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

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.