Particular challenges of women migrants: an interview with Kathryn Lum


Credit: Frank Keillor (CC)

When we think of refugees, we often think automatically of a male, perhaps in his late teens or early 20s. But a significant number of refugees are women. The exact percentage varies depending on the source, but estimates range from 27 (Pew research centre, August 2016) to 50 per cent (UNHCR).

In order to explore the unique pressures and problems that women refugees face, QCEA interviewed Dr. Kathryn Lum, a lecturer in Global studies at Nottingham Trent University. She works closely with a refugee aid organization called Kairos, and writes about gender and migration. This is the first of two interviews with Dr. Lum. This one will deal with the problems faced by women; the second will deal with the unique issues faced by LGBT refugees.

QCEA: What are some of the particular problems of female refugees?

Kathryn: First, there is a culture of disbelief about the problems that women face. Problems such as rape and sexual violence are not seen as ‘political’, and so not accorded the same level of protection and are not taken as seriously as political persecution. Rape victims are often not believed, and many caseworkers and judges in immigration courts are men, who may not be in a position to understand the unique horror of sexual violence.

QCEA: Does this perhaps reflect a bias in society as a whole?

Kathryn: Absolutely. When the stories that women tell are believed, they still need to prove that they were targeted for this violence; that it was not simply random. Even other women tend to trivialize gender-based violence. On many US college campuses, the penalty for cheating is harsher than for rape.

When women tell their stories to caseworkers, they are often disqualified by small details, as with an African woman who had suffered physical, psychological, and sexual violence from her husband, but her asylum claim was disqualified because she could not recall her Father-in-law’s official or legal middle name – she had always referred to him by his nickname.

QCEA: Do women’s asylum claims have a higher than average rejection rate?

Kathryn: Yes. However, more than one third of them end up winning on appeal. Part of the problem is that it is always difficult to speak about sexual violence, especially to male caseworkers or through a male interpreter. It is possible to request a female caseworker, but they might now always be informed of this right. They must disclose all details of their case fully in the first interview, and a coherent story about sexual violence is not easy to tell.

QCEA: Are there special dangers that women face in transit?

Kathryn: Yes, many. A simple example is in transit camps; for example in Greece, there are no segregated toilets or shower facilities. Even when they are with children women are vulnerable to sexual violence or exploitation. Smugglers demand transactional sex in exchange for transit or documents. Without a male guardian the risk is high.

QCEA: One of my colleagues witnessed a migrant woman being propositioned for sex. When she refused, the man said, “what other choice do you have?” Is this a danger only while they are in transit?

Kathryn: Not at all. Women face the risk of sexual exploitation at every stage of their journey. When they arrive in the UK, for example, they may be refused asylum and then they have no money to live on. They are not allowed to work, and some turn to prostitution. In other cases, they may be placed in the UK Detained Fast Track programme. After the first interview with a caseworker, they will be detained in exchange for the promise of faster processing of their claim. These detention centres are effectively prisons. Some sources say that the UK is the only European country with indefinite detention. Other sources include Ireland, but in practice Ireland places comparatively few asylum seekers in detention. So while in theory both the UK and Ireland allow indefinite detention, it is only the UK that actually practices it. All other European countries place a maximum limit of no more than 18 months on detention.

But this is not a good choice: they can be detained indefinitely in these cases, and they must try to prove their case from behind bars. While they have access to legal support, it is much more difficult to arrange from detention facilities, and being there greatly hinders the possibility of a successful asylum claim. As you can imagine, the results are often depression, anxiety, panic attacks, self-harm, suicide attempts. In detention they are often not treated as human. One woman was quoted in a recent report as saying, “It’s not the trauma in my home country that broke my spirit, it’s how I was treated here (in the UK)”

QCEA: Surely this is against international law?

Kathryn: You would think so, but the Geneva convention did not include gender-based violence as a reason for granting asylum. It was only in 1994 that Canada recognised female genital mutilation (FGM) as gender-based persecution and grounds for refugee status. The UK followed suit in 2006. Recognition of gender-based violence has been slow to come.

credit EEAS

Credit: EU DG ECHO (CC)

QCEA: Are the UK caseworkers trained in dealing with sexual violence?

Kathryn: There are guidelines in place, but they are often not followed. Training is cursory at best, and doesn’t help the situation. For example, many country of origin information reports do not give information about things like forced or child marriages, FGM, sexual violence or the incidence of domestic abuse. But the caseworkers need that information to make good decisions, and while some reports do mention these problems, there is a lack of consistency. The bigger problem is that even when these issues are highlighted in the reports, the culture of disbelief is stronger and gender-based violence may not be properly taken into consideration.

Another issue is that the caseworkers do not seem to reflect the population that they serve, in terms of gender or ethnicity. It’s difficult to say for sure, because we also need statistics on the gender and ethnic breakdown of caseworkers. Currently, no such statistics are available. What is clear, however, is that we need women to work on gender-based issues. Some of the questions asked by male caseworkers border on pornography and voyeurism.

QCEA: What about women who have had to leave their children behind?

Kathryn: It is often difficult to re-unite women with their children after refugee status is granted. Often several years have passed, sometimes many years. The child may by that time be over 18, and so not eligible for family reunification. When they are brought together, there is a gap in time to be covered, and relationships may be difficult to re-establish.

QCEA: Do you have some recommendations for changing the experience of migrant women?

Kathryn: Yes:

  • Women need to be told in their own language that they have a right to a female caseworker and a female interpreter. They rarely know this.
  • Reception and accommodation centres should provide separate facilities for women, families and single men, with female staff in the women’s portions.
  • We must ensure that caseworkers have relevant information about country of origin and its situation with regard to gender based violence. Country reports may be written from a male perspective and bias. Therefore more country reports written by women are needed. All country reports, without exception, need a gendered perspective.
  • Caseworkers also need to be sensitive to barriers to disclosure: ex: shame, stigma and trauma linked to sexual violence.
  • There is still a lack of understanding of gender-based persecution, so more training is needed. And the training guidelines then need to actually be followed and implemented!
  • In the UK, many gender-related asylum claims are inappropriately routed into the “detained fast track”. This needs to stop.
  • Funding cuts everywhere have meant an increasing shortage of solicitors who can take on asylum cases. More funding is needed for legal aid.
  • Detention should be banned. No individual should ever be placed in detention, and especially not people who have suffered from sexual violence and other forms of trauma. Until that is done, ensure that women are housed separately from men, that the staff in those areas are female, and that provision is made for privacy.
  • Asylum seekers need to be able to work while their claim is being processed. They should also have some choice in where they are going to be housed while their claim is being processed, so that they can choose to live in cities where they may have pre-existing contacts, friends or family members.

QCEA: We would like to thank you, Kathryn, for your time and for helping us to understand better the unique issues facing women who are forced to leave their homeland.


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