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Monday, February 13, 2012
Last October, Titti Flavia saw her children for the first time in 10 years. She had lost contact with them after fleeing her home in Rwanda, where soldiers had attacked her family and taken and killed her husband, who was active in the opposition. Flavia escaped to the UK and hoped that she would find her children and be reunited once she was safe.
Even though Flavia had suffered multiple rapes in Rwanda, her fight to stay in the UK was a struggle. On one occasion, the authorities attempted to send Flavia back to Uganda even though she took Rwandan nationality when she married. Passed from pillar to post, Flavia ended up in Yarl’s Wood, the infamous immigration detention centre where she suffered from poor healthcare and bad legal representation.
“The solicitor I had then didn’t see the rapes I suffered as important. It was horrible. When you are new and you put all your faith in a solicitor, you feel that he knows what to do. You believe what he’s doing for you is what is supposed to be done. Later, I realised I wouldn’t have been detained in the first place if he had put my case forward properly.”
Flavia was helped by Women Against Rape, whose UK HQ is at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town. The group campaigns on behalf of women asylum seekers to help them gain access to information about their rights and to lawyers, healthcare and other resources.
The low standard of healthcare in immigrant detention centres has been acknowledged by the Prison Inspectorate in numerous reports. An immigration rule called Rule 35 states that anyone who has suffered rape or other torture must see a medical professional and it must be reported – because it would help their case. Women Against Rape are keen that all people detained in the UK are aware of their rights.
“Women contact us through word of mouth usually.” says Kiki Axelsson, who works at Women Against Rape at the Crossroads Centre. We work a lot with women in detention. Our statistics show that 70 per cent of the women in detention are rape survivors.”
Flavia’s story is another victory for the group, who in 2010 helped to secure Peace Mahoro’s reunion with her family after a six-year struggle. The two mothers are joint founders of the All African Women’s Group’s Mothers Campaign, also based at Crossroads. The group recently had a reunion party, where the mothers who had been reunited thanked WAR and all supporters for the help they had received.
“It was such a relief to have WAR to depend on,” says Flavia. “When you are there, talking to someone who really cares, it just gives you hope. If you don’t have help like this, your world is closing down on you and you feel alone.”
“Often women who contact us have gone through the process of seeking asylum and been refused,” adds Axelsson. “They often cannot speak about what has happened to them. Sometimes women have told their lawyer that they have been raped and the lawyer does not include that in their asylum application because they say it is not going to be believed. Those in detention face additional difficulties. The case is decided in a few days and people don’t have access to the expert help that they need.”
Flavia’s experience of Yarl’s Wood was not a positive one and the help of WAR was a lifeline. “It’s as if you are a criminal. There is barbed wire and guards and so many doors. It’s like prison. The only time you are free on your own is when you are in your room. But that doesn’t mean that someone won’t come in at any time they want.”
The reunion with her children also came after a struggle. Flavia managed to track her children down and bring them to the UK. “You worry the moment you leave your children behind. It gets worse when you worry whether they are there or not. The person I left them with was taken away and presumably killed. So they had to move and it took me three years to find them. You can imagine I was running mad. Worry has been a constant thing for me for the last 10 years until last year.”
Flavia and her three children are currently sharing two rooms in a hostel while waiting for Camden Council to find them somewhere suitable to live. She is happy to be reunited with her family – but the work of Women Against Rape and the Kentish-town based All African Women’s Group continues. “There are still lots of women who don’t know where their children are,” says Flavia. “There is that hope, that if others can find their children and win their cases, they can too.”
n For more information on Women Against Rape, visit http://womenagainstrape.net/ The Crossroads centre is looking for volunteers. For information on the centre, visit http://www.crossroads women.net/