(This article also appears in today’s Morning Star, as part of its International Women’s Day supplement):
“Solidarity with our sisters.” This was the message that I chose to write on my postcard to the Home Office this International Women’s Day as part of Women for Refugee Women’s 99 Women solidarity action campaign.
Each woman, each postcard, represents one of the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in 2014. Onlt nine were deported. For the rest, who were released back into the community, their detention served no purpose, yet no doubt had a lasting impact on their mental health.
Women from across different professions — MPs, campaigners, actors, singers, lawyers and academics — are all standing together in support for women refugees. There are two overriding messages to the campaign: Refugees Welcome and Set Her Free. These are inseparable messages of support, which demand that the British government takes more action to support and welcome refugees, and end the incarceration of asylum-seekers.
Last year I went to Yarl’s Wood to speak to women inside. One of the women I met was pregnant. Her story devastated me. She’d left India for Britain with the promise of a better life and a university education. She’d put her trust in the hands of people who turned out to be traffickers, and was consequently exploited. They took her passport. She was depressed and on medication, visibly thin and had not been eating. She had no contact with her family, no idea even of how old she was (although she didn’t look older than 21). And she had no idea when, if at all, she would be released from Yarl’s Wood. This was all no doubt exacerbated by the fact that she was pregnant — something she assured me that Yarl’s Wood staff and the Home Office had known when they detained her. Britain is the only country in the EU not to impose a time limit on detention.
The Home Office states that pregnant women should only be detained in “exceptional circumstances.” Stephen Shaw stated that the practice should be ruled out altogether, as one of 64 recommendations in his damning review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons, published in January 2016. And yet the government remains unmoved. It remains unmoved not only with regard to this specific detention rule, but more generally refuses to adopt a more welcoming stance towards asylum seekers.
The aggressive bulldozing of the Calais Jungle and fears that this will add to the already large number of missing children in Europe did not prompt more action, but simply the stance that this is a French responsibility.
At a time when we should be accepting, the government is instead deporting them. Just last week, on March 3, Theresa May won a significant legal battle to resume the deportation of failed asylum-seekers to Afghanistan, including those who arrived here as children. The life stories I heard in Yarl’s Wood were just a few of many stories of displacement, violence and fleeing specifically gendered violence in their home countries.
In a report by Women for Refugee Women entitled I Am Human, of the 34 women interviewed who disclosed their experiences of persecution, 19 women said they had been raped, 21 had experienced other sexual violence, 28 had experienced gender-related persecution under the headings they asked about: rape, sexual violence, forced marriage, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation.
Female asylum seekers, locked up, are not heard by the outside world and not believed by the system. Our immigration system should shame us all. We are locking up asylum-seekers and we are denying them a voice.
This last year has seen the biggest wave of mass migration since the second world war. It has seen thousands of refugees flee violence and instability, risking their lives to make the dangerous journey to Europe. It has seen them prepared to cross treacherous oceans on boats that traffickers deliberately over-fill, to escape the conditions they are living in. Thousands have died or gone missing on this journey. Europe is still not providing an adequate response to this crisis.
In a twisted irony, the people whose lives have been most devastated by terrorism are feared in Europe for bringing terrorism with them. This dangerous rhetoric and inaccurate perception must end.
This International Women’s Day, I ask everyone to stand in solidarity with female refugees, whatever the stage of their journey. Female refugees deserve to be heard, deserve to be respected and deserve to be celebrated.
As Women for Refugee Women state, “Our vision is a society in which women’s human rights are respected and in which they are safe from persecution.”
Both nationally and internationally, we have a way to go. Today, let’s celebrate the strength and the achievements of women across the world, but let’s not shy away from what more needs to be done, here and abroad, to work towards gender parity.
This is one of the biggest challenges of our generation. Join the campaign today — pledge your support by uploading your own picture and message of support with the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome #SetHerFree #IWD2016