm occasioned to SGBV survivors in the UK's asylum and immigration system is not normalised but seen as a serious problem requiring an urgent response. The interests and vulnerabilities of forced migrant women and girls need to be recognised, integrated and supported within the national strategy for tackling violence against women and girls."

In response to the report, a Home Office spokesperson told the Guardian: "Those who suffer from domestic abuse are victims first and foremost, regardless of their immigration status, and we will give the help and support they need and deserve. Impacts on vulnerable people and equalities considerations are front and centre of our work."