The launch of the Set Her Free campaign at Westminster. Photo: Abbie Traylor-Smith
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496