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Set Her Free: Ending the detention of women who seek asylum

Categories: Publications

By Gemma Lousely, Policy and Research coordinator at Women for Refugee Women

On 14th January around 250 people, including refugee women, grassroots activists and campaigners gathered at Amnesty’s Human Rights Action Centre in London for the first ever National Refugee Women’s Conference. The conference marked the end of a successful first year for the Set Her Free campaign to end the detention of women seeking asylum, but it was shaped, also, by the recognition that the pressure must be kept up to achieve real change, and that much remains to be done.


The energy, anger and determination behind the campaign were palpable as the opening speakers addressed the conference, including Rahela Sidiqui, Chair of the London Refugee Women’s Forum, Meltem Avcil, founder of the Set Her Free petition, and Maimuna Jawo, also of the London Refugee Women’s Forum. Following a panel discussion on the progress of the campaign, the conference hosted a performance by Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) Manchester which dramatised women’s experiences of seeking asylum and being detained, including their song ‘Shut Down Yarl’s Wood’. In the afternoon, workshops on areas such as direct action and protest, campaigning using the arts and online campaigning developed ideas to move the campaign forward.

Broad political support – both Labour’s Stella Creasy and the Conservative MP Richard Fuller spoke during the morning session of the conference – was matched by the wide range of attendees, from refugee and asylum seeker groups to women’s groups and campaigns, including the Women’s Institute, No More Page 3 and campaigners against FGM Daughters of Eve.

The campaign so far
The Set Her Free campaign began in January 2014 with the parliamentary launch of Women for Refugee Women’s (WRW) report Detained, which highlighted the routine use of detention for survivors of rape and sexual violence and the trauma and distress caused by the experience of detention to women refugees. Hosted by Stella Creasy and supported by Richard Fuller and Labour MP Steve Reed, speakers at the launch included playwright Lydia Besong, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood, and Meltem Avcil who, following her detention in Yarl’s Wood as a 13-year-old and her involvement in the campaign to end the detention of children, started a petition to end the detention of refugee women which has now gathered more than 50,000 signatures. In December 2014, Meltem was recognised by Liberty as their Young Campaigner of the Year, and presented with her award by Doreen Lawrence.

The campaign quickly gathered momentum as, in February, hundreds of campaigners and supporters gathered outside the Home Office for the Shine a Light protest; alongside significant media attention, the protest also attracted the support of writer Zadie Smith, who described Yarl’s Wood as “an offence to liberty, a shame to any civilised nation, and a personal tragedy for the women caught in its illogical grip”. In the same month, Rahela Sidiqui spoke alongside Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper at One Billion Rising in Trafalgar Square.

In June, the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) London attended the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, taking with them the solidarity quilt completed with the Women’s Institute Shoreditch Sisters, which is stitched with messages of support for women in detention. Angelina Jolie – who co-chaired the summit with then Foreign Secretary, William Hague – spoke with the Forum’s secretary Jade Amoli-Jackson and wrote a message for the quilt, which is now stitched into its centre: “We love and support you. We admire your strength.”

In July, Maimuna Jawo gave evidence to the first ever parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention, set up and led by Sarah Teather MP, which is due to publish its final report shortly. In September, the London Refugee Women’s Forum opened the Labour Party conference fringe with a performance of their poem ‘Set Her Free’; in the same month, members of Women in Hope addressed the Green Party conference. In November WRW gave evidence to Bedford Council’s inquiry into healthcare in Yarl’s Wood, and to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into violence against women and girls. It’s important, too, to highlight the ongoing campaigning activities across the country, including WAST Manchester’s ‘Shut Down Yarl’s Wood’ demonstrations in Manchester city centre.

In December Yvette Cooper announced that, if elected in 2015, Labour will end the detention of survivors of sexual violence, those who have been tortured and women who are pregnant. She also pledged an independent investigation into Yarl’s Wood, focusing on the repeated allegations of sexual abuse of women by guards under Serco’s management (in spite of these allegations, it was announced in November 2014 that Serco’s contract to run Yarl’s Wood has been renewed for another eight years). Welcoming these commitments, WRW called on other political parties to set out how they would end the suffering of women who are locked up when they come to the UK to seek safety.

Keeping the pressure up: The need for real change

While the successes of the campaign’s first year are clear, WRW’s new report, launched at the National Refugee Women’s Conference, points to the importance of maintaining momentum and effecting substantive change in the treatment of women who seek asylum. Following on from Detained, I Am Human explores further refugee women’s experiences of detention: it finds that, although the majority of the 38 women we spoke to (a third of whom were in detention at the time of interview) were survivors of rape or other sexual violence, they were routinely watched and searched by male guards in Yarl’s Wood.

More than 85% of the women we spoke to told us that male guards saw them in intimate situations, including while they were naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet. This happens when male guards enter women’s rooms without knocking, a practice that has also been documented by the Chief Inspector of Prisons; it also happens when women who are deemed to be so mentally distressed that they are placed on suicide watch, or ‘constant supervision’, are watched by male guards. When we published Detained, the Home Office denied that male guards would see women detainees in intimate situations, insisting that ‘male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm’. I Am Human highlights, however, that such a practice is both routine and ongoing.

The majority of women also told us that they had experienced being searched while a male guard watched, or that they had been subjected to a rub-down search by a male guard, both of which are breaches of Home Office policy. Disturbingly, two women told us that they had been strip-searched by male guards (one of these instances happened at Colnbrook, a detention centre near Heathrow). The report points, too, to an ongoing culture of inappropriate sexual conduct and exploitation at Yarl’s Wood. Six of the women who spoke to us said that a member of staff had made a sexual suggestion to them, and three said that they were touched sexually. Unsurprisingly, but nevertheless shockingly, half of the women we interviewed had been on suicide watch while in detention and 40% said they had self-harmed.

Attendees at January’s conference agreed collective actions, including writing to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to draw her attention to the findings of I Am Human and to ask her to meet with Women for Refugee Women to discuss these and the report’s recommendations for change. There was also a real appetite for protest – for a physical demonstration of opposition to the continuing existence of Yarl’s Wood, and a show of solidarity with the women who are held there – and this is something we will be developing over the coming months. As the general election looms closer, there is a keen awareness that much remains to be achieved, but it is matched by the determination and voice of the campaign to end the detention of refugee women.

To find out more about the Set Her Free campaign to end the detention of women seeking asylum and to get involved, go to Women for Refugee Women’s website.

The Set Her Free petition, started by Meltem Avcil, gained more than 50,000 signatures in its first year. You can sign the petition here.

This article was originally published in Women’s Asylum News 129 January/February 2015.

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