Howard to investigate refugee 'complaints' spur Howard review

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Home Office is investigating formal complaints about the treatment by immigration officials of a young asylum seeker, who arrived in the UK complaining of severe pain from multiple rape injuries.

Her lawyers claim the woman was never offered medical treatment and her case was not properly investigated. Had she not gone into hiding, she could have been returned to Zaire, where her husband, arrested by the same soldiers who attacked her, is still missing.

News of the inquiry came as MPs and refugee groups were yesterday made a successful appeal to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, not to go ahead with the weekend deportation of an East African woman, whose doctors support her claim also to have been raped by soldiers.

The Zairean woman fled her country after she was subjected to gang rape by soldiers, and was forced to watch helplessly as they shot dead her two brothers-in-law who had tried to intervene. The soldiers, members of the President's regiment, beat her family before taking away her husband.

After a tortuous journey arranged by her employer, the woman, Mrs X - still too frightened to be named - arrived in the UK two weeks later andclaimed asylum. Although she complained of pain as a result of rape, she alleges she was not referred to a doctor during either of her two interviews with immigration officials.

When her asylum plea was rejected she turned to the Immigration Appeals Adjudicator, who urged the Home Secretary to allow her entry "outside the rules". She was, said the adjudicator, "an honest young woman who has suffered and witnessed appalling brutality".

But, although her grim story was believed, it was thought that the raid on her home was isolated and carried out in revenge for an attack on soldiers the previous night. She was, the Home Secretary decided, at no more risk than other Zaireans and her deportation was set for 2 March 1994.

It was at this point that Mrs X went underground. She found new lawyers, who, armed with further details of her husband's role in the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress party, finally persuaded the Home Secretary to change his mind, and grant her exceptional leave to remain.

Mrs X, who now lives in a women's refuge, said yesterday that she had "felt like a criminal" living in hiding.

Immigration and asylum lawyers and refugee groups say that her case is illustrative of the hard line now being taken, and claim that the new Asylum and Immigration Bill, due for its second reading on Monday, places even greater obstacles in front of refugees. Plans to introduce a list of supposedly safe countries, and to shorten proceedings, mean that those like Mrs X may be wrongly turned away.

Doug Henderson, Labour's immigration spokesman, said: "There will be more and more cases like this - and more and more who gain access to lawyers resorting to judicial review."

The Home Office has not responded to requests for a response to the woman's allegations.