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Rape claim highlights risk to female refugees

Campaign groups are calling on the Government to set up women-only hostels for female asylum-seekers following the alleged rape of a young mother at a centre for refugees.

The victim of the alleged attack told The Independent on Sunday how she was sexually assaulted at Eurotower, a crumbling tower block and former backpackers' hostel in Stockwell, south London, now part-run by the Refugee Council with Home Office funding.

The case highlights the plight of vulnerable women seeking asylum in Britain, many of whom have already been victims of rape and sexual abuse in their home countries. Support groups such as Women Against Rape report an increase in calls from refugee women claiming they have been assaulted or sexually harassed by men in state accommodation.

Women Against Rape is calling for the Government to set up women-only hostels to protect the security of female asylum-seekers.

"The conditions for women are inhumane and unacceptable," said Cristel Amiss, a spokeswoman for the charity.

"Many have already suffered sexual attacks and rape only to arrive in this country and find themselves living in squalid conditions without adequate security."

"Clarice" - not her real name - told The Independent on Sunday how a man raped her in her own room at a hostel providing emergency accommodation.

"I came here thinking I'd be safe, but some people in Britain treat their dogs better than their women," said the former nursery teacher from the Ivory Coast in West Africa.

"The way I've been treated here is worse than what I've left behind. As an asylum-seeker, they think you are a second-class citizen."

The Refugee Council placed her in Eurotower in January after a friend she was living with returned to Africa. The alleged rape took place on 20 May. Clarice was taken to hospital and interviewed by the police who gave her a rape alarm. However, she says they told her they did not believe her claims.

Single women are segregated from male residents on separate floors at Eurotower but security is limited at best.

"We are very distressed that any of our clients feel frightened or upset in the accommodation we have placed them in, and take allegations of harassment or other critical incidents very seriously indeed," said Margaret Lally, acting chief executive of the Refugee Council. She said the council had revised procedures so that women do not feel frightened.

The Metropolitan police said its officers had made every effort to investigate Clarice's claim and even leafleted tenants in Eurotower but were hampered by lack of evidence. They said Clarice refused to provide a statement, though she says she was too traumatised at the time.

The Home Office said it recognised women asylum-seekers were a vulnerable group. "We are aware of the problems at Eurotower but emergency accommodation will be replaced with accommodation centres. We have tightened up the claims procedures for asylum-seekers because of widespread abuse of the system."