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December 6, 2006 - A new study says that women asylum seekers who claim to have been raped in their own countries are rarely believed in British courts. Laura Smith reports. 

The Guardian Wednesday December 6, 2006
http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1965058,00.html

When Amanda stepped off a boat in Southampton, earlier this year, she had, she says, just escaped a police cell in West Africa where she had been raped, sexually assaulted and tortured by guards and fellow prisoners. Suffering from severe abdominal pain and the trauma of leaving her two young children behind, she believed she had reached safe ground. But days after her arrival in Britain, she was taken to a detention centre and locked up for a month, during which time her asylum claim was rejected.

With no legal representation at her appeal, Amanda was forced to relive her ordeal before a judge she found hostile, and who accused her of lying about the rape. The appeal was turned down.

Campaigners say such experiences are far from unusual. Although it is estimated that at least 50% of women seeking asylum in the UK have experienced rape or sexual violence in their countries of origin, a report published yesterday found that in two thirds of cases rape claims were dismissed as fabrications. Misjudging Rape was commissioned by the Black Women's Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape to draw attention to the behaviour of immigration judges who serve on the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (AIT), which decides appeals against rulings made by the Home Office. As the Home Office refuses around 80% of claims following initial asylum interviews, the two London-based groups argue that fair AIT hearings are essential.

The report examined 65 rulings by these immigration judges and found that rape claims were believed in only 35% of cases. The level of disbelief was often justified by the view that the woman had failed to mention the rape in the initial stages of the claim and must therefore be making it up.

Cases where allegations were disbelieved included a 15-year-old girl who said she was raped by Ugandan government agents in front of her father (an opposition politician). Having reached 18 and had her asylum claim rejected, she faces repatriation. Then there is the Ethiopian Muslim woman whose description of rape was rejected on the basis that she had not complained to family members (this was described as making "no sense at all"). Only a third of women in the cases examined had access to an independent report by a doctor, psychiatrist or specialist organisation to corroborate their rape claims at the hearing. Where adjournments were requested for the preparation of such reports, immigration judges refused in more than 70% of cases.

"In our experience, most judges are dismissing women and destroying their credibility," says Cristel Amiss, of the Black Women's Rape Action Project. "All the evidence confirms our fears that women and girls are being used as a soft target to bring down the asylum figures."

Amanda, who is in her 30s, finds it hard to talk about what happened after she was arrested for allowing anti-government meetings to take place in the business she ran in her home country. Her hands shake and she cries as she speaks. "The guys in the cell pushed me. One said I have to pay "charges". One of the guys forcibly had sex with me. One asked me to suck his manhood. I did it because I had no choice. When the shift changed, the guards were insulting me. The officer came in and grabbed me by the hair and took me to the toilet. He had sex with me. The other ones were laughing."

Amanda escaped with the help of a guard and a local pastor, who arranged her passage from the station to the nearest fishing port, from where she made her way to Southampton several months ago. She was taken to Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre. "We entered a van with a cage inside and I remember reaching a place with a high gate ... I was thinking I would meet people who would help me but there was nobody to say what was happening. I thought, maybe they are going to behead me. "

At Yarl's Wood Amanda was promised access to a lawyer, but says she met one only five minutes before her initial Home Office interview, giving no time to relate her experiences before the interview began. Her claim was rejected.

She fared no better at the appeal hearing before the AIT a month later. A lawyer had been appointed by Legal Aid but failed to appear and Amanda says she was left to tell the court her story without legal advice.

Amanda says the immigration judge refused requests both from her and from Home Office officials to adjourn the case, allegedly saying the hearing could go ahead without her solicitor. He then described her supporting documents as forgeries and dismissed her account of rape, even after she showed him where the guard had ripped out her hair. In his ruling the judge described rape as a terrible crime, but said it was also terrible to make false allegations because genuine complaints were more likely to be disbelieved.

Amiss says this judge has used exactly the same argument in several other rulings.

Louise Hooper, a barrister who regularly represents women at AIT hearings, says she has "worked in other areas of law but I've never seen a court so partisan in nature. Not all judges are bad but there is a cohort who do not believe anything that anyone claiming asylum ever says. Frankly, they appear to see it as their role to keep people out."

It is widely accepted that women face an uphill struggle to prove their refugee status under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which states that a person may be recognised as a refugee, "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

This is partly because women's political activity often takes a different form to men's - hiding people, for example, or, like Amanda, cooking for political meetings - which is harder to prove than membership of a party. It is also because they are targeted in different ways, the most obvious method being rape, a common weapon of war and political oppression, which, unlike torture, is not explicitly recognised by the convention.

To correct this imbalance, the UN has urged countries to adopt guidelines to ensure women's asylum claims are dealt with equitably. To its credit, the Immigration Appellate Authority, the forerunner to today's AIT, published such guidelines for adjudicators (now immigration judges) in 2000 to ensure that procedures "do not prejudice women asylum seekers".

But the new report alleges that immigration judges routinely flout these guidelines, dismissing women's political activity as "low level" and arguing, as a result, that rape cannot be considered as persecution under the convention. Women's failure to report rape during the early stages of their applications combined with a lack of corroborating medical evidence is often used to discredit claims, revealing little understanding of the trauma and shame particular to rape.

"Despite all the gender guidelines ... judges often start from the position that a woman is lying," says Anver Jeevanjee, a former member of the AIT who retired in 2004. "They demand a much higher degree of proof from women. The idea that they wouldn't tell their husbands or family members about a rape, for example, is regarded as absolutely implausible."

Jeevanjee claims that during his 20-year career with the tribunal, he frequently heard racial slurs being used by judges in private, and the attitude that there are already "too many immigrants" in Britain was common. A spokesman for the AIT told this newspaper that the asylum gender guidelines, produced by its predecessor, are "not binding".

Now living in north London, Amanda has a new lawyer and has launched a fresh appeal. With her refugee status not yet confirmed she is unable to work and relies entirely on the kindness of friends and campaigners. Asked what it is like to be locked up and disbelieved in the country she came to for sanctuary, she becomes visibly distressed. "Let's say a tiger is chasing you and you are running away, thinking you are going towards shelter and safety," she says. "Then the person in the shelter pushes you out again. That's what it is like. They say I only came here to better myself. But a year ago I had my business, I had my estate, I was making plans. Everything in my life has crumbled. Where is my life now?"

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