Our response to Yvette Cooper’s announcement on Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Posted 14/12/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Women for Refugee Women welcomes today’s announcement by the Shadow Home Secretary that Labour would end the detention of women who have survived torture and sexual violence, and would hold an independent investigation into Serco’s management of Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

Last year, nearly 2000 women who had sought asylum in the UK were detained in Yarl’s Wood. Evidence suggests that the majority of these had survived rape, sexual violence and other torture.

Today in the Observer Yvette Cooper announces that ‘the continued problems of holding pregnant women, trafficking victims and people who may have been tortured needs to be investigated and ended immediately.’

Natasha Walter from Women for Refugee Women says: ‘‘We are pleased that the shadow Home Secretary is responding to growing concern around the detention of women who seek asylum. We would be delighted to see an end to the detention of those who have survived rape and other torture. In the current system, too many women are being locked up when they come here to seek safety.  We hope that representatives of other political parties will also now step up to say how they would end this suffering.’

Yvette Cooper also announced that a Labour government would launch an independent review of Serco’s management of Yarls Wood. Natasha Walter from WRW says: ‘We would welcome an independent review of Serco’s management of Yarl’s Wood. It is extraordinary that the contract to manage this detention centre has been re-awarded to this company when there are still so many unanswered questions about the behaviour of its staff and its treatment of vulnerable women in Yarl’s Wood.’

Women for Refugee Women launched Set Her Free, the campaign against the detention of women who seek asylum, in January 2014. The charity published research showing that the majority of women who seek asylum and are detained are survivors of sexual violence or torture and that detention has a very negative impact on their mental health. The campaign has been supported by many organisations and individuals, including the writer Zadie Smith, the actress Romola Garai and the Women’s Institute.

Zadie Smith said: ‘We need urgently to address the outrage of Yarl’s Wood. Its continued existence is an offence to liberty, a shame to any civilised nation, and a personal tragedy for the women caught in its illogical grip.’ Romola Garai talks about her recent visit to Yarl’s Wood in a short film here.

The petition against the detention of women seeking asylum was started by Meltem Avcil, who was detained herself when she was 13 years old. It is at http://www.change.org/refugeewomen and has over 50,000 signatures.

For further details email admin@refugeewomen.co.uk or call 07710 348048.

Romola Garai visits Yarl’s Wood and supports the WhoMadeYourPants day

Posted 02/12/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Sophie Radice,writes about taking the actress Romola Garai into Yarl’s Wood detention centre and support of the WhoMadeYourPants day.

Romola Garai    The facade of Yarl’s Wood gives it the appearance of a motel stuck in a remote business park, right next to a red bull factory and a bungee jumping outfit. If you take a look around the back of it, though, you’ll see high security fences, security cameras and barbed wire. To get through to the visiting room, you have to leave all your possessions and be searched in a private room. The women detainees are also searched from the other side before they come in – and they are allocated phones that have no camera so that they will not record their daily life in detention. I am no longer allowed to take a pen and paper into the visitors room because when I was last there a guard approached me and said that he had looked up my name on the internet and seen that I worked as a journalist.

I work for Women for Refugee Women, a charity which supports women who come to this country to seek safety. I go into Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire regularly to see women who have escaped from terrible circumstances and come to this country to seek sanctuary. Instead, they find themselves held in detention without knowing when they will be released – or indeed whether they will be deported back to the danger they are desperately fleeing from.

Many of the women I visit want to tell me of their experience back home, and most of them are fleeing experiences so horrific that at times it is hard to give the calm support that they so desperately need. Like Margaret from the Eastern Congo, who was kept in a ‘rape house’ for three months by government soldiers, and who still had the marks from the chains that had held her legs open. She went to Croydon Immigration Centre from Heathrow to claim asylum – and was almost immediately detained in Yarl’s Wood, because the UK Border Agency did not believe her account. As we sat there on the fake leather chairs with the TV blaring she sat, softly repeating, “But I am not a criminal. I have done nothing wrong. No-one in my family had ever been in prison.” She was terrified of the male guards who surrounded her at the centre – so distressed that she had been put on suicide watch, where a male guard had watched her night and day, something which she said brought back the same feelings as the sexual violence she had suffered.

I always walk out of Yarl’s Wood with a heavy sense of guilt, always feel guilty for being free to go home to my family without fear – but that day I also felt so ashamed that my country can do this to women who have already suffered so much.

When I visited Yarls Wood with the actress Romola Garai (Atonement, The Hour, Amazing Grace) we sat and talked to a woman from Cameroon who had also been raped in her home country, and been rejected by her family because of it. As she spoke about what had happened to her and her pain at her separation from her children, I saw that Romola found it very difficult not to cry along with the woman. The woman, ‘Sara’, kept asking us to imagine how we would feel if we did not know where our children were. She said that she felt that she was being punished further by being locked up, and that it was like being ‘tortured once again,’. She described how she had been picked up when she went to report (something asylum seekers have to do on a regular basis), was handcuffed and taken into a van with other women. She had been told that she was going to a ‘nice place’, and was so frightened when she saw that she was going into prison that she had been sick.

On the train home Romola said that she felt that ‘anyone I know, would have found it difficult to walk away from Yarl’s Wood without feeling extremely upset by what I heard and saw.’ A few days later we made a short film, in which Romola describes her journey to Yarl’s Wood and how it made her feel that detention for asylum seeking women was wrong and inhumane.

Romola is supporting a lovely new initiative this Christmas, led by the dynamic Becky John, founder of ‘WhoMadeYourPants’. Who Made Your Pants is a company which makes comfortable beautiful knickers ethically in the UK. Becky came up with the great idea of one day (2nd December) when customers who buy a pair of knickers full price would have the option to buy another pair half price to send to a woman detained in Yarl’s Wood with a personal message.

We know that sending a present and a message is not going to free these women, but we think this is a lovely and simple way for us to show women in detention (many of whomhave very few personal belongings with them) that we are thinking about them and to give them a gorgeous personal gift. The pants will be taken into Yarl’s Wood by Heather Jones, of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a local Bedfordshire organisation that tirelessly supports women in Yarl’s Wood with daily visits.


Let our voices be heard!

Posted 02/10/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Ghadah al-Nasseri, co-chair of the London Refugee Women’s Forum, writes for us about the Forum’s performance at the Labour Party conference.

10338700_749071015130808_1007733048952383893_nSunday 21 September was a day full of hopes and melodies. I woke up with a mission to achieve and a message to deliver. I packed my bag and joined the London Refugee Women’s Forum and Women Asylum Seekers Together London members to go to Manchester. We were off to perform our ‘Set Her Free’ poem at an event organised by Movement for Change at the Labour Party Conference fringe in support of our campaign to end the detention of women seeking asylum.

I had been waiting for this day to come after weeks of writing our life story poems together and hours of rehearsing. The past few weeks were a remarkable experience for me working with the Forum and WAST women preparing for the performance day. Throughout the rehearsals, I was touched and moved by the courage of these women to tell their stories, and it empowered me to do the same and share mine as well.

We started our bus journey singing Ethiopian traditional songs. The journey to Manchester took many hours, but we were excitedly waiting for the moment to tell our stories and perform on the stage. As soon as we arrived at the conference, we were asked to go to the stage to start our performance. It was a very tense moment as we didn’t have time to do the last rehearsal and sound check. We held hands and went on the stage together believing in and encouraging each other. We broke the silence of the room by performing our poems and telling our stories.

It was such a great moment. “I remember feeling scared and uncertain, Detention is like walls closing in, Detention is prison without time limit, detention is prison without sentence, detention is you are guilty without crime,” we said, and the audience heard us. After that, we stood there on the stage all together chanting in one voice: “Set Her Free; Set Us Free”. It was a very powerful and unforgettable moment, full of pride and courage. We received very warm and appreciative applause from the audience.

At that moment, we looked at each other and felt proud of our achievement. We realised that we have powerful voices to speak out to tell our stories and make change happen. When we finished the performance and went down from the stage, we hugged each other with tears in our eyes of happiness and success. We did it and we told the world about our memories of hopes, tears, pain, asylum and detention. We did it and we asked the world to listen to us and Set Us Free.

Sunday is a day to be remembered. We spoke out on behalf of the voiceless women in detention and we asked for their rights to be given. We will continue to speak out as one voice to end the injustices. We will never be silent again. Let our voices be heard.

The Woman Called 258

Posted 29/07/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Photograph by Isabelle Merminod

Photograph by Isabelle Merminod

Abri writes her third blog from inside Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre

I didn’t know how much of a crier I was until my time in Yarl’s wood; I have formed friendships with some extraordinary women, who have been through a lot in their lives; I have listened to a woman detail her story of how she has been travelling for the past 14 years of her life and how she was smuggled into the country in a fridge. But the one that really touched my heart, mainly because of what she suffered in this country after all she had been through; locked up in Yarl’s wood for the past two years, is a woman I’m going to call 258, after her room no avocet 258.To me this woman is brave, strong and courageous, she is a friend and her strength has brought me hope.

258 was detained in March 2011 and released in May 2014, after she had suffered a lot in many ways: her health had deteriorated, she had injured her back and she is now confined in a wheel chair. Throughout her time in detention she has been in and out of health care and solitary confinement and sometimes she was on suicide watch for many days. How she survived two years in Yarl’s wood I really don’t know, I won’t be able to make two years, I can’t do it.

 I know from my 5 months experience how it feels, how much you miss even the small little things; just the other day my friend and I jumped at what sounded like a barking dog and we convinced ourselves it was a dog, even though in reality it couldn’t have been, because of where we are in the middle of a Business Park. I know how long a day seems and some days you just can’t take it, You want to scream from the top of your lungs, let me out, I want to go out! But the fear of solitary confinement always stops me.

This doesn’t even begin to explain what 258 went through, two years of her life confide in Yarl’s wood, the cost on her health, the pains of her heart, the awful memories of her past and the fears of being forgotten and the careless regard for her life., It sure seemed like human rights didn’t apply to her. What makes me angry about 258’s story is the fact that after two years of detention, the case continues unresolved, For me this is a miscarriage of justice. 258 deservesher freedom and accountability for the loss of two years of her life.

Our pain is Serco’s profit

Posted 09/07/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

Processed with VSCOcam with x1 presetAbri writes for us again from inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre

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 in Yarl’s Wood: “I could really do with some fresh air”

Posted 01/07/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

S453anV3A4EpJ3Bdy3G9zJy43LgUGrbY5P-2Y0C-WN8Abri 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

How our systems dehumanise the most vulnerable

Posted 14/05/2014 by 4refugeewomen
Categories: Uncategorized

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

AnjHandasmallpicThe 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. 


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