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 Tuesday, 3 December, 2002, 00:39 GMT
Needs of female refugees 'ignored'
A female refugee in the UK with her children
Refugee women: Concerned for welfare of their children

The needs of women refugees are different to those of men and too little is being done to help integrate them into society, a report by Refugee Action suggests.
Nafisa lives alone in a council flat in west London. You would expect a woman in her late 50s to be surrounded by family.

But since she arrived from Afghanistan more than five years ago she has been there alone. If you knock on the door, she'll rarely answer it.

Refugee women in Britain are frightened, confused and have no one to turn to

Sandy Buchan, Refugee Action
"She won't open the door to people because she doesn't speak English," says her neighbour Fatima.

"She's scared and we try hard to get her to come out but it's very difficult. If someone from the doctors comes to see her, she doesn't understand.

"It's difficult to translate when you don't speak her language and she doesn't speak yours. She understands British money, but that's about it. She can't even sign her name in English as far as we can tell."

The experience of Nafisa is not uncommon among women refugees arriving in the UK.

According to a report by Refugee Action, these women find themselves quickly isolated, face abuse and have an enormous struggle integrating.

Women make up approximately 30% of all applicants for asylum in the UK, according to government figures.

Seven out of 10 are without their husbands, but about half are caring for children.

A female refugee
Safety: Women arrive expecting to find security
One refugee group estimates half of the women have been raped or sexually assaulted before reaching the UK. Approximately 6% of the women who arrived in 2001 were over 50.

Refugee Action carried out in-depth interviews with women from a spread of countries including Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Kurdish areas of Turkey and Burundi.

Of those surveyed, eight out of 10 said they locked themselves in by the early evening and did not have a telephone.

A third said they had been verbally or physically abused, including being spat or shouted at.

One woman said a neighbour had flicked lit cigarettes at her children, while local youths regularly threw stones at her windows.

Reluctance to report assaults

Among single women, almost 40% were mothers involuntarily separated from children.

More than half the group were suffering from clinical depression, with the same proportion having enormous language difficulties with GPs.

For other women, a sense of fear despite an expectation of safety had tainted their experience of the UK.

Living alone or with family?
32%: Alone
30%: Husband/Children
23%: Children only
7%: Relative
5%: Husband only
3%: Non-relative
The report found enormous reluctance among women who had been victims of sexual assaults, such as rape by soldiers during a conflict, to seek help because of cultural stigma.

Almost half did not know that victims of rape could seek free professional help and support in the UK.

Refugee Action found the national dispersal programme had housed women in the same hostels as men they did not know or trust without establishing whether or not they had been victims of sexual assault.

The chief executive of Refugee Action, Sandy Buchan, said: "Refugee women in Britain are frightened, confused and have no one to turn to.

Language issue

"At a time when the government is undertaking a root and branch reform of asylum services, we urge policy makers and service providers to make practical changes, like accommodating women in single-sex hostels, and stand up for women's safety."

Less than one in five of those interviewed described their English as good.

Women at a special class on health issues
Classes: Help integrate immigrants
While almost all the women said they wanted to improve their English, half said they could not attend classes because of a lack of child care.

Intlak Al Saiegh runs special language and integration sessions at west London's Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre for both settled immigrants and new arrivals.

The centre was recently visited by Home Secretary David Blunkett who praised its work, particularly with older women.

One of the women the centre is trying to help is Nafisa, the Afghan woman afraid to leave her flat.

"Language is very difficult for many of the people we work with," said Mrs Al Saiegh.

"It's vitally important for them to learn English if they are going to settle, get to know their neighbours and even do the shopping. Without the language as a starting point, women who come to live in the UK quickly become isolated and lonely.

"These may appear small things but they add up to a whole which makes women feel safer and more confident."

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  The BBC's Jane Warr
"The majority said they were too scared to go out after dark"
  Leigh Daynes, Refugee Action
"The results are really very shocking"

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