The launch of the Set Her Free campaign at Westminster. Photo: Abbie Traylor-Smith
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The New Statesman Christmas campaign 2014: end the detention of women seeking asylum

More than 400 women are detained in Yarl’s Wood, despite the fact that they have committed no crime. Join the NS.com Christmas campaign to set them free. 

Helen Lewis, editor of NewStatesman.com, writes:

This year’s NS online Christmas campaign supports for Women for Refugee Women, a charity set up by longtime contributor Natasha Walter. The NS has covered the conditions at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre before, for example in this piece by Laurie Penny; this by Caroline Criado-Perez and this by Alan White. It is shocking that women who have often experienced sexual violence are locked up indefinitely while awaiting deportation, and Natasha’s work with WfRW has always foregrounded the words of those who have been through this process. Read Alice’s story below, and support our campaign by joining the 50,000 people who have already signed the Women for Refugee Women petition

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, writes: 

Everyone who visits Yarl’s Wood detention centre is struck by two things: the strangely tranquil setting in a business park in the English countryside, and the shock of then finding yourself in a prison, searched and fingerprinted. Yarl’s Wood can hold up to 405 women. Most of them have come to this country seeking a place of refuge, and then find themselves locked up.

On a recent visit to Yarl’s Wood we met Margaret*. She had been living a quiet life as a businesswoman and mother in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo until soldiers had come to her house and taken her into a prison. There, she had been tied up naked and raped repeatedly by many men, until her pastor had arranged her escape. When she had come to the UK she was desperately traumatised by her experiences. Being locked up in Yarl’s Wood with male guards who watched her night and day, was forcing her to relive her experiences in the Congo, and she was falling into real despair.

Margaret’s story is not unique. About 6,000 women seek asylum in their own right each year in the UK. About 2,000 women who seek asylum are detained each year, and this detention is indefinite – it can last days, weeks, months, even a year. Recent research we carried out found that the majority of women in Yarl’s Wood who came here to seek asylum say that they have survived rape or other torture in their home countries. Detention has a very negative impact on their mental health; one in three of those we spoke to were on suicide watch. And yet their detention is completely unnecessary; most are released back into the community.  

When I first visited Yarl’s Wood in 2007, it held around 1,000 children a year. We campaigned then (with the support of the New Statesman!) and won a victory; the government no longer detains children for long periods in the asylum process. There is no reason at all why the same reform cannot be applied to all those in the asylum process. There already exist good alternatives to detention; people who claim asylum have to stay in touch with the authorities through regular reporting. Detention makes the asylum process less efficient, more expensive – and much more traumatic for the individuals going through it.

We at Women for Refugee Women have been heartened by the response to this campaign. The online petition started by Meltem Avcil, who was locked up herself in Yarl’s Wood at the age of 13, now has over 50,000 signatures. A parliamentary inquiry into detention was started in July, and we have brought evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and a new inquiry by Bedford Council into healthcare at Yarl’s Wood. We have seen support from many organisations including Mumsnet and the Women’s Institute Shoreditch Sisters, and many individuals including the writer Zadie Smith and the actress Romola Garai. We have brought the campaign to many places including a protest in front of the Home Office, the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre, One Billion Rising and the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence.

Above all, we have seen immense support from the grassroots; communities throughout the UK are standing up for justice for women. In 2015 we will kick off the year with a conference organised by refugee women, and we will be organising actions throughout the year to make sure that despite all the hostility we hear about migrants and refugees, the message is sent very clearly to our government – whoever is in government after May 2015 - that it is time to stop locking up women who come to this country to seek safety. I do hope that you will join the campaign by sharing the petition and signing up to our email newsletter to stay in touch with events and actions as they happen, or donating to ensure we can continue the work. And then together I hope we can start to create a better world for women who cross borders to find safety.

Actress Romola Garai is one of the people supporting the Set Her Free campaign. Here she explains what she saw on a recent visit to Yarl’s Wood:

Photo: Aliya Mirza

Alice’s story

Alice* is a lesbian from Cameroon, who was imprisoned and raped by police as punishment for her sexuality. She now has refugee status in the UK

I arrived in Birmingham with a man from my country who got me through customs. That was February 2011 and the three interviews I had when I first claimed asylum in Croydon did not go so well. They didn’t believe I was a lesbian or that I had been persecuted in my country.

I met my girlfriend in Stoke-on-Trent at a Cameroonian community support group. My girlfriend was with me when my case went to the tribunal in March 2013 but they still didn’t believe that I was a lesbian. The judge said that they didn’t think I had a relationship with her.

In June 2013 I went to report as usual in Stoke-on-Trent – asylum seekers have to go and sign regularly with the Border Agency – and was shown a letter of refusal for appeal that I or my solicitor had never received.

The next day we drove to Yarl’s Wood. I was so distressed when we entered there. I was crying with fear because it is a prison. They brought me to the room and I was lying in bed and there were two male guards watching me right away. I was so distressed I was put immediately on suicide watch and male and female guards looked at me all the time, whatever I was doing, even private things – like washing and going to the toilet – it made me feel ashamed. Sometimes the male guards would laugh together and make comments about my body, saying “Look at her big breasts”. Sometimes I would curl up into a ball on the floor with the blankets over me because I did not want their eyes on me.

I was finding it very hard to eat or sleep. I harmed myself to try and relieve the pain I felt inside. I burnt myself badly on my arm with hot water and I saw other women do similar things – using forks to stab themselves and drinking whole bottles of shampoo to try and kill themselves.

When I burnt my hand I was taken for a night in Bedford hospital and the doctor there said: “This is very serious. Please, I need to speak to her by herself.” Because the guard was always with me, the doctor said “please, can you step out”. They said no, they have orders that the guard cannot leave me for one second.

I would honestly die rather than go back to Yarl’s Wood. I know these people are doing a job but at times it seems as if they are actually bad people who have stopped regarding us as human beings. I am still trying to recover from what happened to me not only in Cameroon but in Yarl’s Wood.

You can support the campaign by signing the petition here. Sign up to Women for Refugee Women’s email newsletter to get updates about the campaign and more opportunities to get involved. You can donate here.

*Names have been changed

Photo: Getty
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The Future of the Left: trade unions are more important than ever

Trade unions are under threat - and without them, the left has no future. 

Not accepting what you're given, when what you're given isn't enough, is the heart of trade unionism.

Workers having the means to change their lot - by standing together and organising is bread and butter for the labour movement - and the most important part? That 'lightbulb moment' when a group of workers realise they don't have to accept the injustice of their situation and that they have the means to change it.

That's what happened when a group of low-paid hospital workers organised a demonstration outside their hospital last week. As more of their colleagues clocked out and joined them on their picket, thart lightbulb went on.

When they stood together, proudly waving their union flags, singing a rhythmic chant and raising their homemade placards demanding a living wage they knew they had organised the collective strength needed to win.

The GMB union members, predominantly BAME women, work for Aramark, an American multinational outsourcing provider. They are hostesses and domestics in the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, a mental health trust with sites across south London.

Like the nurses and doctors, they work around vulnerable patients and are subject to verbal and in some cases physical abuse. Unlike the nurses and doctors their pay is determined by the private contractor that employs them - for many of these staff that means statutory sick pay, statutory annual leave entitlement and as little as £7.38 per hour.

This is little more than George Osborne's new 'Living Wage' of £7.20 per hour as of April.

But these workers aren't fighting for a living wage set by government or even the Living Wage Foundation - they are fighting for a genuine living wage. The GMB union and Class think tank have calculated that a genuine living wage of £10ph an hour as part of a full time contract removes the need for in work benefits.

As the TUC launches its 'Heart Unions' week of action against the trade union bill today, the Aramark workers will be receiving ballot papers to vote on whether or not they want to strike to win their demands.

These workers are showing exactly why we need to 'Heart Unions' more than ever, because it is the labour movement and workers like these that need to start setting the terms of the real living wage debate. It is campaigns like this, low-paid, in some cases precariously employed and often women workers using their collective strength to make demands on their employer with a strategy for winning those demands that will begin to deliver a genuine living wage.

It is also workers like these that the Trade Union Bill seeks to silence. In many ways it may succeed, but in many other ways workers can still win.

Osborne wants workers to accept what they're given - a living wage on his terms. He wants to stop the women working for Aramark from setting an example to other workers about what can be achieved.

There is no doubting that achieving higher ballot turn outs, restrictions on picket lines and most worryingly the use of agency workers to cover strikers work will make campaigns like these harder. But I refuse to accept they are insurmountable, or that good, solid organisation of working people doesn't have the ability to prevail over even the most authoritarian of legislation.

As the TUC launch their Heart Unions week of action against the bill these women are showing us how the labour movement can reclaim the demands for a genuine living wage. They also send a message to all working people, the message that the Tories fear the most, that collective action can still win and that attempts to silence workers can still be defeated.