Why we must end the detention of female asylum seekers in the UK

We must believe these women when they tell us they would never have left their home, their family, their country, if they had a choice, and we must demonstrate this belief by telling our government that they must not be locked up.

“I took Yarl’s Wood with me to Manchester. Sometimes. . . I hear the footsteps of the officers, I hear the banging of the doors and the sound of their keys.” These are the words of Lydia Besong, from Cameroon, who spoke yesterday at the launch of Women For Refugee Women’s latest report, which calls for an end to the detention of female asylum seekers. Lydia told a packed room in Portcullis House how she fled torture in her own country, the scars still visible on her legs, and came to where she thought she would be free. Where she would be safe. And as she spoke about how she was not believed, how she was refused asylum, how she was released and then detained, released and then detained; how she saw no end to her misery, how she was put on suicide watch, and unable to escape the eyes of the male guard observing her every move, the woman sitting next to me started to weep. She had been through this too.

Detained makes for shameful reading. It tells a story of crimeless imprisonment. A story of roll-calls, of routine indefinite detention. Of women who have been raped, often by police and prison guards, only to find themselves placed under 24/7 watch by men, ostensibly for their own protection, to stop them harming themselves. As if being watched by men whose position makes them seem indistinguishable from the men who raped them at home, is not harm in itself.

In response to the report released by Women for Refugee Women, a Home Office spokesperson released a quote saying nothing and everything. The usual claims of taking welfare seriously, of having a complaints procedure. They pointed to their guidelines which stipulate that male guards should not “supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self harm”, and observed that during a recent “independent inspection and follow up visit involving confidential interviews at Yarl's Wood IRC by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, this [male guards observing female inmates] was not raised as a concern.”

So what are we to make of the woman who fled Uganda, where she had been imprisoned and repeatedly raped by prison guards, who said, “When I was on suicide watch the door was left open even when I went to the toilet, and a male guard was watching me”. What are we to make of her claims in the light of a culture of disbelief, where all but one of the women in the report had initially been refused asylum. “They don’t believe you. They ask you 500 questions and they ask the same question in a slightly different way and if you don’t answer them all exactly the same, they say that you are lying.”

Over 85 per cent of the women in the Women for Refugee Women report have been raped or tortured. And so, the Home Office stands accused of breaching the United Nations Commission On Human Rights’s guidelines (pdf), section 9.1 of which states that “victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence need special attention and should generally not be detained.” It stands accused of inhumane treatment of victims of torture, being one of the few countries in Europe that still allows indefinite detention. It stands accused of causing depression, psychosis, trauma, flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts in victims of torture. It stands accused of imprisoning women forever – even after they are eventually physically released: “Even though I'm free now, I feel I will never escape detention.”

At the end of the speeches, all the women in the room who had sought asylum were invited to the front of the room. These women had come from Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield and Birmingham, as well as London, to stand together in solidarity. To stand up, together and strong, in the face of disbelief. And we must stand with them. We must believe these women when they tell us they would never have left their home, their family, their country, if they had a choice. We must believe them when tell us they have been raped and tortured. We must believe their scars – both physical and psychological. And we must demonstrate this belief by telling our government that they must not be locked up. Meltem Avcil, who was detained along with her mother when she was thirteen, has started a petition asking Theresa May to end the detention of female asylum seekers in the UK. We must demonstrate our belief by signing it.

A Syrian woman looks through a fence at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi. Photo: Getty

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle