We are sad to report that Asylum Aid’s first women’s caseworker, Monireh Moftizadeh, passed away recently. Having come to the UK as a refugee from Iran, Monireh became an indefatigable and pioneering specialist on women’s asylum issues. As an Asylum Aid caseworker and a member of the Refugee Women’s Legal Group for 13 years, Monireh was a key member of a network of lawyers and academics that were instrumental in gaining recognition that the Refugee Convention can be applied to protect women from gender-based persecution. Asylum Aid continues to build on Monireh’s work today.
We reprint here an article by Monireh that we published in Women’s Asylum News at the time of Asylum Aid’s 25th anniversary.
Women’s cases in the early days of Asylum Aid by Monireh Moftizadeh
Asylum Aid was established in 1990 emerging from Rights and Justice which was a human rights organisation. Rights and Justice was set up in 1975 to help people of different nationalities with their campaigns, particularly from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. It would also help people from these parts of the world with their asylum claims. I was a caseworker at Rights and Justice when Asylum Aid was set up.
Cases that Asylum Aid inherited from Rights and Justice were mainly from Africa and the Middle East with few other nationalities. Asylum Aid expanded its service to asylum seekers from other parts of the world and the caseload was gradually increased. I was dealing with Kurds and others from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. People who asked Asylum Aid for help, had either applied for asylum on entry to the UK or would ask us to make a claim for them. We would then interview the applicants to prepare them for asylum interview or would complete the asylum questionnaire given to them. In most cases we would also provide the Home Office with further representations or additional information in support of our client’s asylum claim.
The UK asylum determination process made it very difficult for most asylum applicants to get protection legally available to them under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This was – and still is – because of the wrong interpretation of the Convention terms. For this reason, a large number of asylum seekers would be denied refugee status, especially women applicants and in particular if there were gender aspects in the claim which were not yet recognised by the UK asylum policy. It was therefore, almost impossible to obtain protection under the UN Convention for such women.
Traditionally, the man was considered the head of the family and would apply for asylum; the family was with him or would follow later. Women were therefore considered as, dependants of the male applicant. However, there were women who would claim asylum in their own right.
I had a Kurdish client from Turkey who had brothers active in PKK who were in hiding. As her brothers were friends with her husband the Turkish authorities kept arresting, interrogating and torturing him to obtain information against the brothers. The husband kept harassing his wife as a result and the police started interrogating her as well, so she had to escape to the UK to gain protection. She was refused asylum but was granted ELR (Exceptional Leave to Remain).
An Iraqi woman was considered as a dependant of her husband when he claimed asylum in the UK as a result of years of imprisonment and torture in Iraq. She had experienced constant harassment following her husband’s escape from Iraq and was finally expelled from the country. She had to walk across the border with her three children for 15 hours, but finally managed to join her husband. Despite their experiences of severe persecution they were refused asylum in 1992 and were given ELR. The decision made them very upset and the wife told me that she was disappointed because they deserved full protection. Her remarks were very distressing for me.
A woman from Turkey, who was left behind with four children when her husband escaped because of fear of persecution, was constantly harassed and detained by the police. Once she was severely beaten in front of her children and her arm was broken. She finally managed to escape from Turkey with her children and joined the husband in the UK. Despite her experiences of constant persecution she was not granted asylum and became a dependant of her husband who was given ELR.
The more I dealt with women’s cases at Asylum Aid, the more I realised that the UK asylum policy was discriminating against women refugees. It was painful for me to see that women with the experiences of persecution similar to men were hardly ever granted asylum. The situation with the women who had experienced gender-related harm was worse. They usually would not talk about their problems until the last stage of the asylum procedure when there was a threat of deportation. I would then make a claim on behalf of them, but due to the insensitive attitude of the UK decision makers towards such claims, it was almost impossible to obtain protection for those women.
Despite the fact that the UN had issued a number of publications – including ‘Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women’ in 1991 – to assist women asylum seekers to get international protection, there was no improvement in the asylum determination process or in the treatment of women asylum seekers in the UK. When campaigns for a ‘gender-sensitive’ asylum policy started in Canada, the United States and Australia, legal experts and people and organisations assisting refugee women in the UK decided to take necessary actions in this regard. Consequently, the Refugee Women’s Legal Group (RWLG) was set up in 1996.
The RWLG worked on the preparation of a legal handbook with the aim to develop ‘a gendered perspective on refugee law and policy’ in the UK and published “Women As Asylum Seekers: A Legal Handbook” in June 1997 and “Gender Guidelines for the Determination of Asylum Claims in the UK” in July 1998 as well. In the process of preparation and publication of the ‘Handbook’ and the ‘Guidelines’, several consultation
meetings and seminars were set up to campaign for the publications and to convince the UK authorities to improve the asylum determination process so that women asylum seekers could benefit from the protection available under the 1951 UN Convention.
I was extremely pleased when I was invited to join the RWLG in 1996 and the experience I obtained from the work in this field helped me with my representations of women asylum seekers. The idea of setting up the Refugee Women’s Resource Project at Asylum Aid was basically the outcome of the comments and requirements raised by the refugee women who had attended the meetings and seminars about the ‘Handbook’ and the ‘Guidelines’. RWRP was set up in the year 2000 and I started taking gender-related asylum claims from around the world.
Meetings, seminars and international conferences on ‘gender-based persecution’ were gradually held by the UNHCR and refugee organisations around the world. Campaigns in support of women’s asylum claims in different countries contributed to the improvement of the asylum determination policy in support of refugees around the world and in the UK as well. The day that I received the refugee grant letter for one of my clients from Africa, fleeing the fear of FGM, in 2001 became one of the best days of my working time at Asylum Aid. I still remember her happy face when I gave her the letter.
The UK authorities became obliged to take serious actions and improve their asylum determination process and in 2004 they introduced their own gender guidelines. Once in the past, despite my repeated requests for female interviewer and interpreter for the interview of a women asylum seeker with a very sensitive case, two men appeared at the interview at the Home Office! This was so terrifying for my client that she only just managed to decline to take part in the interview. I understand that, luckily, this is not such a problem nowadays, but regrettably establishing asylum claims for women with gender-based persecution aspects is still problematic. In my view, constant and sincere campaigns are required to tackle the problem.
Monireh Moftizadeh was an asylum caseworker at Asylum Aid from 1990-2003
This article was originally published in Women’s Asylum News 133 December 2015/January 2016.