Written evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee enquiry into modern slavery

Since 2002 BWRAP and WAR have been providing specialist services to victims seeking asylum in the UK. Research, including our own, has found that over 70% of women seeking asylum have fled rape elsewhere.  We document what happened to them and the aftermath of sexual violence: the continuing impacts of stigma and trauma.

We help co-ordinate self-help sessions with the All African Women’s Group, a self-help group of women asylum seekers & immigrants. Their fortnightly meetings are attended by up to 120 women and an increasing number report experiences which could be considered as “trafficking” and/or “modern slavery”. Some of these experiences result from how they were brought to the UK and what happened to them on arrival.

One important and recurring theme is that many victims we see say that their suffering has been exacerbated by the government’s “hostile environment” immigration policies. Specifically, victims suffer from: institutionalised disbelief and hostility from immigration officers and decision makers; lack of acknowledgment of the traumatic impact of rape and sexual abuse. Since the 2014 Immigration Act “hostile environment” policies were introduced women report increased difficulties accessing health care, education, housing, banking etc. More women describe being destitute without any income at all and living in precarious situations where they are vulnerable to abuse.

Our evidence will focus on care and support for victims.

  1. Victims of rape face particular obstacles in accessing protection in the UK. Procedures for responding to victims of modern slavery and/or trafficking who have suffered sexual violence do not help them overcome these.

Victims of modern slavery who have suffered sexual violence face the same difficulties that those seeking asylum from rape face in pursuing their immigration cases.  The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and “Competent Authority” which was supposed to provide a bespoke and sensitive approach have been contaminated by the government’s hostile immigration environment.  The cases we cite below and our work more generally with victims covers the period both before and after the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act of 2015. Since the Act we have seen no improvement in the care and support for victims.

Trauma and stigma makes it much harder to report rape than any other violence.   Many women we work with have never spoken to anyone else about what they have been through.  Others haven’t been able to tell professionals who are helping them, like lawyers or GPs.  Hardest of all is speaking to officials.  Most women have not reported rape until after their Home Office interview and an initial decision has been reached on their application.

Women report rude and hostile officials when they go to their interviews.  They are often pressed to “speed up” or alternately kept for hours ploughing through details of traumatic experiences which they have never spoken about before and have battled to keep at the back of their minds.  Invariably it is an unnecessarily distressing and traumatic experience with many women unable to recall details of what happened to them because they are “blanking out” under the extreme pressure.  It is usually clear from the interview notes that officials scan the overall account for potential “weaknesses” which may offer grounds to refuse a case.   They then quickly “home in” on these, e.g. within the first ten questions.  Meanwhile other crucial information, e.g. the situation a woman fears if sent back, is not gathered as if this would make the decision to refuse more difficult.  We have seen this pattern repeated so often that it appears to be “policy”. We would like clarification on whether immigration decision makers get incentives or bonuses for refusals.

  1. The problems victims face in securing justice and protection
  •  Even when women do report sexual violence 88% of Home Office decisions disbelieve and reject their applications.
  • Long delays in reaching decisions in the NRM despite stated deadlines. One woman came to a session from Bristol and told us that she had been in the NRM for eight years – unfortunately she did not return when we tried to arrange to help her.
  • There is no right of appeal against refusals in the NRM – women can only pursue these through Judicial Review. Legal aid cuts have devastated their access to not only good quality representation but also to expert evidence essential to a fair hearing.  Our research found that women with such evidence were six times more likely to overturn HO disbelief and refusals at appeal than those without.
  • Any help ends when final decisions are reached on victims’ applications and they are dropped from the NRM. Women find themselves out on the street just days after decisions are reached – whether or not their cases have been accepted.
  • Delay in reporting rape is still routinely used as grounds for disbelief despite the Home Office’s own guidance and the legal precedent we helped establish that women may be “unable not unwilling” to report rape earlier.
  • So-called discrepancies resulting from the interviews and sometimes translation errors are seized on. These are not presented to the woman at the interview so that mistakes and misunderstandings can be resolved.
  • Evidence and information is twisted, including quoting country evidence reports where they suit and then omitting crucial evidence in the same reports directly addressing the woman’s situation e.g. about lack of state protection from rape.
  • After issuing its refusal any appearance of a non-adversarial approach is dropped and the HO doggedly defends its decision no matter what evidence is submitted subsequently. Of the thousands of asylum/immigration appeals against HO refusals which we have been involved with we know of only three in which it withdrew in view of the evidence provided to the Tribunal.
  • Changes to the legal procedures make it increasingly difficult to pursue legal cases e.g. the “deport first appeal later” procedure and the application of decisions to remove which deny women notice to oppose an imminent removal.
  • NGOs and charities have become dangerously tied up with running government procedures and are not independent, deterring many victims from seeking their help. Contracts, not women’s need, determines the help they give e.g. Hestia puts women out on the street in a matter of days after they have a final decision on their trafficking application – even though they are accepted as vulnerable victims.
  1. Government policies increase women’s vulnerability to modern slavery

Policies not only fail to protect women, they are making them more vulnerable to exploitation, rape and other violence.  Over half of the women in the self-help group are destitute.  Even those living on asylum support benefits are left in vulnerable and dangerous positions, struggling to survive on 50% less than the poverty line benefits that others in the UK receive.

This month marks the first anniversary of WAR’s “Refuge from Rape and Destitution Campaign” in which both the All African Women’s Group and Black Women’s Rape Action Project are partners.  Our aim is to end of destitution because it forces women and girls into all kinds of dangerous and exploitative situations, leaving them vulnerable to rape and other abuse, e.g. forced to rely on working for free as “domestics” or sex with men offering a bed for the night. Thirty-five percent of destitute homeless women asylum seekers report being raped in the UK.

 Four case studies

 

Ms K faced horrendous abuse after her mother died.  She was forced into sex work while still a child in Nigeria and then again after being brought to the UK and still a minor.  Although the Home Office accepted the documents used to bring her into the country were false, it still insisted that the age attributed to her in them was correct. She was accused of lying and told that she was not a victim of trafficking because she had been working as a prostitute prior to being brought to the UK and so had not been tricked into coming.  She was put out on the street but with our own and other support has just won full refugee status.

 

Ms M was raped by soldiers in Uganda and WAR wrote an expert report for her application.  It was only later that she revealed she had also been forced into prostitution – something she found even more difficult to talk about.  Her application was rejected because although it was accepted that she had been trafficked, she was found to be no longer suffering as a result and so was not defined as a “victim”. WAR’s report and that of the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture were cited because they only addressed the trauma she suffered as a result of rape by soldiers.  She also went on to win full refugee status – only because of a prolonged and determined battle with the help of a legal aid lawyer and her supporting organisations.

 

Ms A had suffered repeated rape and other abuse since childhood after being orphaned.  Her support was stopped by the charity Hibiscus just days after the Home Office accepted that she had been a victim of trafficking.  This only gave her very limited right to remain but no help had been provided to her to pursue an asylum claim – for which she had very good grounds for asylum.  Being referred into the NRM had in effect stopped her from pursuing her refugee status.  The Home Office refused her asylum claim, cruelly claiming that she had demonstrated resilience and resourcefulness in providing for herself after her parents died. 

 

Ms C had spent years being raped in the UK after being lied to by the people who brought her into the country and until she was helped to escape.  She was terrified to find herself arrested and taken into police custody when she went to a food bank.  BWRAP was outraged when the “volunteer” told us it was her job to alert the authorities to any illegal immigrants – even when we told her that we had just found Ms C a legal aid lawyer and she was in the process of making an asylum claim. 

 

The fact that so many victims of modern slavery end up destitute because they are denied the help and support they needs must be of concern to this Inquiry.  We urge members to look at first-hand accounts of the impact of destitution on victims including the ways in which it increases and exacerbates vulnerability to abuse.