Archive for December 2014

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


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 and has over 50,000 signatures.

For further details email or call 07710 348048.

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


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.