A woman left fearing for her life after being told by the Home Office that she had failed to prove claims of domestic abuse has been granted refugee status.

Zinia, whose story was told by The Ferret as part of an award winning investigation into asylum seeking women and gender-based violence last year, had been facing return to her home country of Bangladesh after an asylum claim was refused.

She suffered domestic abuse from her husband after being forced to marry him at just 14-years-old. When he took her with him to the UK, where they claimed asylum together, the abuse continued. Her story came to light after she finally confided in a volunteer at a refugee support project.

Workers at Glasgow’s Govan Community Project (formerly Govan and Craigton Integration Network) helped Zinia flee her husband with her children but her subsequent asylum claim – a single application – was turned down.

Fearing the decision to leave her husband and report domestic abuse to the police would lead to life threatening repercussions from his family, if she was returned to Bangladesh, she appealed the government’s refusal.

Now the Ferret has learned that the Home Office has conceded that Zinia’s claims of abuse were credible.

The judge at the First Tier Asylum tribunal hearing granted Zinia refugee status based on the fact that she had demonstrated that her life would be at risk if she was returned to Bangladesh.

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The decision was largely based on readily available country guidance for Bangladesh, which the judge said: “indicates that effective state protection is, in general, unlikely to be available for women seeking gender-based violence”.

Zinia said that she felt “overwhelmed” on hearing that her right to refugee status had been recognised. “I had mixed feelings,” she added. “I was so very happy but also I missed my home. But this was what we wanted. We are safe now.”

When Zinia was refused permission she was hospitalised after a panic attack. She was given sleeping tablets to reduce her anxiety levels but was very ill for several days.

Though life is still difficult for Zinia, pains in her back and legs, which she puts down to anxiety, have now gone and she feels hopeful about her future.

“We were waiting 18 months for this,” she said. “Life was very hard at that time. It was very difficult because the Home Office did not believe me and I didn’t know what to do.

“Now I feel great because the judge believed me. She knew I was not lying.”

In its initial refusal letter, the Home Office said it was “unclear” as to why she had not raised the alarm about the abuse earlier. The Home Office claimed that photos of her blackened eyes, along with a letter from the worker who had assisted her, could not be considered as evidence that she had been beaten.

Her credibility was damaged, in the Home Office’s opinion, not only by her “failure” to disclose the abuse “at the earliest opportunity”, but also by her support for her husband’s claim for asylum, which was later refused.

However, the judge found her account “credible” and concluded: “I find this appellant is a genuine refugee in need of urgent international protection.”

Petra Hardie, from the Govan Community Project which runs a woman’s group which Zinia has attended throughout, said the initial refusal had shocked support workers with knowledge of the case.

“It just seemed unbelievable that someone facing that situation could be refused,” she said.

Though there is guidance in place which states women should be made aware they can claim asylum separately to their husbands, Hardie believes this is not always clear in practice and said women needed proper opportunities to disclose sensitive information.

“There is a real problem when you find yourself in this situation and everything is tied to your husband,” she added.

Hardie said the support offered at the community project’s women’s group was essential for helping Zinia to get through the experience. “She repeatedly told us we were like family,” she said. “The women from the group are like sisters. For Zinia, and women like her constantly living with that pressure, it’s vital to have support.”

Campaigners and lawyers said the case highlighted a chronic “cultural of disbelief” in the asylum system. Questions have also been raised about the poor quality of decision making in such cases.

The most recent Home Office statistics show that the rate of successful appeal is 35 per cent though this can vary significantly depending on the country of origin. Almost half (49 percent) of Iranian women who appealed were successful in 2015.

Some 47 percent of Afghanis were granted asylum on appeal while the rate is 43 percent for Libyans. In March 2015, the Home Office adopted Eritrean country guidance which has since been largely discredited, which saw the number of Eritrean claims accepted fall dramatically. Meanwhile, successful appeals shot up to 80 percent.

The reasons put forward by the Home Office for discrediting her testimony expose at best a shocking lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control, and at worst, a system undermined by a culture of disbelief. Nina Murray, SRC

Nina Murray, women’s policy officer at the Scottish Refugee Council, said: “The terrible ordeal that Zinia has been put through by an asylum system meant to protect her, highlights what the Scottish Refugee Council has been saying for some time: survivors of domestic abuse in the UK asylum system are facing an unacceptable safety gap.

“The reasons put forward by the Home Office for discrediting her testimony expose at best a shocking lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse and coercive control, and at worst, a system undermined by a culture of disbelief.”

Sarah Crawford, a lawyer for Glasgow’s Legal Services Agency, claimed the asylum system remained dangerous for women whose immigration status was linked to that of a husband or partner.

“Women are having to prove that they have the right to be in the UK  – which can often be complex, and particularly difficult when domestic abuse has taken place – just to access services which they are legally entitled to access, to enable them to escape the abuse. This places such women in grave danger. Safety should not be predicated on leave to remain.”

A Home Office spokesperson said that staff are given extensive training on identifying and working sensitively with vulnerable asylum seekers, and offered guidance on handling gender based persecution which includes domestic violence when raised as part of a claim for asylum.

However, a revised version of the five week training programme for decision makers, which will now include a good practice guide for interviewing victims of domestic violence, is to be launched soon.

The Home Office added: “All asylum seekers are given a range of support throughout the asylum process and we are committed to treating all applicants with dignity and respect.”

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Cover photo: innoxiuss | CC | http://bit.ly/2kPcoF4