Next weekend I’m going on my first demo for nearly three years. It’s taking place at Yarls Wood – the detention centre where women refugees are indefinitely incarcerated after arriving in the UK seeking asylum.
Our demo’s demand? SET HER FREE!
If you live in Bristol, join the coach to Yarls Wood by signing up here.
If you live anywhere else, here’s the link to the demo.
I first became aware of Yarls Wood when I attended a talk by Women for Refugee Women and their sister organisation Women Asylum Seekers Together.
I listened to women talk about the abuses they had faced in their country. They described fleeing and arriving at the UKBA. Women talked about being faced by male officials who asked them to talk about the violence committed against them. They explained how they felt uncomfortable talking about rape to male officers, and how no one told them they could speak to a woman. They said how the officials didn’t believe them. They told us how they were put on the ‘fast track’ system and how most fast-tracked applications fail and then need to be appealed. They told us how they were locked up.
As I listened in horror, one woman said:
“The physical scars from the violence I suffered in my country will heal. The emotional scars from what happened here will stay with me forever.”
Another woman spoke:
“I didn’t come here for a better life. I had a good life. I came here not to die.”
(I’m paraphrasing from memory)
Hearing those words, I felt real shame at the way our country treats some of the world’s most vulnerable women. I felt ashamed that these women came to our country to survive, and we responded by locking them up in a de facto prison.
A report published last year by Women for Refugee Women laid out bare the reality of incarceration in Yarls Wood. It exposed how rape survivors were guarded by men – forced to go to the toilet or get undressed in front of male guards, and how 70% of the women surveyed said how having male guards made them feel uncomfortable.
It revealed the high rates of depression and mental ill health, and how 22% of the women interviewed had attempted suicide in detention, with a higher number (61%) saying they felt suicidal. It gave a voice to women making allegations of ill treatment and sexual assault – 50% of the women surveyed talked about verbal abuse from staff, 22% disclosed racist abuse, 3 women reported physical assault and 1 women alleged sexual assault. And the report explained the mental toll taken on women who are locked up for no crime, and given no indication of when they will be freed, of if they will be deported.
Since the publication of the report, the Government announced that it would investigate the allegations of sexual assault made against SERCO staff. And yet, the centre remains open.
Last week I attended a talk by writer and activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who discusses the treatment of women in Yarls Wood in her book, Do it Like A Woman and Change the World. She talked about how the well-meaning documents on refugee rights written in the wake of the Second World War were ‘male default’ guidelines that excluded the reasons why women might need to seek asylum. The failure to update these documents to recognise that women face persecution because they are women means that women refugees face different challenges to men. According to international policies on refugee rights, people can claim asylum based on, for example, political, ethnic and religious persecution. But gender-based persecution – such as domestic abuse, forced marriage, FGM and rape – is not covered.
In short, refugee policy is written for men.
This needs to be changed. We know that women face gender-based persecution across the world. We know that across the world women are enduring rape, domestic abuse, forced marriage and FGM. We need to have a policy that recognises these violations as happening to women and girls because they are women and girls. And we need to have a policy that means women and girls fleeing gender-based persecution can be given asylum.
Until then our asylum system is failing women and girls. And so long as we persist in indefinitely detaining refugees in centres like Yarls Wood, we are failing as a country to protect and support some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Yarls Wood is a blot on our national conscious.
It is time to shut it down and for the women held in detention to be set free. These women are not criminals. They have committed no crime. They have travelled to the UK fleeing rape, domestic abuse, FGM, political imprisonment, forced marriage, domestic violence, homophobic hate crime, rape as a weapon of war – almost unimaginable horrors. They have travelled here because to stay in their own countries is to endure more violence, more imprisonment, more war. They travel here seeking asylum. A safe place. Maybe even some kindness.
And rather than offer them that kindness, we lock them up and don’t even bother to tell them how long for.
This has to end now.