Refugee Week is a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK and encouraging a better understanding between communities. We need this now more than ever, says Sarah Graham from Women for Refugee Women.
“I suffered rape, trauma, torture. I don’t remember names, dates, evidence. I am refused, abused, misjudged. I am disbelieved, detained, deported. I came here to seek asylum.”
No matter how many times I see this poem performed, those four lines never fail to affect me.
The theme for this year’s Refugee Week (20-26 June) is ‘Welcome’, reflecting the outpouring of compassion and hospitality much of the British public has shown those refugees seeking shelter in the current crisis. But what does ‘Refugees Welcome’ really look like?
At Women for Refugee Women (WRW) we work with hundreds of asylum-seeking women – from across Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East – who have faced experiences like those described in the poem. Their stories are all different, but disbelief and detention are common features of the welcome they receive from the UK Home Office.
Women for Refugee Women runs the Set Her Free campaign, calling for an end to the practice of detaining refugee women, the vast majority of whom are survivors of torture, sexual or gender-based violence.
Grace* – a Ugandan lesbian who had been imprisoned and sexually assaulted for six months in her home country – told me the Home Office had asked her for the dates her abuse took place. “Locked in a dark, windowless room for six months, I didn’t even know if it was a Friday or a Tuesday – and they wanted me to give the exact dates when prison officers assaulted me,” she said.
Despite having the legal right to claim asylum she, like 2,000 asylum-seeking women each year in the UK, was locked up indefinitely in Yarl’s Wood detention centre – an institution managed by private company Serco, and recently described as ‘a place of national concern’ by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.
A 2015 Channel 4 investigation into Yarl’s Wood uncovered what women have been telling WRW for years: high levels of self-harm, poor standards of healthcare and sexist and racist abuse from staff.
“According to the Home Office’s own figures, just 15 per cent of those asylum-seeking women who were detained in 2015 were actually deported; so-called ‘immigration removal centres’ like Yarl’s Wood aren’t even serving their stated purpose.”
“I am so depressed that they think I am going to kill myself here, and I am watched by men and women night and day,” Margaret*, a survivor of rape and torture from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told WRW for our 2015 research report I Am Human. “I feel full of shame about what happened to me and what is happening to me. Being in prison here is a torture in my head.”
Like more than three quarters of those who were detained, Margaret and Grace were later released to continue their asylum claim in the community. Less than a month after her release Grace attempted suicide, haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of her time in Yarl’s Wood. Detention had forced her to relive the traumas she endured in Uganda, and for a long time after her release she regularly woke in the night hearing the sound of the officers’ keys.
Both women now have refugee status in the UK – the mental trauma of their detention was not only cruel but also ultimately pointless. According to the Home Office’s own figures, just 15 per cent of those asylum-seeking women who were detained in 2015 were actually deported; so-called ‘immigration removal centres’ like Yarl’s Wood aren’t even serving their stated purpose.
At an event we hosted in March, another former detainee Sophia* said, “I came to the UK to seek asylum because I had heard the UK was a place that champions human rights; I was wrong.” She was detained for six months of her first pregnancy, before also being released to continue her asylum claim in the community.
In the recent Immigration Bill, the Home Office responded to pressure from WRW and others by introducing a legal time limit of 72 hours on detaining pregnant women. Immigration minister James Brokenshire has also pledged reforms, which “the government expects… to lead to a reduction in the number of those detained, and the duration of detention before removal.”
The question for Women for Refugee Women is how long will that broader reform take? This Refugee Week, join us in pushing the government to ensure women who have fled violence and persecution are not welcomed by locked doors and barbed wire fences.
*Names have been changed.2993 Views
Sarah Graham is a freelance journalist, writer and editor, specialising in feminism, women’s health and lifestyle, mental health and wellbeing. She's also communications executive for Women for Refugee Women.