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.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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