Women reunited with their children
5 March was one of the happiest occasions of this past year for many of us. Betty A, a longstanding and much loved volunteer was reunited with the four children whom she was forced to leave behind when she fled Uganda. The full and heart-rending story is still to be told but the reunification of this family is the culmination of an extraordinary effort over two years by Betty herself, WAR and our dedicated supporters.
If that wasn’t enough joyful news, in July, Maureen M, Chair of the All African Women’s Group and another committed volunteer heard that her long efforts to trace the three children she left behind when she fled Burundi had been successful. We spent a few nerve racking days waiting for confirmation that the children who had been traced were actually hers and in August she had her first tearful but thrilling conversation with them after five years of separation. Watch this space for news of a campaign to be launched soon to reunite children with their mothers!
My four children were lost in Burundi... I won the right to stay after four long years of fighting even to get my asylum case heard. My three children were lost in Burundi where I was forced to leave them when I fled for my life after being imprisoned, raped and tortured. Any spare penny that I had since coming to the UK was spent looking for my children. When I won the right to stay I renewed my efforts. I found a reliable man who has some experience in detective work who was ready to search. In July 2008, he located three of them in Uganda.
At first, contact with my children was very difficult. They were deeply traumatised by being separated from me for so long. For all those years they hadn’t known if I was alive or dead. With the help of Women Against Rape, I am applying for settlement visas for the children to join me. We are waiting for the outcome of their applications.
At the age of 13, Ms J was raped and severely beaten in Uganda by four government soldiers on her way home from school. She fled to the UK after her sister and brother were abducted, and her father disappeared. When her asylum appeal was refused and her lawyer said that nothing further could be done, Ms J tried to take her own life in despair. With our help Ms J persuaded the lawyer to lodge a last minute appeal and was granted a new hearing. We made written submissions and attended the hearing with Ms J and she was granted Full Refugee Status! Without our intervention, Ms J may have killed herself or been removed back to a life threatening situation in Uganda.
Ms F was conscripted into military service in Eritrea at the age of 16, but courageously she refused to fight. She was taken to a military training camp where she was raped and threatened with death. After escaping to the UK, Ms F discovered she was pregnant. Having suffered in the UK for many years without any appropriate help, Ms F was told about WAR and attended our self-help counselling sessions. She was able to share her experiences and get support from other women who had conceived as a result of rape and she describes how this support was fundamental to starting the process of recovery from her ordeal. Her lawyer commissioned an expert report from WAR assessing the impact of the rape she suffered, and this was used as the basis for submitting a fresh claim for asylum. She was granted indefinite leave to remain almost six years after arriving in the UK!
Ms E set up a women’s organisation for victims of domestic violence in Cameroon after her husband died. She had suffered years of abuse after being forced to marry as a child. Many of the women in the group were discovering their lesbian sexuality, but kept this secret because homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon. After the women’s group was attacked by armed police, and Ms E was imprisoned and repeatedly raped and beaten, she fled to the UK. Ms E was extremely frightened and traumatised, especially after she heard news that a friend from the women’s group had been found dead. She made an asylum claim immediately after arriving and came to our self-help sessions. We gave her advice before her interview with the Home Office and made written submissions in support of her asylum claim. Because of this, Ms E felt confident to speak fully about her experiences and the Home Office gave her full refugee status.
Supporting rape survivors in Yarl’s Wood
This month marks the third anniversary of the daily rota we helped set up to support women in detention, many of whom are rape survivors. Over half the women who volunteer to do this work are themselves seeking asylum. One woman went to sign on her way to our Centre and was taken into detention. She found out too late that her lawyer had lied about submitting a fresh claim on her behalf and he then refused to do anything to help her. We found her another solicitor and a barrister, and her flight was stopped just one hour before take off. She is now out of detention and back volunteering with WAR.
Of the women who have contacted us from detention over the past three months, more than two-thirds have been released, often after many months of battling against repeated attempts to remove them. Many had not been able to speak about the rape they suffered before contacting us. Sadly nine women were sent back to the countries they fled. The experiences of the handful of women and girls who have been able to keep in touch having been removed, confirm that they had “a well-founded fear of persecution” – most had been subjected to detention, violent beatings, rape and other torture. Those who have managed to avoid the attention of the authorities, are living on the street or in the bush, begging or working as prostitutes to provide for themselves and their families. We fear for the lives of those we have not heard from. WAR continues to try to highlight these experiences, pressing journalists, The Independent Asylum Commission, MPs, Peers and MEPs to publicise women’s stories.
A recent victory in the courts has highlighted the injustices rape survivors face:
- Ms B won £15,000 damages for unlawful detention because she was denied access to a GP within 24 hours of arriving at Yarl’s Wood. She first spoke about the rape she suffered to one of our volunteers just a few days before she was due to be deported. We helped find a barrister who, working pro bono, took her case to the High Court. Ms B’s lawyer disappeared so the only papers the barrister had was our letter documenting what she had told us. A Judge granted an injunction on the basis of our submission just an hour or so before the plane was due to take off. More
Increasing numbers of women are in Yarl’s Wood having already served a prison sentence for using false documents to enter the UK. This is the only way they have been able to escape yet they are now labelled “foreign national criminals”. We will be highlighting this terrible injustice over the coming months.
Thank you to all of you who have helped over this period through donations of money, time, clothes and any of the other inventive ways that people find to support each other in a crisis! If you are interested in volunteering with WAR or helping in any other way, do get in touch!