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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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.