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Politics

“I fled to the UK and endured modern slavery, but my story could have been much worse under the Nationality and Borders Bill”

As the Nationality and Borders Bill makes its way through the House of Lords, campaigners express their concerns that more women could be wrongly refused asylum. 

Content note: this article contains descriptions of sexual assault, sexual violence and domestic abuse that readers may find upsetting.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is quickly making its way through the House of Lords. The Bill is touted by ministers as the “cornerstone of the government’s New Plan for Immigration, delivering the most comprehensive reform in decades to fix the broken asylum system.”

It plans to make the system fairer, deter ‘illegal’ entry into the UK and remove those who have no right to be here. But over 50 women’s organisations have written an open letter to Priti Patel, the home secretary, stating the bill would disproportionately harm women and girls.

“More women are likely to be wrongly refused asylum as a result of this bill, which means more are likely to end up destitute and pushed into abusive situations,” Priscilla Dudhia from Women for Refugee Women tells Stylist.

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“It could also lead to more women being wrongly removed from the UK. It will punish women, deny them a fair hearing, make it harder for them to argue their cases and introduce off-shore processing – a serious risk of sexual abuse and traumatisation.”

Women seeking refuge in the UK don’t come here because they want to. Most come because they are fleeing gender-based violence – FGM, rape, forced prostitution, domestic violence and honour-based abuse.

One woman who would have been affected by the Nationality and Borders Bill is Cora*, a 36-year-old Nigerian woman Stylist was introduced to by the charity After Exploitation

Cora was granted the right to remain in the UK in 2021 and is currently campaigning in London for women asylum seekers to have better support after exploitation. She is fully aware of how her own story could have been far worse had the Nationality and Borders Bill been in law while she attempted to claim asylum. 

Cora’s story of seeking asylum in the UK

“I never thought I would end up in the UK; never imagined myself as a refugee or asylum seeker. But life didn’t turn out how I had planned. Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, life would have been even worse.

I grew up in Nigeria, the sixth daughter of parents who were pastors. After school, I became a primary school teacher but stopped working when my father became very ill and passed away.

I started dating a guy in 2014, someone I thought I could trust. But when I fell pregnant with his child – taboo in a culture that looks down on sex outside of marriage – he became increasingly physically and emotionally abusive towards me. He wanted me to have an abortion but I wouldn’t – that caused more violence. I worked up the courage to leave him when I was four and a half months pregnant, but days later miscarried my baby.

Then a friend of a friend who lived in the UK made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. An offer to escape all my pain. He said he would pay for everything so I could study at university in the UK. I could leave my abuser, my reputation and start fresh. The catch was, I had to agree to take his younger brother with me as my partner.

In the weeks before we left and on the plane to the UK, the younger brother made multiple sexual advances toward me. Sitting in the tightly packed rows of the plane, I panicked about what was happening and secretly passed a note explaining my situation to the person next to me. They provided me with a number to ring when I arrived for a place to stay.

When we arrived in London, I left the younger brother who had all my documents and ran as fast as I could to phone the number I was given. But I didn’t find safety. The person who was supposedly helping me ended up taking advantage of me sexually, but I stayed with him and his family for two more weeks. I had nowhere else to go. Eventually, I became street homeless.

I rang the older brother who had promised to pay for everything for me to study and explained why I had to run away at the airport. He sent me his address and asked that I come to see him and sort out my papers. I had to go. I needed proof of who I was.

I never received my documentation to stay in the UK, as had been promised. When I went to see him, he raped me. This happened again and again. The fourth time he asked me to come I said no. Instead, I contacted the pastor of a church I had been attending and told him what had happened to me. 

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“There will be many more like me who don’t know they are victims of modern slavery.”

Some families in the church I was attending were willing to give me a place to stay if I watched their children as a temporary fix. In 2016, I was offered work as a childminder by a family who offered to pay and house me in exchange for taking care of their child. But it wasn’t a normal ‘job’.

I ended up working every day, all day – cleaning the house, making meals, shopping, washing laundry and taking care of the child. I wasn’t paid nearly as much as agreed when I first started. But I had no choice but to stay and endure the threats of homelessness and fear of deportation. I knew if I left, I’d be back on the street. I felt like a slave.

The family kicked me out of the house in 2016 and I went back to sofa surfing, constantly forced to put myself in precarious situations. In 2017, I was racially assaulted at a train station in London. When the police arrived to question me, I quickly explained to them that I had overstayed my visa. But they never picked up that I was a victim of modern slavery.

Instead, I was locked up in the police cell overnight, still bruised from the attack. They told me that although I was a victim of a crime, they had to detain me up because I had overstayed my visa – they gave me papers to report to immigration upon my release.

I became increasingly unwell and was even sectioned at one point. Upon discharge, I was referred to a charity for support to help me begin the process of claiming asylum here in the UK. I spent four years telling my story over and over – recalling the abuse, the miscarriage, the rape, the assaults and the slavery to solicitors, charities and the Home Office.

Finally, in 2021, my right to remain in the UK was granted on the basis I had been a victim of modern slavery and trafficking. Until then, I was effectively a walking corpse, totally dead inside.

I had no idea my exploitation was grounds for my asylum. I didn’t even have the language to describe what had happened to me and there was no information available to me. I was scared of getting deported. So I kept quiet.

Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, women like me who have experienced gender-based violence and modern slavery may find it even harder to get asylum. If the bill had been in law during my case, I may have been detained and deported for having waited too long to disclose the abuse. But I kept running until I couldn’t anymore because I didn’t know what support was available to me.

There will be many more like me who don’t know they are victims of modern slavery. Many who don’t disclose because they don’t know. It won’t be their fault, but the Nationality and Borders Bill may make it their fault. ”

Will the bill rip up support for asylum seekers as we know it?      

Organisations, charities and barristers share Cora’s concerns about the impact the bill could have on women and survivors of gender-based abuse. 

“The Nationality and Borders Bill has been introduced with the explicit aim of making the asylum and trafficking processes harder for people to navigate,” Maya Esslemont from After Exploitation tells Stylist

Esslemont worries the biggest threat to survivors of modern slavery is section 5 of the bill. “It’s a cluster of measures which essentially rips up support as we know it for the relatively few survivors who manage to leave settings of exploitation and try seeking help,” she says, expressing concerns that survivors will be expected to hand over more evidence in their case before even having access to a translator, lawyer, or a fair chance at accessing support.

“It will give the government more powers to reject survivors from support, providing leave to remain or safe housing only in cases where they deem it ‘necessary’,”she says.  “Most worryingly, we would also see the introduction of the first ‘trauma deadlines’ for victims of a serious crime in the UK – survivors will have their cases marked as ‘not credible’ if they do not provide details of their trauma by an arbitrary deadline set by the Home Office.” 

Nationality and Borders Bill protest
Activists in London protest against the Nationality and Borders Bill outside the House of Lords.

The Home Office continues to say the UK is a world leader in protecting victims of modern slavery and asylum seekers, and it will continue to support people who have suffered intolerable abuse while reducing opportunities to misuse the generous protections of the system.

It asserts that any individual seeking to remain in the UK who has good reasons why their referral was provided late, such as the effects of trauma, will not be subject to damaged credibility; it will continue to provide housing for those who would otherwise be destitute and it will put in robust safeguards to protect those in its care, particularly the most vulnerable, adding that robust statutory oversight is provided by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Independent Monitoring Boards. 

It says people are only deported when the courts and the Home Office are satisfied it is safe and appropriate to do so.

A Home Office spokesperson told Stylist: “The UK is a world leader at protecting victims of modern slavery and this will not change. The New Plan for Immigration will go further than ever to put the rights of victims into law.

“This includes granting victims temporary leave so they can recover from their ordeal, and assist authorities with prosecutions and anyone who is referred as a potential victim will have their case fully considered, regardless of when the referral is made.”

The bill has one last reading in the House of Lords before it is etched into UK law.

“We have to speak up,” encourages Dudhia. “The government is claiming that this is what the British people want – a bill which will cause so much more pain and distress to those who’ve already suffered unspeakable abuse. Change is possible – but it begins by speaking up.” 

*Name has been changed 

For more information about modern slavery and support if you suspect someone is a victim, you can find guidance on the Salvation Army website and anti-slavery charity Unseens website. 

Or use the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700

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