A letter sent to the home secretary, shared exclusively withThe Independent, said women escaping “horrific” abuse are already failed by the UK asylum system, which forces them to endure “disbelief, detention and destitution”, but the new rules would further compound the situation.
The letter, signed by leading charities from around the UK, urged Ms Patel not to implement her controversial new measures which the government has labelled the “biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades”.
Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women, the organisation which spearheaded the letter, told The Independent: “I work with many women who are looking for a place of safety where they can get a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives.
“Many of them are very traumatised and take a while to heal and to move on. As a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, I know what it feels like to face the kind of violence that means that you have to leave your country and flee for your life.
“And I know how it feels to be welcomed and supported to rebuild your life. Priti Patel’s new plan for immigration will have a dangerous and devastating impact on women who are seeking protection from gender-based violence, trafficking, wars, genocides.”
Ms Kabagabo said she is “very shocked” Ms Patel claims to care about women but is nevertheless suggesting measures that will make the lives of the most vulnerable women in the UK “so much worse”.
She argued it will be “even harder for women to access justice and safety” under the new rules - adding: “The asylum process as it stands is broken, but to fix it we need more humanity, not less.”
The joint letter has been signed by over 70 leaders of organisations working with refugee women - gaining the signatories of leading charities such as the Refugee Council, Liberty, Doctors of the World UK, Southall Black Sisters, Rape Crisis England & Wales, Maternity Action, End Violence Against Women Coalition, and many others.
In the letter, campaigners raised “serious concerns” over Ms Patel’s plans to introduce an unprecedented two-tier system that would separate refugees up into those who arrive in the UK by formal or informal journeys.
The new plans would axe the chance of permanent leave to remain in Britain for those who come by informal routes. This in turn means refugees escaping horrific violence, who arrive in this way, will not be allowed to settle in the UK and instead be removed.
Women for Refugee Women notes formal routes into the UK are impossible for many refugees to take and those who are fleeing repressive authoritarian regimes where women are routinely subjected to gender based violence are extremely unlikely to establish official mechanisms for their citizens to escape. They add that they are aware of many women who have been forced to travel by irregular routes to reach safety, including on lorries and with false papers. This also includes many survivors of trafficking who have been brought here against their will.
Campaigners also hit out at Ms Patel’s proposals to introduce so-called “reception centres” saying this was simply a new name for what is effectively the same as current detention centres.
While Ms Patel was fiercely criticised for proposing a new “one-stop” legal process which forces people to put forward all the evidence when they raise an asylum claim - a sharp contrast from current rules which allow people to submit evidence when they are appealing.
The letter states: “We are very concerned that the ‘one-stop’ process could result in many women being wrongly refused asylum. The process would force traumatised women to raise all the reasons for why they need protection at the outset, with ‘minimal weight’ given to evidence raised later in the process ‘unless there is good reason’.
“Yet there are many reasons for why women who have survived sexual and gender-based violence cannot disclose all relevant experiences at the initial stage; the Home Office’s own guidance acknowledges these barriers, that include ‘guilt, shame, concerns about family ‘honour’ or fear of family members’.”
The letter also argues the detainment of “women who have already survived trauma and violence inflicts immense harm and retraumatises them, particularly when there is no time limit”.
While campaigners note the aforementioned Home Office guidance “acknowledges” women who have been trafficked into the country could be grappling with “threats from their traffickers at the time of their asylum interview” which precludes them from talking “openly with officials” about their experiences.
The British Red Cross previously branded Ms Patel’s new immigration plans “inhumane” and argued they push “an unfair two-tiered system”.
“Last year, you [Ms Patel] spoke of your commitment to a ‘more compassionate approach’, a Home Office that saw ‘people not cases’,” concludes the letter. “However, a genuine commitment to compassion would not result in these proposals. We strongly urge you to reconsider your approach, and to listen to the women who have sought safety in this country.”
Chris Philp, Minister for Immigration Compliance and the Courts, said: “The UK leads the world in protecting victims of modern slavery and asylum seekers. We will continue to support those who have suffered intolerable abuse, while preventing the exploitation of the system.
“With each day that passes, more vulnerable people are falling prey to organised crime gangs and risk dying in the back of lorries and at sea. We have a responsibility to put the New Plan for Immigration into action so that we can fix the broken asylum system, helping those truly in need while breaking the people-smugglers’ business model.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies