“Nothing works in my life”: women, asylum and mental health
Posted Wednesday 29 June 2011
Guest post by Debora Singer, Policy and Research Manager at Asylum Aid
In January, Asylum Aid published Unsustainable, our new research into the quality of the decisions made by the Home Office when women seek asylum in the UK. It reaches stark conclusions about the reforms needed to our asylum system – and also shines a light on the mental health problems affecting women when they flee persecution abroad.
'Unsustainable' found that Home Office decisions to refuse asylum to women were frequently arbitrary and poorly reasoned. Too often, and without adequate justification, Home Office staff simply didn’t believe the women’s accounts of what had happened to them.
As one result of this, exactly half the refusal decisions in our sample were overturned when scrutinised by an independent immigration judge. The Home Office has acknowledged for the first time that its own data also shows the disproportionately high rate at which refusals issued to women are being overturned on appeal, and has committed to improving initial decisions.
As ever, though, terrible personal stories run beneath the numbers. And it is all too easy to see how questions about the asylum system relate to mental health.
Sanam (not her real name) was among the women included in our research. Forced into marriage in Iran at just 14, and subject to years of brutal domestic violence, she was then accused of adultery. Threatened with death by her husband’s family, and unable to turn to local officials for help, Sanam came to the UK and claimed asylum.
As with so many women in 'Unsustainable', Sanam's application for refugee status was initially refused and the credibility of her claim dismissed. The judge at her appeal had no such concerns, however, and Sanam was finally recognised as a refugee.
By this time process had taken its toll. Sanam had fled for her life, leaving her family behind, and had faced dark and uncertain delays after her claim was dismissed by the Home Office. Exhausted and overwhelmed by being separated from her family, Sanam tried to kill herself.
Tragically, she wasn’t the only woman in our study who exhibited a terrible strain on her mental health. 29% of the women in our study were being treated for depression, almost three times the rate that might be expected at any given time among women in the UK.
One woman who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo – recently described as “the rape capital of the world” – became suicidal after her asylum claim was refused. “It’s always bad news, really fast”, she told Asylum Aid, “nothing works in my life”. A woman from Cameroon could not face discussing her claim any further, not even with her legal representatives, and ended instead “crying and screaming” down the phone.
Other organisations, including some of whom have blogged recently for Mind, provide vital support to asylum seekers, refugees and others in need of mental healthcare. And 'Unsustainable' reminded us, among other things, why this work continues to be so crucial.
Debora Singer, Policy and Research Manager, Asylum Aid
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