The hypocrisy of the sexual violence summit

Britain was accused of failing raped women today, as a government and celebrity endorsed summit to highlight sexual violence started in London's docklands.

The summit, which is hosted by foreign secretary William Hague and UN special envoy Angelina Jolie, has been bolstered by significant press coverage, but campaigners say rape victims claiming asylum in Britain are usually given a harsh reception.

Refugee Council women’s advocacy manager Anna Musgrave said:

"You've got real progress being made in conflict zones overseas, but when those very same victims make it to UK shores it's a completely different story.

"On the one hand, women often aren't believed, and instead of being protected they're further traumatised by the asylum system.

"It seems like the government only wants to deal with this problem at arms length; when it's on their own doorstep they don't want to know."

Refugee women are more likely to have faced violence than any other group in the world, but the UK asylum system has been widely criticised for showing a lack of sensitivity to those claiming asylum.

The Home Office has been repeatedly criticised for its handling of women's cases, particularly where they have been the victim of sexual violence.

Asylum seekers, who are often from conservative countries, are expected to immediately inform officials of the rape, something they are typically averse to doing, especially if the person questioning them is a man.

If they fail to mention the rape but bring it up later, this is commonly treated as evidence of their lack of credibility.

Due to a lack of child care centres, some women seeking asylum have been reported to have been forced to describe their rape in front of their children when they attend Home Office appointments.

Women kept in detention centres often have male guards enter their room without warning to conduct late night inspections – a situation which is particularly psychologically damaging for women who have suffered sexual violence.

A Women for Refugee Women report into detention centres found over half the women reported being abused either verbally or physically by staff.

One woman who had fled persecution and rape in Cameroon for being a lesbian, described the terror of being detained again in the UK:

"There were three big men and one woman to take me away. They took me to a prison in Stoke-on-Trent and told me that if I resisted arrest they would put me in handcuffs. I don't know why they have to have three big men to take a woman away, but for a woman who has been raped it is very frightening.

"When the big door closed it brought back everything that had happened to me back home when I was in prison. I thought that I was going to be raped. The fear overtook me and I thought that they could do what they liked with me. I started to bang my head against the wall and beg them to let me go."

Home Office officials previously admitted they do not know what to do if a woman discloses to them that she is a survivor of sexual violence.

In March last year the government pledged to set up a referral service for staff to send women they thought had suffered sexual violence, but little progress has been made.

Officials have still not received training in dealing sensitively with victims of sexual violence.

In one case study highlighted by the Refugee Council, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo called Marie managed to escape authorities after being detained and repeatedly raped and tortured.

When she made it to the UK she was turned away from the Home Office because she did not have an appointment. She was forced to spend the evening in a phone box to protect her from the cold.

She did not feel comfortable mentioning the rape in front of the male official and interpreter who interviewed her and was rejected.

She appealed and the Home Office later withdrew its original decision, but two years later she is still waiting to find out what will happen to her. She later tried to commit suicide and is now receiving support from a specialist charity.

She said:

"The first person I met from the Home Office shouted at me and told me I’d be sent back to my own country.

"I was terrified; I didn’t have anyone or anywhere to go. There have been times I have had to sleep on the street and beg for money; relying on the kindness of strangers for help.

"When I got here, I didn’t want to talk about what had happened to me in my home country, especially not to a man I’d just met. When I do tell people what happened to me, it’s like they don’t believe me. But you don’t make up scars like mine.

"Not knowing what’s going to happen is the hardest thing; I have trouble sleeping and I’m on anti depressants.

"The government just doesn’t seem to care. I hope other women don’t have to go through what I’ve been through."

The four day summit taking place at the ExCel centre in London will see actors, artists and film-makers rub shoulders with political leaders, lawyers and victims of sexual violence as they appeal for global action to end rape in conflict.