Asylum Aid is a national charity that has been providing legal representation to asylum seekers in the UK for 25 years. Our strap-line, protection from persecution, is at the heart of what we do: we take on the most complicated cases of people who face human rights abuses abroad, and secure protection in this country and the chance for them to start new lives.
Asylum Aid’s small team of specialist solicitors actively ensure that we are accessing the most extremely vulnerable refugees, including those who have been
trafficked and forced into exploitation, stateless people, who cannot enjoy the protection of any country, women who are fleeing domestic violence, “honour” crimes, rape or FGM, and unaccompanied children, who have been forced to flee alone.
Children like Ibrahim*, who was just 13 years old when he came to the UK from Afghanistan. Ibrahim was abused by his family when he was unsure about attending a local religious school, and was eventually forced to go. At the school, he was yet more brutally treated, beaten, whipped, and hung by his ankles.
Although still extremely young, Ibrahim began to work helping out in a restaurant on top of his classes, in order to support his family and bring home some more money. It turned out that in the restaurant, however, he was at even greater risk than at school. One night his employer attacked Ibrahim and raped him.
Tragically, instead of finding support and protection from his family and community, Ibrahim was the one blamed for bringing shame on the town. The local Imam led the community against him, protecting his attacker instead, and he, still a child, was sentenced to death. Ibrahim had no choice but to abandon his home and family and flee for his life. He turned to smugglers, who took him on the long and terrifying journey to England, where he hoped to start again.
But his troubles did not end when he tried to claim asylum in this country, because the Home Office dismissed his story completely, refusing to believe he had been raped, or that his life was in danger; they planned to send him back as soon as he reached the age of 18. But our lawyers at Asylum Aid understood that he could never be safe in Afghanistan, and desperately needed this country’s protection.
Our specialist children’s caseworker sat for hours with him, gaining his trust, learning the extent of his terrible story. We worked with doctors, social workers and other experts to gather together the evidence in support of his application, to make sure that his word would be believed. When all the detail of the story and the supporting medical evidence was presented to the judge at Ibrahim’s hearing, he was finally believed. The judge ruled that he would be in grave danger if he ever were to be returned to Afghanistan, and immediately granted him refugee status so that he could begin to build his life here in the UK.
Cases like Ibrahim’s require our lawyers to take more time to build trust and put together the strongest possible case, but at Asylum Aid we strongly believe that each individual applicant’s life is worth that dedication and concern. While all of our legal work is provided free to our clients on the basis of our legal aid contract, we are able to spend that extra time on these complex cases because of the additional funding we receive from trusts and individuals who support us.
Every year, we are able to represent roughly 100 people through their asylum applications, and are successful in over ¾ of our cases. We are also able to reach many more, up to around 1,000, through our outreach surgeries for destitute asylum seekers and our weekly legal advice helpline.
The experiences of our legal team give us a direct insight into the functioning of the British asylum determination procedure, and allows us to see the areas where it is dysfunctional, or where there are particular issues that work against people seeking international protection. We use this expertise to inform our policy and campaigning work, in order to try to be able to reach yet more refugees, by improving the UK asylum system for all, and influencing British attitudes to be more welcoming and understanding towards them.
Our major area of policy concern over the past decade has been the women’s project. Asylum Aid takes on a disproportionate percentage of women’s cases, as they are often more difficult then men’s. Because of the increased likelihood that a woman will face persecution in the domestic sphere, at the hands of her community, family or husband, women’s cases often lack documentary evidence in support of their claim: you do not get a certificate to show that you have been abused by your husband, or that your family has tried to kill you or mutilate you; so for women fleeing this type of persecution, it is yet more vital that they are able to give a coherent and complete account of their experiences when interviewed, as their oral testimony will often be all the evidence they have.
The women’s project at Asylum Aid has forged partnerships with over 160 other organisations, from the women’s sector and the refugee sector, as well as major human rights organisations, under the Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum in order to campaign for a fairer, more gender-sensitive asylum system.
The campaign that we are currently running, the Protection Gap, focuses on five basic measures to help women who have experienced sexual violence or other forms of gender-based violence to be able to tell their stories effectively and thus receive the protection they need. These five measures are; childcare during asylum interviews; the right to choose to speak to a female interviewer and female interpreter; counselling referral for women who disclose gendered violence in their interviews; better training for Home Office decision-makers on how trauma affects memory and disclosure; and better information for asylum seekers about their rights as women within the system.
We decided to focus on these five demands because, aside from the huge difference that they would make to women’s experiences of the asylum process, they
mirror the demands that the UK among others have called for in the International Protocol that was drawn up as a result of the initiative to end sexual violence in conflict. These are all measures that we say are the minimum standard for women who have been raped in conflict situations abroad, and yet if those same women seek sanctuary in the UK, we do not provide them.
The demands were developed and the campaign run on a model of participation and leadership by refugee women. An advisory group of experts-byexperience,
women who have themselves been through the British asylum system have been taking forward various actions under the Protection Gap campaign.
Most recently, they have produced a leaflet with information for lawyers representing women asylum seekers, with key points that they need to tell their clients, including the right to apply for asylum separately from their husband, or to seek help if they are experiencing domestic violence; and they have organised and run an initial information session for recently arrived asylum seeking women, giving them support and information relevant to their upcoming asylum interviews.
Working with refugee advocates in this way not only allows us to ensure that we are always campaigning on issues that they themselves consider to be important and worthwhile, but also to empower the women involved, building a community among the group and providing them with opportunities to be active Asylum Aid also engages on the wider discussion on refugee issues, providing an informed and compassionate voice in the national discussion, which has become so salient in recent months due to the surge in arrivals across Europe. We take every opportunity to speak out, in the media and at public events, to put forward that considered, legally informed, and human-centred perspective.