By BWV Reporter, Helin Khan
“They’re completely vulnerable. A lot of them are fleeing from situations where the people who are supposed to be protecting them… I know somebody who fled a refugee camp, she was under eighteen and she was being raped every night by the soldiers who were guarding her and meant to be looking after her.” (Ruth Pickersgill, Bristol Refugee Rights)
This is only one example of the horrific reality that refugee women and girls face, in the journey between fleeing their country and attempting to find safety in another. I spoke to Ruth Pickersgill, a Chairperson from Bristol Refugee Rights and Negat Hussein, a Trustee from Refugee Women of Bristol who shed some light on the gender based concerns and issues that face refugee women and girls fleeing their countries. These women come from two separate and yet coinciding organisations, that are based on the safety and welfare of refugee people within Bristol and the UK. Unfortunately, the types of cases such as the one highlighted above are not uncommon.
According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), women and girls comprise 50% of all global refugees and displaced people and are frequently faced with violence and rape. Refugee women and girls will face multiple forms of violence throughout their journey; many of them will have already fled abuse inflicted in their home country, while also possibly experiencing abuse at the hands of those that are placed to protect them in camps, sheltered housing and also by other refugees. Age, sexuality, social status, being pregnant or a mother with young children, will not stop refugee women from being vulnerable to physical and emotional abuse and torture. They will often face further issues and violence once they are in the UK – from a lack of safety provided in group housing, and little to no funds to pay for food or shelter, to no understanding of the English language. All of this will eventually, and understandably, take a toll on their mental health.
“People don’t realise it, but some of the psychologists we work with [at Bristol Refugee Rights] know that the majority of women they see who have arrived here are suffering clinically from post-traumatic stress disorder, just as a result of the journey let alone once they’re here,” says Ruth. In many instances, there is no outlet for the trauma they have suffered: “they want to protect the people at home, if there’s anyone left, because they have gone through enough already.”
Often boys and men will be the first who are sent away from their home countries as refugees. When a woman decides to leave her country, the decision is not one made lightly. “It’s a big decision” Negat tells me. “She leaves by force, almost. Her family may be dead, she might have children who will face danger if she stays, or parents who are old and depend on her to be the breadwinner.”
A terrifying issue tied to the displacement, or ‘statelessness’, of refugee women and girls is human trafficking. Human trafficking is the illegal movement of people for the purposes of forced labour or sexual exploitation. For the refugee women who are trafficked, it can occur with little difficulty for the perpetrators. Often money and papers are taken away from refugees, which means there is no protection or checks on refugee women who are travelling. “A lot of women know this might happen before they go… They get promised money and security, and that they will reach their destination quickly, when it can end up taking years,” says Negat. Prosecution is difficult as the law can’t protect these vulnerable women as soon as they decide to leave, especially once they cross borders and become illegal persons. They are then taken advantage of, particularly if they are by themselves or they have children. Currently there is no tangible figure on the amount of girls and women sold into global human trafficking.
However, the human rights in the UK regarding trafficking and the protection of refugees are much better than other countries in the EU, says Negat. “I think, what is good about England is that there are specific laws in place to protect refugee and women asylum seekers. There are also some great charities and women’s groups.” Negat explains how important it is that these groups exist, and to make sure they are amply promoted. “These women have been through so much trauma, that they need to know the right organisations who can help them with what they need in this moment in time and for the future.”
Regarding human rights laws, there is further difficulty placed onto refugees once they reach the UK. Even the word ‘refugee’ is problematic, with the official term being an ‘asylum seeker’ as it can take years to gain refugee status. “There is nothing to protect them until they claim asylum,” says Ruth, “they are technically meant to claim it in the first country they go to. They will be asked to produce documentation that may or may not exist, they usually don’t understand English and they are traumatised… Once they have been provided legal advice, they will go back to continue their claim and may then be accused of ‘changing their stories’… I know someone who comes to the centre that finally got refugee status after thirteen years.”
For recently made claims, NASS (National Asylum Support Service which is part of the Home Office) can provide shelter, but the shared accommodation housing usually comprises a single room with a shared bathroom and kitchen which makes it more difficult for women. If you’re a refugee and you’re lucky, you’ll receive £35 a week maximum for living costs, or food vouchers to be used in supermarkets (forgetting the need for funds to travel, the needs of their children, and school etc.) If you’re not so lucky, you are entitled to, and will receive, nothing. Those who are destitute will live in constant fear or face further abuse at the hands of partners or housemates if they have nowhere else to go. “Refugees will have high expectations when they come here, after hearing about the freedom and security in this country,” says Negat, “they will face further struggle and it only adds to their loss.”
For refugee women, it seems that the shame they feel from what they have been through, and the lack of cultural understanding and sensitivity will make their situations only more difficult. “The refugee women are sometimes different to the men because they tend to feel lonelier,” Negat informs me, “they’re scared and worried of where they’re next going to stay, or who they’re going to meet… people need to understand what they have been through, and the cultural taboo of speaking about it. Empathy, especially from the women they meet – support workers, psychologists, charity workers, other refugee women is key.”
These women will face brutal and heart-breaking journeys leaving their homes to find safety for themselves and their families, and will undoubtedly suffer from stress, violence and subsequent trauma. There is hope however for those in need of support. “We are at the Malcolm X Centre [St Pauls] three days a week: Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with Refugee Women of Bristol having Tuesday sessions for women only,” says Ruth.
Both charities offer a range of support and activities to help refugees, including the specific needs of women and girls. These include ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes which are over subscribed with almost a hundred people a day; a crèche for women who have children; advocacy information including advice on housing, solicitors to help with claims, information on understanding refugee status, and access to further education. For women who have fled domestic violence or are experiencing it here, there are psychologists to speak to and from whom to seek advice. “We provide a free meal once a week, as well as a free shop for clothing and basic food stuffs. We also help with destitution payments and provide barbers to give free haircuts. We have the VOICE project to help raise awareness of refugees and their stories,” says Ruth.
There are various other national and local charities that provide support, including churches and various charity organisations, including Bristol Hospitality Network that encourages people to help house refugees. So what can be done to further help those in need?
“We need more targeted, fashionable clothing donations for the young men, as well as culturally appropriate clothing for the women,” says Ruth, “we need substantial food stuffs. Most importantly, we need long-term volunteers who are trained and educated and long-term, consistent money donations.” Both women agree that there needs to be further political lobbying and understanding within the Government of the needs of refugees. “Funding is an ongoing issue,” says Negat, “we need more services to be provided by the Council, and governmental support is key. They need these existing charities and to work alongside us – what they need to remember is that they are dealing with humans.”
Both of these charities were present at an event to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10th 2015 where key speakers from different areas of life spoke about the current international crisis, as well as personal stories of survival from refugees. This date commemorates the day in 1948 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first international establishment of human rights.
These are issues that we must be aware of and educate others about too, about the human rights of these women who not only have to suffer the indignities of the refugee and asylum seeking process but also have to deal with so many atrocities along the way. What these people and organisations bring however, is a humanity that sometimes becomes forgotten on the journey.