Written evidence from Hibiscus Initiatives [HAP0016]

INTRODUCTION

Hibiscus Initiatives (Hibiscus) is a voluntary sector organisation with a track record of delivering high-impact support and advocacy services to women at the intersection of the criminal justice and immigration systems. Hibiscus has distinct expertise in working with Black, minoritised and migrant women in the UK in prison, in the community, and in immigration removal centres. Hibiscus’ current areas of activity concern community resettlement, international resettlement, and prisons, with the organisation’s anti-trafficking work spanning all three of these areas. Hibiscus also operates a Women’s Centre which provides a safe, women-only space where Black, minoritised and migrant women with experiences of the criminal justice system, immigration detention, or human trafficking can access specialist casework support and information, learn new skills, or obtain psychosocial support.

In the community, Hibiscus currently supports women seeking asylum and protection in the UK who have one or more of the protected characteristics as defined by the 2010 UK Equality Act. As such, Hibiscus considers it essential to contribute to this call for evidence regarding the fairness of the asylum process in the UK. Hibiscus works with women who are discriminated against based on their protected characteristics of sex, race, and pregnancy and maternity. For this reason, Hibiscus understands that it is integral that the voices of women who are routinely affected by the discriminatory practices of the asylum process are supported and heard. The inclusion of such experiences is significant, as it will help shed new light on the different mechanisms that intervene to keep them in danger.

Hibiscus would like to feature two stories from women who have faced discrimination and danger while going through the asylum process, along with statistics on race and ethnicity to highlight the flaws in the UK asylum system and provide detailed information on the required questions:

  1. Is the UK asylum process safe and fair for those with protected characteristics?
  2. What is the nature and extent of the dangers for those with protected characteristics who are seeking asylum in the UK?
  3. Are those with certain protected characteristics more or less likely to be granted asylum in the UK? / Are particular protected characteristics given priority in the asylum process?

 

CASE STUDIES AND QUESTIONS

I have been in the asylum process for almost 4 years. 6 months ago I received a positive decision, but the Home Office appealed, so now I am awaiting the decision of the High Court. I’m a survivor of trafficking and an asylum seeker. I cannot go back to Albania because I will not be safe there. 

My experience with the UK asylum system is very bad. During the process I felt that I was treated like an animal, not a human being. I can’t remember much of the asylum interview because I was in a difficult place at the time, but these last 4 years have been a nightmare.  

The worst moment was when I was pregnant a year ago. I had a C-section and stayed in hospital for a month. When I left the hospital, I had no accommodation, so I was admitted to an emergency hotel. The next day I had to move to a house, then back to the Hotel again because the house was not suitable. My accommodation was constantly being changed while I was recovering from the C-section even though the doctors had said that I should rest and recover from the procedure. For two weeks I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor and my baby was also on the floor in her Mosses basket. That accommodation put us at risk of harm. Finally, my lawyer came and helped us. A judge ordered the Home Office to find us more suitable accommodation and that is where we live at present; but this was by far one of the scariest and worst experiences of my life. I also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and having a newborn baby was not easy, especially without having a safe place to live.  

In my case, I feel like the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as an excuse to delay the process and not give me a decision sooner, as I have seen other women receiving positive decisions during this time. This is very annoying but there is nothing I can do about it. Also, my child’s vaccination appointments are getting postponed and delayed. I worry because the doctors have not checked him out in a while. I feel like we have been pushed aside and forgotten.  

The Home Office has said that it is safe for me to return to Albania, but that is not true. They said that I should forget what happened before, but I also worry about my baby who is mixed-race. It will not be safe for him to live in Albania. The whole process of seeking asylum has made me suffer a lot. The Home Office has always appealed the decisions and I do not understand why when we will be harmed if we return. In the past I thought this country was going to save me and that I would be safe here, but now I see that justice here is broken, and the UK has let me down.   

  1. Is the UK asylum process safe and fair for those with protected characteristics?

Delina’s experience shows that the asylum process is neither fair nor safe for pregnant women and women with young children. Pregnancy and maternity are one of the protected characteristics outlined in the 2010 UK Equality Act and, as is apparent from this evidence, this specific characteristic puts women at greater risk of danger while going through the asylum process. This evidence shows that women’s health can be overlooked and that there are currently not enough provisions in the asylum system to protect mothers and babies from harm. Adequate and safe accommodation was not possible for Delina and her newborn baby; she was unable to follow the doctor’s prescriptions to rest and regain health, which also had an impact on her mental health. Her baby did not receive adequate care and still today suffers from the effects of vaccination delays. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women requires the UK to ensure that the grounds for asylum, as outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, are implemented in a gender-sensitive manner and that they develop gender-sensitive reception procedures and support services for asylum seekers. Failing to provide safe accommodation and healthcare for pregnant women and their children contradicts this and increases the chances of harm for women with this specific characteristic.

Furthermore, it is clear from Delina’s account that her child’s ethnicity might be a component which is putting both in danger in the country of origin. However, it appears that the Home Office is not taking this into account, as they are appealing Delina’s asylum applications. Racism and discrimination, which include acts of violence against Black, Mixed-race, minoritised and migrant groups, should be a consideration while claiming asylum.

 

I am a refugee from an ethnic minority. While going through the asylum process, I had some obstacles. It was very stressful because I did not know what the response from Home Office would be and I had a baby. I did the first interview while I was pregnant. Then I had to wait a year for the second interview, when my daughter was 4-months old. It was not easy for me. The accommodation that I was offered at the time was not suitable. I shared the house with 7 other women and their children, and we all had to share the kitchen and the bathroom. I did not know how long I would be there and from time to time I would receive letters from the Home Office saying that they did not agree with my asylum application. It was very difficult. I requested asylum when I got pregnant as I knew it was not safe to be around the father of my baby. I thought that in the UK I would feel safer and could be protected.  At first it was difficult because I was pregnant and could not access healthcare. I was even asked to pay for it. Eventually a key worker helped me fill out some papers and then I was offered medical care.   

After 5 years of waiting, I have now received my status. I have also requested travel documents and a passport to be able to travel around with my child. At the same time, I am studying childcare and have just got a workplace in a nursery. I feel like I’m finally moving forward with my life. I feel more confident and secure than when I was going through the process before.” 

 

  1. What is the nature and extent of the dangers for those with protected characteristics who are seeking asylum in the UK?

For pregnant women and women with children, Maya’s story shows that the asylum process can be a very long process that encompasses their entire maternity; from pregnancy to delivery, postpartum and their baby’s early years, and that it can put them at risk of harm if the necessary provisions are not followed. Women have to go through the asylum process as they overcome these life-changing experiences with little or no support from the government. For Maya, going through the first interview while pregnant was a difficult time in her life, and having to do the second interview while her baby was only 4-months old shows that the system does not take into consideration at what stage of motherhood the women are. Many pieces of research show that the first months after delivery for a mother are crucial for her health and mental wellbeing. Maya’s case is especially concerning as she was first asked to pay for medical care when she was an asylum seeker with no means to support herself in the UK.

Pregnant women have very specific and additional needs that must be considered while they apply for asylum, and their cases should not be postponed any longer than necessary if they are to be safe. Data from our database reveals that of the pregnant women currently receiving support from Hibiscus, 43% are still awaiting a decision on their cases. Of them, more than half are of Black ethnic origin.

 

  1. Are those with certain protected characteristics more or less likely to be granted asylum in the UK? / Are particular protected characteristics given priority in the asylum process?

Hibiscus works with Black and/or minoritised migrant women in the community. As defined in the 2010 UK Equality Act, sex and race are two of the main protected characteristics. Hibiscus currently provides support to 85 women seeking refuge and asylum in the UK and of those only 34% have been granted refugee status or obtained humanitarian protection. Regarding the ethnicities of these women, 48% have identified as White, 37% have identified as Black, 8% as Asian, 4% as Mixed-race, 1% as Hispanic and 1% as Arabic. In general terms, it could be said that more than half of the women supported by Hibiscus who are seeking asylum are people of the Global Majority. 

Our data reveals that Black, Asian and Mixed-race women have to wait longer to receive their status than women who are white. Of our current Hibiscus clients, 65% of those who have received asylum or humanitarian protection are of a white ethnic origin. Black, Asian, Hispanic and Mixed-race women make up more than half of the women who are still waiting to receive a decision on their asylum cases. This indicates that certain groups and ethnicities are prioritized in the asylum process. Although it is difficult to consider that this distinction is solely based on race, Hibiscus considers this to be credible data that reveals a worrying racist pattern.

 

CONCLUSION

From the evidence presented, it can be deduced that the different characteristics and layers that traverse asylum seekers can put them at greater risk of discrimination and danger than those without. Hibiscus has identified sex, pregnancy and maternity, and race as three key characteristics that affect the prospects of asylum seekers as they go through the system. From the above evidence, it stands that women are routinely placed at risk because the UK asylum process lacks gender-sensitive reception procedures and support services for women, especially for those who are pregnant or have children. The lack of support is evident, with a clear pattern of failure to consider the stage of motherhood women are in and a lack of established provisions such as suitable accommodation. The third element identified is race which plays an important role in the outcomes of asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. Hibiscus has identified that women from Black and Global Majority backgrounds have to wait longer to receive their decisions, and this is true also of women who are pregnant. Based on this, race is of significance since not only will women be placed in danger if they return to their home countries (the Home Office does not currently take this into consideration), but they also have to wait for longer periods of time to receive their decisions, being discriminated against in the process. In conclusion, Hibiscus recommends that the intersectionality of sex, pregnancy and maternity, and race should be taken into consideration and that procedures and legislation must be put in place to protect these women.  

November 2021