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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue