Set Her Free

A woman held at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre made a tearful plea by phone to a crowd of protestors outside the Home Office in London one evening in February. The crowd fell silent as her wavering voice echoed from a mobile phone connected to a speaker: “Can I talk please?”

She is too afraid to give her name or say where she is from. “I left everything … to save my life. I am an asylum seeker. Give me protection. I ask for human rights. Where is the human rights? I discovered it is only in the media, not more.

“They made me hate myself so much. They made me a criminal.”

As the connection momentarily breaks, the crowd shifts uncomfortably, people wipe away tears. The lonely, now tearful voice continues: “They made me lose my feeling for everything nice in this life. I now have died slow. They have broken everything inside me … It is too much. I am not a criminal. I can’t say anything more. Thank you.”

The nameless woman’s voice disappears. The silence that follows is an eloquent expression of how difficult it is to support those mistreated during the asylum process

A woman who regularly visits detention centres once explained the odd, queasy feeling she felt on leaving the visitor’s room. As a result, she always waits for the detainee she is visiting to be led away before leaving, unable to bear the thought of him watching her walk away.

Locked up for seeking protection in the UK

Yarl’s Wood is a 405-bed secure immigration removal centre for women in Bedfordshire. It is one of 12 such centres across the UK, which in total, hold around 3,000 asylum seekers and migrants.

The majority of women held at Yarl’s Wood are asylum seekers. According to recent statistics 1,867 female asylum seekers were detained at the centre in 2012. Of these, 735 stayed at the centre for more than one month, six were held for between one and 18 months, one person between 18 months and two years, and two people between two to three years.

The crowd at Thursday’s protest had turned out in support of Women for Refugee Women’s ‘Set Her Free’ campaign to end the detention of refugee women.

Civil servants watched from the windows of the Home Office’s towering building in Westminster as protestors with placards, silver balloons and candles gathered on the street below. Nearly 100 people braved the cold. The numbers leant a strong sense of solidarity to the protest, especially for the refugee women used to having their suffering ignored. “Set them free, set them free,” they shouted, fists raised at the bureaucrats inside, their voices angry and passionate.

Jude, a member of Women for Refugee Women and campaigner for London Women’s Refugee Forum told the crowd: “I am so glad we are all here standing shoulder to shoulder. Even men, you are here. Our sisters…they were locked up. Their crime? Seeking protection. Please help us. Let them out. They are girls, they are mothers, they are grandmothers, they are sisters. They have done nothing wrong.”

Jude was joined by a host of human rights campaigners and lawyers working with refugee women, who all spoke about the immorality of the detaining survivors of torture and rape.

Harriet Wistrich, a solicitor for Birnberg Peirce, has spent more than decade representing people unlawfully detained. Many of Harriet’s clients have been survivors of rape and torture, people suffering serious mental illness, and trafficked women. Yet all have been incarcerated despite national and international guidelines that asylum seekers should be detained only in ‘exceptional circumstances’. “This is a government that has policies that are supposed to be humane and in accordance with United Nations’ Conventions, but which are regularly flouting those conventions. Now they want to take away the means by which you can challenge the lawfulness of that, we have to fight that as well.”

Solidarity across the centre walls

The protest took place against the backdrop of intense hostility in the public debate about immigrants, a conversation that rarely distinguishes asylum seekers who make up just 7% of net migration to the UK. Faced with the relentless progress of the government’s latest Immigration Bill, which contains draconian implications for refugees, and the cuts to legal aid support for asylum seekers, it can be difficult to imagine change.

Natasha Walter, feminist author and director of Women for Refugee Women, told the crowd. “I feel that if people working here”, she points up at the Home Office, “could see the impact themselves of what their policies do to the women inside Yarl’s Wood, a change would certainly come.”

Women for Refugee Women recently published a harrowing report detailing women’s tortuous experiences of seeking asylum. Detained: Women Asylum seekers Locked up in the UK combines new statistics revealed to the charity by the Home Office, interviews with 46 women, and a review of evidence.

One of the report’s concerns is the use of the detained fast track process to assess victims of rape and torture. Fast track is where the entire process of applying for asylum is sped up and completed within two weeks, during which time the applicant is held at a detention centre. In theory UKBA should only apply fast track to simple cases that require little time to collect medical reports, translations, or witness statements. However, NGOs have highlighted the flaws of the initial screening process, during which unsuitable cases are often misrouted into fast track.

According to the Home Office’s own statistics, out of 429 women in detained fast track in 2012, 89 cases were removed before the initial decision.

For female asylum seekers whose rape or torture forms the basis of their application, the process is traumatic. In many fast track cases applicants will only meet their appointed legal representative the day before the deciding interview with the Home Office caseworker. “There is little opportunity to build trust,” the report says.

If the women are slow to reveal the full details of what happened to them, questions are raised about their credibility”, which then impacts on the asylum decision. Of the women interviewed for the report 12 were put through the fast track process. Six of these women were victims of rape, three were tortured, two had been raped and tortured, and three were on suicide watch while in detention.

A constant theme is the difficulty of being detained for women who have survived rape or torture. “One woman was arrested by government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo under suspicion of being a rebel, held in prison with her legs chained apart, and repeatedly raped by soldiers over a period of weeks,” the report says. “We know that this is part of a worldwide phenomenon in which battles are fought on the bodies of women.”

Of the 46 women interviewed, 33 had been raped and 19 tortured. Many of the women interviewed said detention had forced them to relive their earlier experiences. One interviewee says, “I thought that the male guards were going to do to me what the soldiers had done to me back home. I couldn’t sleep because the guards would come into my room and I wanted to make sure that I was awake so that I could protect myself.”

Being detained after violent persecution in their home countries left many women severely depressed. Nearly all the women interviewed for the report were depressed, more than half had suicidal thoughts, 10 had tried to kill themselves and a third were on suicide watch.

Under rule 35 of UKBA’s own detention centre rules, a medical practitioner must report the case of any detained person whose health is likely to be “injuriously affected” by continued detention, any person she suspects of having suicidal thoughts, or anyone that is a victim of torture.

But many caseworkers working with women at Yarl’s Wood fail to adhere to the rule, according a report published by the Chief Inspector of Prisons last year. It found that: “Rule 35 reports were poorly completed, and many merely repeated what detainees had said, without adding diagnostic judgments, thereby providing little safeguard for vulnerable detainees.”

The fight for change

Women for Refugee Women’s report comes after a slew of sexual abuse allegations against male guards at Yarl’s Wood, after which the government deported a key witness in the case.

Yet there is hope for change. These abuses have occurred over many years, during which time refugee women have begun to organise themselves, supporting each other and gathering evidence to campaign for their rights. One former Yarl’s Wood detainee says: “While I was in detention I learnt about the system stage by stage. I went through hell in there. But I wouldn’t let them suppress or subdue me.”

Meltem Avcil, a 20-year-old activist and student, who was detained with her mother when she was just 13, has nearly 30,000 signatures for her petition calling for an end to the detention of women seeking asylum in the UK.

The W4RW report, which featured significant contributions from refugee women, has been widely read and shared online, as well as reported in the mainstream media. The organization has long been successful at raising high profile support, actor Juliet Stevenson and human rights barrister Helena Kennedy QC have extensively campaigned for the group.

Recently novelist Zadie Smith, who visited Yarl’s Wood with W4RW last year, made a public statement supporting the Set Her Free campaign. “We need to urgently address the outrage of Yarl’s wood. Its continued existence is an offence to liberty, a shame to any civilized nation, and a personal tragedy for the women caught in its illogical grip.”

Antonia Bright from grassroots campaign group Movement for Justice summed up the women’s determination not to remain silent: “The women in Yarl’s Wood have fought to be in Britain, have left abusive homes or husbands or families, have escaped from forced marriages, have asserted their right to their own sexuality and refused to change who they are to fit in. The women in Yarl’s Wood are fighters.

“We have got to support that fight. It is worth continuing your fight to stay because you are not on your own. The part of Britain that is worth staying for is the part that is here. It is us. It is the people that are standing up for justice, for equality, for our right to be here as who we are full stop. We have to stand up together. We can be a much better society. We fight, we fight to win.”

Women for refugee women-banner

Activists supporting women asylum seekers’ human rights protest outside the Home Office in central London

The ‘Set Her Free’ campaign comes at a time when women are increasingly dictating the public agenda with diverse campaigns from ending female genital mutilation to calling out everyday sexism. And when feminist activism captures the public imagination, there are often cries of, ‘well, what about men?’ Discussing most campaigns advocating women’s rights, it is easy to dismiss this out of context of the structural inequalities faced by women.

However, in the context of women held in detention, there is a case to be answered. Thousands of male refugees and migrants languish in British detention centres too, often for years. Many experience mental illness and post traumatic stress disorder, and a handful have been driven to suicide.

Yet evidence and activism demonstrates that the experience of female asylum seekers is distinct to their gender, particularly when survivors of rape and torture, perpetrated by male state officials, are imprisoned and guarded by men here in the UK.

The problem then is not the campaign, but the system itself. When deportation cannot be effected speedily, the indefinite deprivation of the liberty of any woman, man, or child, when they have committed no crime, is grossly unjust. Liberty is a human right to be applied equally and without favour.

This article was first published on OpenDemocracy 50:50 as part of the magazine’s People on the Move platform, which seeks to shift the focus of public debate on migration.