Some clear facts and figures have been put into the public domain, thanks to a new report, Refused: the experiences of women denied asylum in the UK. In this research, 48% of women seeking asylum in Britain had been raped in their home countries. Half had experienced arrest or imprisonment. The vast majority were refused asylum in the UK. None felt able to consider returning to their home countries, as they were too scared of what would happen to them if they went back. Of those refused, more than half were made destitute – left with no means of support or housing. A quarter were detained. And the emotional impact of refusal was also revealed: more than half of women refused asylum had contemplated suicide.
These figures have received a certain amount of attention. But how urgently do figures communicate the need for change? Can you see the human faces behind the facts? This is always the problem when we talk about human rights abuses and persecution. Whether we are looking at massacres or mass rapes elsewhere, or homelessness or detention in this country, it is too easy for people to disappear behind statistics.
Campaigners are aware that we need to take our own sense of the individuality of the people we work with to a wider audience, but it often seems almost impossible to do so. In a world bludgeoned by fast, hard, visual news, how do we tell a story that makes others stop and listen?
Indeed, at a time when policy seems driven by reflecting and magnifying people’s reluctance to empathise with the most vulnerable, many people appear to almost take pride in their ability to keep the walls around their sense of wellbeing high and not to let the situation of the unemployed or the disabled or the asylum seeker knock a hole.
The problem doesn’t lie only with the indifference of some audiences; it’s also that these stories are by their very nature hard ones to tell. I co-wrote this particular report at the charity I run, Women for Refugee Women, so I know it was tough for each and every woman who participated in the research to communicate her experiences of persecution and her journey through the asylum process.
If we want to take those stories further, we are often pushing women beyond the limits of what they can bear. As one woman said to me when I asked her to talk to a journalist about her experiences of rape and torture in the Congo: “If I talk about it again I have to live it again, and again. It makes my head hurt and my heart burst. I can’t do it.” I felt ashamed of asking her to do so.
Yet it is only by communicating the individual story that we can begin to transform the rhetoric around us that condemns an asylum seeker to be seen as part of a flood rather than as an individual. I can tell you that there are fewer than 20,000 people coming to the UK to seek asylum each year, or that asylum makes up only an estimated 4% of net inward migration, but I wonder if you’d be convinced by those figures to join those campaigning for a more humane asylum process.
However, if I tell you that a woman I know called Lydia fled torture and rape in prison in Cameroon to come to this country to seek asylum, but was imprisoned here and threatened with deportation, you might let me talk to you for a bit longer. If I could bring you to meet Lydia herself, I would challenge you not to be moved by her situation.
Indeed, at the launch of the report in parliament, I saw the audience sit cool and calm through a presentation of the figures, but I saw them moved to tears when Lydia Besong got up to speak. Lydia is a writer who has fought a long – and only recently successful – public campaign for her right to be recognised as a refugee here, and the response she received made me remember why it is that, although we need the facts and the figures, it is human connection that creates the spur to action. Because it’s only if we can recognise that these women are just like you and I that we can understand the importance of building a more just asylum process in which they receive a fair hearing.