Today I would like to share some personal experiences and those of fellow detainees, with the hope that we can get people to stand in solidarity with us while we wait for justice.
Our daily experiences in Yarl’s Wood detention centre are far from the description on the Serco’s website which says that they ‘focus on decency and respect in all aspects of care for our residents and use continuous innovation to further improve and develop our service.’ For us Yarl’s Wood is a prison and we are treated like criminals and sometimes even worse.
Recently I had an unpleasant experience that left me embarrassed and humiliated. It was on a Sunday morning around 9 o’clock in the morning. I was in bed suffering from a bad toothache, when officers (three male and one female) opened the door and let themselves in my room. I was ordered to get up and get dressed as they were doing room search. I asked if they could do it at some other time in the day, as I was too tired and in pain. They showed no compassion, called the managers and said I was being difficult. Two male managers came to talk to me, and concluded I was faking the toothache and went ahead with the room search. I was in bed in pain, half naked, with five male officers and one female in my room. They went through my all my clothes with male officers touching my underwear and talking about me as though I wasn’t in the room. They also mucked around and made fun of me. At the end of the room search they found nothing. What makes me angry about the whole thing is the fact that everything in my room was provided by Serco including the clothes as all my personal belongings were confiscated the day I arrived. What they were looking for I don’t know. That day I did not leave the room, and didn’t even go for meals, I just stayed in bed crying and feeling violated.
Really things are not as they seem, to Serco we have a price tag, we are part of million pound business deals, and our pain is Serco’s profit, And while we are in these premises they have the power to do as they will with us, because after all we are just parcels that need to be sent to a different address by all means necessary. And they call this justice?
Today I would like to share some personal experiences and those of fellow detainees, with the hope that we can get people to stand in solidarity with us while we wait for justice.
Abri sends us her thoughts from inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire
I carry scars deep down within me where no one can touch or see. I was forced to run and flee for my life. The fact that I am a woman made me a victim of sexual assault in my home country. Now I’m locked up 24/7 indefinitely in Yarl’s Wood, the future is uncertain and deep inside me the voice of hope is daily fading away. I’m separated from family and everything that is normal. I can’t plan for tomorrow because I don’t know where my tomorrow is. My soul cries for justice , my heart is searching for hope and my body simply wants a walk in the park. It’s been more than four months confined in this building and I could really do with some fresh air.
I’m one of the women detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and these are not just my feelings, I’m voicing the feelings of many women like me who have been detained indefinitely for months or years. It is hard to put in words what it feels like. Every day something very valuable is taken from us- our freedom. You eat for comfort and sleep to escape, but struggle with both. Thoughts of failure, shame, guilt and defeat fill your mind. You have become so helpless you can’t even choose your dinner as decisions are made for you daily. You lose touch with humanity and start to feel that human rights don’t apply to you. I mean, all you ever wanted was to be a part of a community where you can feel safe and be free to be yourself. Is that a crime?
While our cases are pending, the government has confined us in this building with our scars and all. We all have a chance of winning our cases, and I have seen many do that. And that for me this makes detention meaningless, because most of the women detained here are not going to be removed and that’s a fact. Then that leads me to ask the question – is locking people up for months and even years for administrative convenience even lawful?
The writer’s name has been changed
Anj Handa, who has recently been leading the campaign for Afusat, shares with us her recent blog about the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in the UK
The UK has signed up to international agreements such as the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and while it is party to these directives, it must consider applications for asylum. What our system does not appear to offer, is the right to dignity or compassion while people await their decisions.
Many have experienced extreme trauma in their countries of origin, which is why they are seeking protection in the first place. The harshness with which they are treated has shocked me. Of course, the UK cannot offer every single applicant leave to remain, but it can make the process less traumatic.
Afusat, for example, has used her Christian faith to keep her going. She has depression and I’ve witnessed some very low times, but her beliefs and her concern for her girls have kept her afloat. She tells me that she’s seen those who lack spirituality to offer them succour, rapidly decline. Often, they begin talking to themselves as they have no higher entity to appeal to, and very limited networks from whom to draw emotional support.
I recently received an email from a lady whose experience is similar to Afusat’s. She tells it far better than I can, so here is her account below:
“Anj, I don’t know if there is any advice you can give to me, but I just felt like sharing my story. The more people know about what asylum seekers go through, the better. No one seeking refuge should have to go through what we are going through all, in the name of not having enough evidence. What evidence is there of rape [that took place in the past]?
I was on the internet, when I came across the story of Afusat Saliu and I was just so shocked on how similar our stories are. It which just goes to show that these are the things happening to us, which the Home Office is refusing to believe. There is just possibly no way anyone can make these sorts of stories up.
I claimed asylum in 2010, because my life is in danger from my evil stepfather, who beat my mother into an early grave. I was lucky to have survived his repeated violence and rape on myself, but he then decided to circumcise my daughter, who was two years’ old at the time.
My case dragged on. All the while, I was an emotional wreck, with every knock on the door and the sound of the letterbox adding more and more to my psychological trauma. I was diagnosed as depressed and started on antidepressants.
Then I got a refusal from the Home Office saying I was not credible enough. I appealed against the decision but was still overturned in court. The Judge believed what I said. She said she did not want my daughter to hear my story of rape and circumcision.
I have undergone a lot of changes since I got to this country. My English was very basic and I was just a young naive girl who didn’t believe in herself. I have been constantly told that I am useless and won’t amount to anything in life.”
This lady’s story is unfortunately too common. I’m pleased that she reached out to me as although I couldn’t offer her much advice, I was able to show her love and care. There are some lines from Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Dictator’s Speech, which feel appropriate to end with:
“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural!”
This blog is reprinted with permission from Anj Handa’s website.
Lauren Fuzi of the Shoreditch Sisters Women’s Institute describes the incredible journey of the Solidarity Quilt.
Back in October 2013 the Shoreditch Sisters branch of the Women’s Institute was contacted by Women for Refugee Women. They asked if we would like to run a craft workshop for a group of refugee women. At that time I was the newly appointed ‘Feminist Outreach Officer’ for our WI (a completely made up position, but one that I was very proud to have taken on!). Part of my role was to build relationships with other local women’s groups, so I was glad to be able to take this opportunity forward. This was how the ‘Knitted Together’ project was born, which has now culminated in the creation of a beautiful patchwork blanket sewn with messages of hope and solidarity. It is not only the product of our shared work, but also a deeply symbolic and meaningful piece of art.
We started off by meeting every other Saturday to teach each other how to knit. We did not have a clear purpose beyond that for the workshops when we first started, but we realised from the start that we wanted t to use craft as a way of building a strong community of women. As the group evolved so did our ideas and the Knitted Together concept was born.
We decided to knit small squares, 10cm by 10cm each, and join them to make a giant quilt. The quilt would be a symbol of our solidarity with the women in Yarl’s Wood. I, like other members of the Shoreditch Sisters, was very struck by what we learned about women who are locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. These women are not criminals, but often very vulnerable individuals who have fled persecution in their own countries and come to the UK to seek refuge. It seems deeply unjust that the government is locking up these survivors of rape and other torture, often for many weeks or months, when they could easily process their claims while the women are living in the community.
We knitted the squares during the group sessions but also asked other Women’s Institutes and members of the public to contribute. London West End WI and Sudbury WI both contributed a large number of squares, as did a few members of the public. We then took the blanket to the Women of the World (WOW) Festival on International Women’s Day (8 March 2014) and laid it out on the floor of the Royal Festival Hall, where we invited members of the public to write messages of support on pieces of fabric for the women in Yarl’s Wood which were then sewn on.
The Saturday group has been my favourite part of the process. It has been wonderful to see how the traditional female craft of knitting has brought women together from so many different backgrounds, cultures, religions and languages; there is something special about female craft which seems to transcend these barriers. Although hugely inspiring, coordinating the group has also very challenging! So often in craft (and life) we are taught to follow patterns and rules. We always go back over our mistakes to correct them and strive for the end product to be as close to perfect as possible. In creating the Knitted Together blanket I have had to learn to let go of these ideas, and to trust in the process of co-creation. Enforcing strict rules on the size, colour, shape and style would have been impossible, and I’m extremely grateful for that! There are over 400 knitted squares on the blanket, and its beauty and strength lies in the absolute uniqueness of each one.
The blanket is now in Yarl’s Wood detention centre where it will stay over Easter. I went with a small group to deliver it during a Sunday church service given by the Yarl’s Wood chaplain who had kindly agreed to enable us to bring in the quilt.
It’s hard to write with any clarity about my experience at Yarl’s Wood as it feels so surreal and confusing. At times it felt like a regular Sunday morning in any church hall in the UK. The familiar sights were there: the pastor at the pulpit, a choir dressed in blue, bibles, and people with hands clasped in prayer. Then I’d see the guards at the side of the room, the locked doors, the overwhelming feeling of desperation as the congregation pleaded to God. There was no tea and biscuits or socialising at the end and people were not going home after the service for Sunday lunch. From the very limited time we had at Yarl’s Wood it seems that people were very interested in the blanket and especially in the Women’s Institute. One woman cried as I spoke about the blanket and about all the people who had contributed to it. It felt so important to show the women in Yarl’s Wood, through the powerful symbol of the blanket, that they have not been forgotten.
We hope to continue using the blanket as a campaigning tool, raising awareness of women’s experiences in Yarl’s Wood and encouraging members of the public to take action against the detention of women asylum seekers. If you are interested in this and would like the quilt to visit your own local Women’s Institute or community group, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
On 13 February hundreds of campaigners gathered outside the Home Office in London to protest against the detention of women who seek asylum in the UK. Women for Refugee Women had called this gathering to ‘Shine a Light’ on the detention of refugee women, and protesters brought torches, sparklers and glowsticks to light up the evening.
Among the inspiring speakers were Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty; Caroline Criado-Perez, feminist campaigner; Kate Smurthwaite, comedian and activist, and Meltem Avcil, whose petition against the detention of refugee women now has over 25,000 signatures.
One of the most moving moments of the evening was when Ghada Shakir Humood (pictured right), a member of the London Refugee Women’s Forum, telephoned a friend of hers in Yarl’s Wood and everyone in the crowd could hear the voice of a woman currently detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre:
‘I am an internationally recognised human rights activist. But the Home Office has treated me like a criminal. I went on hunger strike when they brought me into Yarls Wood Detention Centre, I lost my ability to move and speak and even the will to live.
‘I have claimed asylum under article 14 of the international declaration of human rights, which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. I fear for my life in my country. I left everything behind, my career and my family, to save my life and live in peace.
‘I requested protection from this country but they put me in detention and they wanted to send me back to my country by force. This is injustice. They did not respect that I am a woman and I have depression and come from a severe war zone. This is inhumane.
‘This experience shocked me and made me lose hope. Now I don’t have any desire to live and I am dying slowly from inside. They have broken everything inside me.
‘I am not a criminal, why have they locked me up for two months? Many organizations have sent them many support letters to explain my case but they have ignored them all. They ignore my previous humanitarian work, they ignore my academic background, they ignore all my evidence.
‘I can’t say anything more. I only can say that I am completely destroyed in the UK.’
On Wednesday 8 January Rahela Sidiqi joined actress Thandie Newton, lawyer Helena Kennedy, campaigner Eve Ensler and Stella Creasy MP at the Royal Festival Hall in London to discuss justice for women. This event had been organised by One Billion Rising UK and opened to a packed and expectant audience which included Bianca Jagger, human rights activist; Skin, lead vocalist of Skunk Anansie, and Nimco Ali from Daughters of Eve.
Rahela Sidiqi is a trustee of Women for Refugee Women and the chair of the London Refugee Women’s Forum. She was an activist for women’s rights for more than 15 years in Afghanistan before she was forced to seek asylum in the UK.
Rahela spoke about her experiences in Afghanistan, where she stood up for women’s rights even when she was being threatened by the Taliban and warlords. She then spoke about coming to the UK to seek asylum and the injustices that are experienced by women who have to cross borders to seek safety. ‘Half of women who come here for asylum have been raped,’ she told the audience.
Rahela talked about visiting Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedford, where she met women who have sought asylum in this country and yet have been locked up in detention. As Rahela said, ‘If someone is a criminal they are given a sentence and they know how long they will be in prison. But if someone is put in detention after they seek asylum, they don’t know how long they will be locked up. It is not right to put women through this. They suffer in this situation.’
Stella Creasy spoke after Rahela, and also after the audience had heard from Marissa Begonia, the co-ordinator of Justice for Domestic Workers, and Sophie Barton-Hawkins, an ex-offender. Stella said about their stories: ‘This is not the Britain I want to live in. I want to live in a better Britain than this.’
On 29 January Women for Refugee Women will publish new research on the experiences of women in detention in the UK. Stella Creasy will host the Parliamentary reception for this launch, and she said: ‘We need to hear these women’s stories. Let’s give a voice to this report.’
Rahela Sidiqi also asked the panel and the audience if they would support a One Billion Rising action in solidarity with women who are detained in Yarl’s Wood on 13 February. The answer was a resounding yes – let’s rise!
For more information about Women for Refugee Women’s forthcoming research, please contact Sophie Radice on email@example.com. For more information on the action at Yarl’s Wood, follow @4refugeewomen and @obruk_1, or check back on this blog.
Isabelle Kershaw, a volunteer with Women for Refugee Women, writes here about making Christmas cards for women in detention
Recently we all sat down – volunteers, staff and refugee women – to make Christmas cards for women who are locked up in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Women who seek asylum can be locked up in detention in the UK and it can be a very isolating and distressing experience. We wanted these cards to show our ongoing support for these women as we campaign against detention. Many of the women in the refugee women’s group, Women Asylum Seekers Together London, have had experience of detention at Yarl’s Wood so for them, making these cards had a special kind of significance.
London is clothed with festivity and with the air getting chillier, things are starting to fizz with that holiday excitement. For the women at Yarl’s Wood, the Christmas period will be a very different experience. As one of the WAST women, who was held there last year, said ‘Christmas is just not Christmas.’ A Christmas away from friends and family is hard enough. A Christmas at Yarl’s Wood can be quite desperate. It is a place where vulnerable women are treated like criminals, having committed no crime, and are uncertain as to when they will be released. Another of the WAST women said that she would not wish detention on her worst enemy.
Over the previous week I had scrabbled together bits of coloured card, festive wrapping paper, sequins, buttons and a mountain of glitter. Not quite sure what would emerge from the sparkling deluge, we were armed with two fantastically capable volunteers who led the way and devised a lovely concept.
Each of the women was given a small card to design, which would then be fitted together onto one big card to create a mosaic of their support.
We had a great day, the women were very creative in their designs and out of the glitter arose something powerful and poignant. Some of the women designed their cards to be bright and diverting and other cards were powerful in their simplicity. One of the cards read ‘Love’ and above it ‘never lose hope.’ These words of support really ring out amid the colourful designs.
We took the cards to Yarl’s Wood and hope that this small gesture of love and support reminded the women there that they are not forgotten or alone. There are women outside the detention centre, some of whom have experience of detention, who want to stand up for them and work for the release of all those who have sought asylum in the UK.
Watch our short film about making the Christmas cards here.