Female asylum seekers and their children are the most vulnerable and at-risk group from exploitation and trafficking in the UK. More often than not, they are fleeing sexual exploitation and persecution in their home countries, where they are victims of child marriage, female genital mutilation, and rape as a tool of war.
These women find themselves cut off from education at an early age, and many are sold or bartered by their families into marriage in exchange for a dowry. Few ever escape, and those who manage to flee are traumatised, terrified to speak up, and unaware of their rights when they arrive in the UK.
An investigation found horrific truths
A recent joint media investigation discovered reports of sexual harassment, intimidation and abuse experienced by asylum seekers housed in “asylum hotels”. The information has shone a new light on the state of the UK government’s asylum policies.
The investigation, carried out by The Observer newspaper and ITV, found evidence that women were being exploited inside these detention hotels. One woman interviewed said that staff used master keys to access rooms where women were staying.
Maddie Harris from the Humans for Rights Network was quoted in The Guardian as saying that she had it “from a reliable source that women were being abused inside London hotels”.
Clearsprings Home Stays, the government contractor in charge of asylum accommodation, has stated that they take these claims seriously. Further investigations found that the company was employing foreign nationals and South Asian students to staff the accommodation at cheap rates that didn’t meet the national minimum wage. These factors combine to make the hotels a breeding ground for women and children’s trafficking and exploitation.
The Guardian interviewed “Angelia”, an asylum seeker from Jamaica. She had triggered the human trafficking alert system and was identified as a victim. Under Home Office policies, trafficking victims are to be housed in safe accommodation with CCTV, security and support services.
Despite “Angelia” being identified as a victim of trafficking and especially at risk, she was placed in shared asylum accommodation. There is no security and no support network in place. She is forced to share a room with seven other women, and quite often, men are banging the doors day and night.
The report discovered that it is not uncommon for random men to show up at asylum accommodations looking for women to exploit or to track down their trafficking victims who have escaped.
A freedom of information request made to the Home Office found that of the 528 safe beds available for victims of trafficking, only 25% of those had been allocated to those victims. The rest had been misallocated.
At 37 years old, Grace has never had consensual sex. She and her sister were born in a West African country. She can’t state which country for fear her family may be in danger. At the age of 15 and 17, Grace and her sister were sold into marriage by their parents to a man older than their dad.
The girls were taken to this very wealthy and important man’s home and were to become his fourth and fifth wife. For the first time in her life, Grace remembers she didn’t have to worry about where her next meal was coming from, but that was the only thing she didn’t have to worry about.
Over the next two years, she and her sister faced repeated emotional, sexual, and physical abuse at their husbands’ hands, including taking part in rituals where they were forced to drink animal blood.
After confiding in an uncle, he helped them escape and flee to the UK to live with his friend. Upon arriving, the girls discovered that their uncle’s friend had terminal cancer and would not manage to take care of them for long. He promised to introduce them to people through the church who could help them. He died three weeks later.
Members of the church took Grace and her sister in. It is not uncommon for young women to be taken in by families as a housekeeper and helper. Grace was reliant on the family for everything. She found herself at the mercy of the man of the house.
After moving from household to household, she experienced the same things repeatedly and never knew how to access support or how to claim asylum. Her sister also moved from host to host until three years ago when she disappeared. Grace has no idea what happened to her, and no one has any information. Why would they? Officially, she doesn’t exist in the UK.
Trafficking victims detained
Chinese women were identified as the most likely to be trafficked. After police raids on boutiques, nail stations, massage parlours and brothels, many trafficking victims are taken into custody and held for extremely long periods at Yarl’s Wood detention centre without any support or legal advice for asylum applications.
One victim tells how she was trafficked to the UK and kept in a house by her captor. She was sexually abused multiple times a day by many men, and if she refused or argued, she was beaten and starved. She recalled the raid on the brothel where a man in uniform found her naked and hiding. She was put into the back of a police van and driven for a very long time before coming to Yarl’s Wood, where she has been ever since.
Why do so many trafficking victims disappear?
Too many women still go missing in the UK after being recognised as victims of modern slavery. There is no provision to determine why they disengage from the services that are in place or if the services themselves are fit for purpose. The way that the Home Office handles asylum seekers and trafficking victims only seem to perpetuate the cycle.
The outlook for female asylum seekers
The new proposals for asylum seekers being put forward by Priti Patel further endanger women more than any other group. Under the new legislation, these women have to state grounds for asylum straight away, and no appeal will be permitted at a later date.
Women for Refugee Women states that most of the women they deal with fleeing sexual assault, battery, and rape cannot report the circumstances immediately because of other factors. Trauma and fear need to be worked on before many of these victims are able to speak up.
Detention, lack of security, no knowledge of the legal system and no access to support services mean those female asylum seekers and their children will continue to be the most at risk of exploitation and trafficking. The very systems meant to protect them, only endanger them further.
For information and advice on any immigration issue, please contact iasservices.org.uk
Political Outreach Correspondent
Immigration Advisory Service