Archive for March 2015

Under a clear blue sky


by Marchu Girma, Grassroots Co-ordinator of Women for Refugee Women

Everyone who lives in London likes to take time away from this busy city, to have fun and enjoy the sun and fresh air. But for many refugee women in London there are invisible bonds that keep us bound to the city. The most difficult is the financial restraint: most of those who seek asylum live on support of less than £35 a week while their claim is considered and if you are a Londoner, you know this does not get you far. Many refugee women also live without immigration status for years, and this means they can’t leave the country. Perhaps the most invisible reason why refugee women can’t leave the city is that while your asylum claim is being considered you have to continually ‘go to sign’. This means you have to present yourself at the UK Visa & Immigration offices to show that you have not absconded; this may be every week, every two weeks or once a month.20150311_131131_3

This spring Women for Refugee Women had an amazing opportunity given to us by the Landmark Trust. We were one of the 50forFree award winners, where we were given a holiday home for a few days in a remote part of Norfolk. We were excited to take some members of the London Refugee Women’s Forum. Members of the London Refugee Women’s Forum have worked tirelessly to advocate for the rights of refugee women in the UK by speaking about their experiences to politicians, the media and at innumerable public events.   In many cases the members of the Forum haven’t been on a holiday for years.

Our holiday home was a beautiful Tudor house surrounded by green fields and only one neighbouring house. We were lucky, the English weather didn’t disappoint us, and we had clear blue skies and sunshine, although the wind was biting at times.

There were six of us who went. We started off our lives in different countries: Cameroon, Kenya, Sudan, Gambia and Ethiopia, but we all shared the experiences of being a refugee woman in London, so there was so much to talk about at the dinner table. From the funny to the harrowing, all the experiences of being a refugee women were discussed openly and frankly and with a lot of laughter. Some of the topics included FGM, detention, Yarl’s Wood and racial abuse, others were about comparing foods and cultural differences.

Our days were filled with outings to nearby cities and towns. We spent a day in Norwich city, visiting the cathedral and walking in ancient cobbled stone streets. We spent another day at Southwold, a small sea-side town, and walked up and down on the stunning beach. The woman from Gambia said “If it wasn’t so cold this would remind me of home”.

We also met women who were inspired by the ‘Set Her Free’ campaign who lived nearby. One lady brought a welcoming gift of tea and cakes, while another was an excellent tour guide of Norwich city. We also had shiatsu massage provided to us by people who wanted to make our stay as relaxing as possible.

It was wonderful to see the pleasure the women took in having this opportunity. One woman said as soon as she arrived, “I am going to make the most out of this holiday” and I think she did. One of the women kept pointing out that when she usually goes to bed, she sleeps listening to the sound of cars and sirens, but in the country side she was amazed how quiet it was.

When we were making our journey back, all the women made me promise that we will do it again. So if there is anyone out there who has a holiday home for a group of refugee women to stay, please do contact us, so we can do the same for other women who are part of the group and who need it just as much. It’s an unforgettable and beautiful experience to stand in the English countryside and feel some of the anxieties and fears of seeking asylum drop away from you.

 If you would like to offer a holiday home to Women for Refugee Women, please contact

Channel 4 undercover investigation into Yarl’s Wood detention centre


S453anV3A4EpJ3Bdy3G9zJy43LgUGrbY5P-2Y0C-WN8Tonight Channel 4 News will broadcast an undercover investigation into Yarl’s Wood detention centre revealing the abuse and harassment of women who are detained there

by Gemma Lousley, Policy and Reseach Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women

The report shows guards referring to female detainees as ‘black bitch’ and ‘evil’, making threats of violence, and showing a callous disregard for their mental health – “let them slash their wrists”, one says. One guard says he deliberately walks in on women in their rooms while they are naked. The report also highlights the appalling treatment of a woman who suffered a miscarriage and was made to wait three hours for medical attention.

This investigation corroborates the findings of Women for Refugee Women. In January last year, we published Detained, which highlighted the distressing impact of detention for women seeking asylum, most of whom have survived rape, sexual violence or other torture. The report received significant media attention.

Then, in June 2014, Serco, the private company that runs Yarl’s Wood, admitted to the Home Affairs Committee that 10 members of staff had been dismissed in relation to allegations of ‘improper sexual contact’ with female detainees. These dismissals, they explained, related to eight separate cases out of a total of 31 that had been investigated over the past seven years.

In spite of this, however, in November 2014, the government decided to renew Serco’s contract to run Yarl’s Wood for another eight years.At the beginning of this year, we published I Am Human, a report which documented in detail the abuses suffered by women held in Yarl’s Wood. We found that male guards routinely watch women in intimate situations, including while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet. We also found that the majority of women we spoke to had been searched by a male guard, or with a male guard watching, both of which are clear breaches of Home Office Policy.

The report highlighted, too, an ongoing culture of inappropriate sexual conduct at Yarl’s Wood. A significant proportion of the women told us that staff had been racist to them; women also told us that guards had physically assaulted them. 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.

When we published I Am Human, Serco dismissed the women’s accounts of their experiences in Yarl’s Wood as “uncorroborated”. And as recently as last Tuesday 24 February, the government continued to argue that Yarl’s Wood is a “safe and secure place”, insisting in a House of Lords debate that “the standards provided by Serco … are of a very high level.”

In response to the Channel 4 News report, however, the Home Office has said that “these are clearly very serious and disturbing allegations which merit immediate scrutiny,” and Serco have now announced that they have asked a former barrister to “carry out an independent review into our work”.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it’s difficult to see what reviews of Yarl’s Wood and the treatment of women there are meant to achieve. Now, surely, is the time for action. We have advocated for improvements in conditions at Yarl’s Wood, and recommended that no male staff should be employed in roles where they come into contact with female detainees. Ultimately, however, such measures can only ever mitigate the harms that women in detention are subjected to. Detention, in itself, is traumatic: the government, quite simply, needs to end the detention of women who come to the UK to seek protection.

You can get involved with the Set Her Free campaign by writing to Theresa May and asking her to end the detention of women seeking asylum. Women for Refugee Women has produced Set Her Free postcards: if you would like to use these to write to her, please email us at and we’ll send you some.

 You can also sign the Set Her Free petition, started by Meltem Avcil, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood at the age of 13. The petition already has more than 50,000 signatures.

 By Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women