London, United Kingdom – Msgana walked for three days and three nights across the desert to escape from Eritrea into Sudan.From there, with the help of a family member, she arranged to be transported to Europe. After 30 days hiding aboard a ship, Msgana eventually reached the northern French port of Calais. She was then smuggled onto a lorry bound for the UK and, she believed, a better life.
Throughout her journey, Msgana, who asked not to be identified by her real name, said she was accompanied by a trafficker who controlled where she went, what she ate and when she slept.
“You have no say once you are in their hands. You are just an animal in hiding, being told where to go and what to eat,” Msgana told Al Jazeera.
“You have to do what the agent tells you, and if you say, ‘No, I don’t want to do this,’ they just threaten you. So to avoid that I just thought, ‘Okay, I will do it.’ It was terrifying.”
Msgana says she fled her homeland in 2006 to avoid compulsory military service in an army in which female conscripts face sexual abuse and brutal treatment, and in which service is often extended indefinitely.
She is also a Pentecostal Christian; a faith banned in Eritrea for which worshippers face arrest and persecution.
Claiming asylum in the UK, Msgana was sent to a hostel for asylum seekers in central England. For more than two years, she waited, living on $45 a week in conditions, she says, were squalid and overcrowded.
On arrival she was not given any bedding or even a plate to eat from. Thirty women shared one kitchen and two fridges from which food was frequently stolen.
There was little privacy, with residents sharing three-square-metre bedrooms. In the middle of the night, men would come through the hostel, knocking on doors.
“Maybe some of the women had started doing some business,” said Msgana. “I was petrified. I locked the door but they would say ‘Open, open’. If they were drunk they could do whatever they wanted. There was no one to protect you. Even if you cried and screamed, who would come and help you? It was psychological torture.”
Eventually, no longer able to stand the conditions and still waiting for her asylum claim to be assessed, Msgana complained to the agency that managed the hostel.
“They never washed the carpets and everything was dirty. I said, ‘I am not well. I cannot live in these conditions.’ And they said, ‘But you came from Africa!’
“That was an insult to me […] I am from Africa, but that doesn’t mean we live in dirty places. It doesn’t mean we wear dirty clothes. And that’s when I decided I needed to fight for myself and for the others as well.”
‘Far from unusual’
Msgana’s story is far from unusual, according to a new report by the British parliament’s own human rights committee which accuses the government of falling short of its own standards for the protection of women within its own asylum system.
The report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, published last month, said that the cases of many women and girls seeking sanctuary in the UK were being handled in ways that were “completely inappropriate and fundamentally wrong”.
It said women had been expected to describe stories of domestic or sexual violence in front of their children or to male interpreters and faced a “culture of disbelief”.
It also said that women had been left destitute and vulnerable to violence during the application process.
“We are disturbed by the evidence we received that the routine use of male interpreters, the operation of the fast-track detention system and the reported culture of disbelief within the Home Office all result in victims suffering further trauma while seeking asylum or immigration to the UK. We find this unacceptable,” the report concluded.
Campaigners working on behalf of people seeking refuge in the UK, welcomed the report’s call for improvements in the availability of female interpreters and childcare facilities for women during asylum interviews, but said the recommendations did not go far enough.
“Women and girls seeking protection from human rights abuses fall through a protection gap in our asylum system. The result is a system that re-traumatises women who have experienced unspeakable hardship,” Debora Singer, policy and research manager at Asylum Aid, told Al Jazeera.
Singer said that about a quarter of all negative asylum decisions were overturned in court on appeal, and that that figure was even higher for women because of additional discriminatory factors.
She said any women citing rape or gender-based violence as part of an asylum claim should be offered counselling and that all women needed to be given clear information about their rights.
She also said that interpreters and interviewers needed to be trained to understand how trauma could affect memory and disclosure.
“These standards really are the basics, they are the barest minimum that we are willing to accept in our treatment of any other women, and they should be put in place immediately for all women, regardless of their immigration status.”
The report also contrasted the treatment of women seeking asylum with measures funded by the UK’s Department for International Development to support survivors of rape during civil war.
The UK has been a leading international campaigner on sexual-violence issues since William Hague, the former foreign secretary, and Angelina Jolie, a UN special envoy for refugees, launched an initiative aimed at combating and preventing rape in war zones in 2012.
Last year it published an international protocol setting out best practices for documenting and investigating sexual violence and supporting survivors in conflict zones at a summit on the issue in London.
“While William Hague and Angelina Jolie are trying to persuade countries like Somalia and DR Congo to introduce minimum standards for women who have been raped in conflict, here in the UK, we are failing to meet these standards if those very same women escape to find safety here,” said Singer.
‘They’re animals. They’re beasties.’
Concerns about the treatment of women within the UK’s asylum system have been heightened recently by the emergence of undercover footage filmed by Channel 4 News inside the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in which guards urged colleagues to assault the mostly female detainees and referred to them using derogatory language.
“They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up. Right?” one guard says.
The Home Office admitted the footage raised “very serious and disturbing allegations” and said it had commissioned an independent review of detainees’ welfare.
A spokesperson also told Al Jazeera that the government was committed to improving the treatment of women seeking asylum.
“We have made significant improvements to the gender sensitivity of the asylum system,” the spokesperson said.
“This includes promoting gender sensitivity in guidance and mandatory training, provisions for requesting a female interviewer and interpreter, and improvements to the screening environment at the point of application.”
More than two years after arriving in the UK and having made frequent unsuccessful efforts to find out the status of her case, Msgana attended a drop-in session with her local member of parliament.
When the MP refused to look into her case and told her that she “just had to wait”, Msgana refused to leave his office. Tempers flared and the police were called, but two weeks later she was sent an appointment for an interview and was swiftly granted refugee status.
Now 29, she has gained permanent British residency and does voluntary work with asylum seekers in addition to her two paid jobs.
But she says that the system remains broken, and sees many broken women still trapped within it.
“Once they put you in a hostel nobody cares. I knew women who had lived there for four years without an interview,” she said.
“A lot of people have got mental health problems. They are isolated, there is no one for them to talk to and maybe they don’t speak English. If you know a little bit of your rights you can get there. If you don’t you are dumped and you are forgotten.”
This story was originally published on Al Jazeera on 16 April, 2015.