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"The rapist is still free": How British justice is failing victims of sexual violence

This piece originally appeared on Common Space 

Amy Johnson meets Sara, a refugee from Syria, and hears her story of sexual violence in Britain and the battle to be heard. 

SARA* arrived to London from the Syrian city of Damascus in 2012. She moved to the UK to work and study and, following the outbreak of war in Syria, she chose to stay.

After the trauma of watching her home descend into intense conflict, Sara hoped the UK would be a safe place to start over. This was not the case.

In 2013, Sara was raped. She was raped by a man she knew in the British city where she lived. Sara reported the rape to the police, she gave them the name of the rapist, she provided them with three witnesses and she underwent multiple police interviews.

To date, no advancement in the investigation has been made.

Sara emails and calls once a month asking for updates on her case but receives polite dismissals and limited information. The investigating officers have changed since she first reported the rape and the new investigators have told Sara that the original officer handled many aspects of the case erroneously and provided Sara with incorrect information regarding her options and the UK legal system.

This is not an uncommon tale - the horrifying truth is that only 5.7 per cent of reported rape cases in the UK end in a conviction of the perpetrator. This reality, compounded by the fact that Sara is a refugee, reveals a chronic need for advocacy and awareness raising regarding sexual violence against refugees, both in the UK and worldwide.

Women and children currently make up 75 per cent of refugees worldwide, a figure made more concerning when we consider the fact that violence is a defining element of any refugee’s journey. Violence and persecution, including sexual and gender-based violence, is almost always the reason for a woman’s flight.

Too often, violence continues to plague women throughout their journey. Amnesty International and the United Nations have reported numerous cases of female refugees being sexually harassed by smugglers, traffickers, other refugees and the authorities which should be providing protection.

Many women, like Sara, arrive in Europe and continue to experience discrimination and brutality. This violence can take myriad forms: the indefinite detention of migrant women, racially motivated violence, domestic violence and sexual assault.

According to a 2016 Refugee Rights Data Project report, 82 per cent of female residents within the Calais refugee camps had experienced police violence while a staggering 78 per cent of children refugees in the French camps were on their own and thus exceptionally vulnerable.

To compound this situation, refugee and migrant women face barriers such as language obstacles, lack of information regarding sexual violence support mechanisms, limited access to healthcare, social isolation and discrimination which prevent them from reporting violence, accessing support and receiving adequate protection.

The details of Sara’s case reveal the startling inability of the UK law enforcement and justice system to adequately address sexual assault cases, as well as the additional racism and discrimination faced by refugee women.

Sara explains with frustration: "It's 2016 and the rapist is still free, instead I was forced into another interview to go through the whole thing all over again.

"No one explained to me why this was necessary; I just got told that if I didn’t attend my case would be closed. I do not trust that the first investigating officer did anything right.

"He didn’t interview the witnesses, he kept misspelling names. He told me that he’d tried to contact witnesses but the witnesses informed me that they hadn’t been contacted. I don’t trust that he wanted to help at all."

The first officer assigned to Sara’s case accused her of lying about being raped when she asked whether reporting the crime would negatively affect her asylum claim. Sara was angered and frustrated by having a man call her a liar purely because she needed to understand her position in an unfamiliar country.

She recalled the confusion of working with multiple translators during the process and the discomfort she still feels about the number of people to whom she had to recount her story as part of the reporting process.

Sara was supported through this ordeal by friends, but is quick to point out that for most refugee women such a support network does not exist. The isolation and social stigma surrounding sexual violence stifles many potentially strengthening and healing conversations among women.

As Sara puts it: "I don’t usually talk about this because I don’t want to hurt people around me; it’s such a scary thing to talk about. But this is happening to me. This has happened, and no one is talking about it. No one knows. Think how many other women are facing things like this."

Women deserve so much more from our judicial procedures than the dismissals received by Sara each month. Sara remains dedicated to pushing for justice for her own case, however she admits that she no longer believes her case will ever reach court, let alone result in a conviction for the rapist.

She now channels her energy into working to help other women who have experienced violence through developing online information and guidance. Sara is funny, powerful and caring; her passion for the welfare of others and her optimism is inspiring.

She has a clear vision of how the system in the UK can be improved to support refugee women who are survivors of violence. She describes how support should be culturally sensitive, diverse backgrounds must be taken into account, trust must be built up and women must feel safe when they reach out for help.

Women, like Sara, are fighting to change the way women are supported in accessing justice. These efforts must be matched by changes within our legal systems, asylum procedures, health and community services and civil society organisations.

We need systems that support women, all women, regardless of their experience or background. Put simply, we need systems that do not discriminate against women because they have been raped, because they are refugees or because they are women of colour.

In a Brexit and Trump world where anti-immigrant rhetoric is becoming increasingly insidious, we must contest the biases that assume refugees are mostly men, support platforms that allow refugee women to share their experiences and challenge patriarchal legal systems in order to ensure that safe spaces and justice systems are open to everyone. 

Most importantly we must work alongside these refugee women who have had so much taken away from them yet carry so much strength, and demand they are afforded the safety, protection and respect they deserve.

If you are interested in joining the fight to end violence against women and standing in solidarity with refugee women, please consider contacting or supporting the below organisations.

Zero Tolerance 

Chayn

Women for Refugee Women 

The Scottish Refugee Council 

The Welcoming Association 

Saheliya 

Amina

This piece was written by Amy Johnson. Amy is passionate about supporting platforms that encourage women from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences and insights of surviving and fighting gender-based violence. She works with communities (including refugee and displaced communities) to support them through crises.

* Sara is a pseudonym.

If you have been affected by the issue raised in this article, you can contact Rape Crisis Scotland for information, guidance and support.

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