Both the Sarah Everard case, and the police clamp down on women at her public vigil, have shown how far we have to go before we live in a society where women are safe. The sudden media focus on the violence and abuse that women regularly face has led to many more women sharing their stories, which in turn has emphasised how violence against women is entrenched, widespread, and an everyday occurrence.
Refugee Council has worked for many years to end violence against women and girls in the asylum system. Women seeking asylum are more likely to have experienced gender-based violence because of their experience of persecution and conflict. And the precariousness of their situation when travelling to the UK and living in the asylum system puts them at risk of violence once again, just at the time when they are most in need of protection.
Yet despite this, women seeking asylum have been largely absent from the previous strategies focused on violence against women and girls (VAWG) over the last decade.
The Government is currently consulting on a new VAWG strategy for 2021-2024, but the existing strategy includes only a short paragraph referencing asylum.
Furthermore, the accompanying 95-point action plan does not include a single commitment to taking action to address the specific risks experienced by women seeking asylum.
In March 2019, the government published the 'VAWG Strategy Refresh', restating the government's aim to ensure that 'no woman should live in fear of violence'.
The Strategy Refresh provided an update on progress against sections of the strategy along with 54 new actions in a revised action plan. Once again, the refreshed strategy and accompanying action plan made no reference to asylum seeking women or migrant women.
This needs to be put right in the new strategy, with a focus on the particular issues facing asylum-seeking women. For example, unlike in mainstream welfare benefits, there is no option for split payments under asylum support. Such a system, of a single familial payment, can leave women from all backgrounds open to financial abuse because it enables an abusive partner to control the family finances.
In addition, provision of asylum accommodation is not always respectful of women's particular needs. For example, sometimes women who have suffered gender-based violence are housed in mixed-sex Initial Accommodation. The fact that Initial Accommodation is provided early on in the asylum system often means that women who have suffered gender-based violence are not identified.
It is also unclear what level of domestic abuse training is provided to staff working for asylum accommodation providers. Certainly, there does not seem to be a consistently applied training package for the key staff coming into contact with women seeking asylum who might be expected to act as a 'first responder' to any disclosure of abuse.
Access to services
Furthermore, while women in the asylum system have been able to access domestic violence refuges since 2019, this has not been extended to women who become Appeal Rights Exhausted after coming through the UK asylum system, leaving them at increased risk of violence or abuse.
Women who become appeal rights exhausted are extremely vulnerable to homelessness, destitution, and sexual exploitation. The new VAWG and domestic abuse strategies need to ensure all victims of domestic abuse can access public funds and vital, often life-saving support and routes to safety, as was recently supported in amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill.
Finally, the new VAWG strategy needs to set out a clear framework to monitor the desired outcomes. The previous 2016-2020 strategy included an accompanying action plan that listed a number of actions, but contained very little detail on the relationship between the list of actions and the stated outcomes of the strategy.
You can read Refugee Council's full consultation response here. Due to the increased focus on violence against women and girls, the Government has reopened the consultation process -- with a deadline for submissions of Friday 26 March.
We hope that any new responses being submitted will be able, where possible, to highlight asylum-seeking women and the particular issues they face.
If the new strategy once again ignores women in the asylum system, this will completely undermine the effectiveness of the strategy, and the principle that 'no woman should live in fear of violence'.