SRC Sept 2010  c. Jenny Wicks  ongoing use   0001  33
For Maggie O’Farrell’s characters, having a baby sparked long forgotten memories.

I’ve just finished reading Maggie O’Farrell’s un-put-downable book ‘The Hand that First Held Mine’ .

Beautiful but quietly unsettling, I challenge you not to be drawn into its spell. Through its parallel narratives it explores the effect of trauma on the memory. It opens with a quote by Matthew Arnold: “And we forget, because we must…”

It seems like such a simple truth, and yet it is an important reminder of the wonders of the human brain. Forgetting can be a kind of protection.

It is ironic then, that those who come to the UK seeking the protection that asylum can offer, fall victim to the other side of that coin. Many find themselves in the situation where if you want to convince the UK Government of your right to be here, you simply must remember all that went before.

Often within days of fleeing the most traumatic experiences – including psychological, physical and sexual violence or torture – people seeking asylum find themselves subjected to an interview with UK Border Agency officials in which they must reveal all the relevant facts about their asylum claim. If they fail to regurgitate all the facts – the whens, wheres and wherefores of their often near-death experiences – or if there are any inconsistencies that turn up in the telling of the story – it is likely that it will be deemed not credible. Forget at your peril.

While the courts accept that a woman resident in the UK who has been raped may have inconsistent memories of events due to trauma, in the asylum system there is as yet no such recognition. Worrying then that research on women seeking asylum conducted by Scottish Refugee Council and the London School of Tropical medicine (612Kb, PDF) last year found that 63 per cent of the women questioned reported difficulty remembering.

One in seven of the same study sample had experienced physical or sexual violence. More than half of the women had recurrent nightmares, difficulty concentrating, were fearful, easily scared, nervous and jumpy. One in five had experienced suicidal thoughts. What of the rest? Perhaps they were indeed protected by that ‘difficulty in remembering. Perhaps they too forget some things because they must.

But who will believe them?

Take action

Read our report ‘Women seeking asylum: violence and health’ (612Kb, PDF), and help us raise awareness of the findings. Tweet, blog, or just tell your friends about it.

Chris Pettigrew
Author: Chris Pettigrew