The long road to safety: Women continue to struggle after seeking asylum in the UK
Once a woman seeking asylum in the UK finally receives notice of her leave to remain, it may be assumed their battle is over. They’ve waited months, potentially years, to hear from the Home Office about their asylum claim, so surely life will get easier. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
If the Home Office accepts the story and evidence provided by someone claiming to need protection in the UK, they will offer one of the various types of leave to remain, entitling them to between two-and-a-half and five years to stay in the UK.
Immediately following the decision, a person has 28 days until asylum and Section 4 support ends. During that time, the person needs to find a job or apply for benefits, open a bank account, get a National Insurance number, and secure a new home.
They must do it all, often without family ties or support, with the added challenge of language barriers, discrimination, and a history of trauma.
"The Government has purposefully created an extremely hostile environment for asylum-seeking and refugee individuals... This environment continues to have a huge impact on women’s lives once they have received their status"
“When women win status, their struggle doesn’t stop,” said Cristel Amiss, coordinator for Global Women Against Deportations. “Many live on benefits, below the poverty line, and in temporary slum housing, where they struggle to get doctors, schools for their kids, and shops with healthy food. Most women have caring responsibilities for children, but this isn’t recognised or counted. Instead, women are just expected to ‘get a job’. But so many women are suffering terrible ill health as a result of trauma and disabilities caused rape and other torture.”
The process is made all the more difficult due to the fact that while a person is seeking asylum, they are kept out of certain aspects of society such as employment, banking, and education, making it significantly more difficult to quickly learn these new systems after receiving their refugee status.
“The Government has purposefully created an extremely hostile environment for asylum-seeking and refugee individuals,” said Carenza Arnold of Women for Refugee Women. “This environment continues to have a huge impact on women’s lives once they have received their status. There is racism and discrimination at play when women are looking for housing, accessing mainstream benefits and trying to find employment.”
When Chichi, whose name has been changed, finally had a positive decision about her asylum claim from the Home Office in February 2022, she thought life would be less stressful. She had waited eight years before finally being granted the right to stay in the UK for two-and-a-half years and hoped her life could finally begin again.
Straight away, Chichi started attempting to get finances in order, but a delay in receiving her documentation from the Home Office meant there were multiple weeks she had no source of income.
“I couldn’t apply for benefits or get a bank account because of the delay with my papers,” she remembered.
Within a week of receiving her documentation, Chichi was quickly moved out of asylum seeker accommodation in an area of London she was familiar with into homeless emergency housing in a different part of London, where she had no community, while she waited for a permanent home.
“The accommodation is very uncomfortable, but we just had to take it because we have no other option," Chichi said.
Repeatedly, Chichi has tried to contact housing associations, her local council, and even the MP to secure a place in more permanent accommodation, she says she feels she is being ignored.
“No one wants to take responsibility for me,” Chichi said. “No one cares.”
Charities supporting women who have been granted leave to remain note how the current housing system uncaringly places women in emergency accommodation far away from all they have come to be familiar with while seeing asylum, or worse yet, makes them homeless.
“Often, women have little say about where their new housing is, especially if they are being placed into emergency accommodation, which can lead to a breaking of community ties the women have built up,” said Arnold. “Being made homeless or placed in temporary accommodation can be particularly dangerous for women, due to the risks of exploitation and further violence or abuse. For women in our network who have children, these risks are also exacerbated.”
Only months after getting her initial decision to remain in the UK, Chichi is already anxious about what is going to happen when she has to reapply to stay in the UK.
“I’m always on edge,” she said, describing the mental health impact of not knowing what her future will look like in three years’ time. “I’m not settled in my mind. I wake up every night with worries.”
"Most women, even once they win their case, don’t have any money. There is no way they can afford these extortionate Home Office fees without taking terrifying risks with their safety to get the money, or making terrible sacrifices. It pushes women into the hands of exploitative men"
Even once a woman’s initial asylum decision has been made, she has to prepare for another round of expensive legal proceedings if she is going to stay in the UK.
“The extortionate legal fees, and lack of legal aid and reliable lawyers, are bad for everyone,” said Amiss. “Most women, even once they win their case, don’t have any money. There is no way they can afford these extortionate Home Office fees without taking terrifying risks with their safety to get the money, or making terrible sacrifices. It pushes women into the hands of exploitative men. These are fees you can’t avoid or postpone if you want to regularise your status, be reunited with your family or get lifesaving medical treatment.”
Habiba equally knows the agonizing impact of only being given two-and-a-half years of leave to remain in the UK. When the 45-year-old Cameroonian was told in 2015 that she could remain in the UK for only thirty months before having to apply again, she immediately started to feel anxious about renewing the decision.
“Thirty months is not very long at all,” Habiba said. “I just live in constant fear and anxiety about having to renew.”
All the work she had put into getting her asylum application approved will have to be repeated again and again until she had been in the UK for ten years when she would be eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain.
Since her initial approval to remain in the UK in 2015, Habiba has applied twice more to stay. Each time she has applied, she worries her application might be denied. Each time, she fears she may not have enough evidence for the Home Office to approve her claim. Each time, she’s had to find a lawyer who will take on her case for free and help her waive the application fee.
“It’s very disheartening because I have been here for so long,” she said. “I should be allowed to have indefinite leave to stay. Having to apply so often is massively affecting my mental health.”
While she hopes her next application will be approved, Habiba has been living in rat-infested hostels, without proper cooking facilities or working showers, and has had to access food banks to supplement her income from benefits.
There have been a few occasions she has been in hospital and asked about her immigration status.
“When they have seen I am not a permanent resident, I have to fight to find someone who understands to get treatment,” she said.
Even though Habiba would like to study to become an accountant, she feels the lack of security and stability regarding her status is preventing her progress.
“I have to constantly prove myself,” she said. “I’m trying to get better and heal from the trauma I’ve been through, but with this hanging over me, it’s not happening.”
Once women receive a decision, oftentimes their priority is to be reunited with their children. “Refugee mothers fighting for Family Reunification are navigating a deliberately complex and expensive system,” explained Amiss. “Finding a lawyer to appeal Home Office refusals can cost thousands of pounds on top of DNA tests, vaccinations, visa fees and flights. It’s another hidden example of the brutal impact on mothers & children of the hostile Immigration environment.”
"Because of what happened to me back home, and all that I have been through here, it feels like the nightmare is still fresh"
After fleeing rape and torture in her home country, Faith was awarded Refugee Status in 2019, entitling her to the right to remain in the UK for five years. The first thing on her mind was being reunited with her four children living in Nigeria. She immediately started saving the money that would be needed to pay for the legal fees and journey.
“I was getting benefits, which wasn’t a lot,” the 44-year-old said. “I had to starve myself and borrow from my friends.”
Thousands of pounds later, Faith was finally able to bring her children to the UK. As the cost-of-living crisis continues, she is struggling to pay for everything her family needs. “We have to choose between food and heating the house,” she said. “There is just no money.”
Although Faith would like to work, she feels “unable to concentrate” with the constant strain of having to provide for a large family, the memories of her trauma, and the fear of what will happen when her five-year Refugee Status has expired.
“Because of what happened to me back home, and all that I have been through here, it feels like the nightmare is still fresh,” she said.
Since Faith was first given her Refugee Status, she has been placed in four different temporary accommodations, one of which was a container with no windows or letterbox. “I was crying every day,” she remembered.
In just a little over two years, Faith will need to reapply to the Home Office if she wants to continue living in the UK. The thought haunts her and leaves her constantly worrying.
“To be honest, there is just no joy,” Faith said. “The depression is awful.”
The only hope she has found recently is with a community of women who have been through similar experiences.
When a person receives their immigration status, they are entitled to work to both integrate into a community and provide for their families. The problem is that oftentimes, they have lost skill and confidence waiting for their asylum decision, which has been notoriously known to last multiple years.
“People seeking asylum are banned from working while waiting for the decision,” said Azadeh Hosseini of Refugee Action. “They can only apply for the right to work after waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year. Even then, the few people granted such permission can rarely work in practice because their employment is restricted to the narrow list of highly skilled professions included on the Government’s Shortage Occupation List.”
The inability to work as an asylum seeker directly impacts life after receiving refugee status. “Being able to work and access the labour market is an essential part of the integration, such as learning the culture and the language,” said Hosseini. She went on to say how the ability of an asylum seeker to work relieves financial pressures, supports good mental health, and contributes to the British workforce.
The government’s blatant hostility towards people during the asylum process is detrimental to the future of people who will go on to settle in the UK. “It is senseless then to expect them to seek employment immediately after the asylum decision is made,” said Hosseini.
After four long years of waiting, Kemi Ogunlana’s asylum claim was finally approved in 2020. While she had been claiming asylum, she was not allowed to work and felt she had lost her skills as an accountant and the confidence she needed to apply for jobs in the UK.
“All the UK companies want to see experience,” the 38-year-old said. “There’s no way you can get the experience if you weren’t allowed to work for so long.”
It wasn’t only work that made it difficult for Kemi to integrate into her community. Once she received her Refugee Status, she said charities cut off all support, leaving her abandoned to navigate housing, finances, employment, legal systems, and family reunion.
“I was left alone,” she recalled. “I didn’t know anything. Didn’t know how the system worked. Nobody told me where to go. I didn’t know the next steps. It made me very sad.”
Now, two years later, Kemi has started to find her feet in the UK. She managed to bring her three children to the UK using a crowdfunding page, she is attending university, and she is volunteering to help other asylum-seeking and refugee women.
“It is so difficult for people who get their refugee status to integrate into the community. It would be a good idea not to just leave people in limbo, but give steps to help us help ourselves in the community.”
Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance features writer specialising in social justice issues.
Follow her on Twitter: @LaurenMedlicott