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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.

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

“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.