This International Womens Day, imagine a future without detention

Women for Refugee Women has spent over three years researching the condition of asylum-seeking women in the UK and listening to their experiences. Earlier this month they released their annual report: The Way Ahead: an asylum system without detention. For International Women’s Day, we’ve summarised its key findings and honour all women raising their voices against immigration detention to say: “these walls must fall!”

Women come to the UK from all over the world to claim asylum for a host of reasons. As well as escaping war and conflict, many seek sanctuary from gender-based violence and persecution in their own homes and communities. The majority of women who claim asylum in the UK are survivors of rape or gender-based violence.

Racism, sexism and many other forms of prejudice are still deeply rooted in our society and we’re all shaped by them. Almost from the moment we are born we learn this prejudice, against others and ourselves, from the media and popular culture, from established institutions and from family and friends, even when they are not conscious of it. None of us choose to be taught these lessons; but trying to stay away from them is like a fish trying to stay away from the sea. We’re born swimming in them.

Women forced to flee their homes and seek asylum in other countries are subject to a host of intersecting and deeply rooted forms of prejudice and discrimination. Most often devalued once by sexism, twice by racism and three times by a political discourse that relentlessly demonises migrants and asylum seekers, their voices have long been silenced when they have spoken out against injustice, abuse and a ‘culture of disbelief’ pitted against them. And each year, instead of being finding sanctuary here as many as 2,000 are locked up in immigration detention.

Women for Refugee Women has spent years researching and listening to women with experience of the asylum and detention system. Their new report The Way Ahead: an asylum system without detention, was released earlier this month at their National Refugee Women’s Conference. Here’s a breakdown of what it has to say.

What do refugee women have to say?

“The majority of women we spoke to characterised their experiences as overwhelmingly negative, including those who now have refugee status. One of the key issues raised by the women we spoke to, including those who now have refugee status, was being made to feel as if the Home Office didn’t believe them when they claimed asylum. Many women spoke about problems with the housing and financial support they received as they went through the asylum process. The prohibition on asylum seekers working while they are waiting for a decision on their claim was raised repeatedly by the women we spoke to. Many explained that if they were allowed to work, they would have the opportunity to support themselves and earn enough money to live on; they also pointed to the contribution they would be able to make to UK society.”

Racism in the asylum system was talked about by a number of women. Some women spoke about racist treatment they had experienced from individual members of Home Office staff. Others described the asylum system as a whole as racist and discriminatory. One woman said: ‘I came to the UK hoping I am at the right place, but I am at the wrong place. As a black woman I respect the British people, and I thought they were always good to people who ask for help – but when you ask for help, they put you in a horrible situation.’

“Women who had been detained also talked about the trauma of being locked up, and the ongoing impact of this experience on them even when they had been released. One woman said: ‘When the Home Office detains people, they are killing them slowly, slowly.’

What’s detention like?

Detention is a profoundly traumatic experience and levels of mental distress and self-harm are alarmingly high. In Women for Refugee Women’s 2014 report Detained, 40% of women said they had self-harmed, as many as 1 in 5 say they have tried to kill themselves in detention.

“Our research has highlighted the poor conditions in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where the majority of asylum-seeking women are held. We have revealed how women are denied privacy and dignity in detention as they are routinely watched in intimate situations – while they are in bed, on the toilet, in the shower, or getting dressed – by male guards. This happens when guards burst into their rooms without knocking, or when women who are on ‘constant supervision’ or suicide watch are watched by male guards. Our findings in this area have been corroborated by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, which in 2015 called Yarl’s Wood ‘a place of national concern’.”

Detention is also extremely expensive. With the taxpayer losing £35,000 to hold one person in detention for a year, in 2015-16 the UK spent £125 million. That’s money that could be spent on housing, jobs, education, healthcare and supporting women towards equality.

What’s the alternative?

“The evidence shows that providing ongoing, structured support to people as they go through the asylum process, and focusing on engagement with people seeking asylum as a way of resolving cases, can drastically reduce the use of detention and ensure that it is only ever used as a last resort. Moreover, an emphasis on support and engagement throughout the asylum process can mean a better system overall.”

The conclusions of this research has been echoed again and again by women with experience of detention as well as a broad coalition of campaigning organisations. Similar person-centred, engagement-based systems already operate in other countries such as Sweden, which only requires the capacity to detain 225 people at a time. In 2015, the UK detained ten times the number of people as Sweden.

Treating people with dignity and fairness promotes dignity and fairness. When someone is kept properly informed and engaged in their own asylum process, they are far more likely to cooperate with that process, making it more efficient. In Sweden, the vast majority of those ultimately required to leave the country do so through voluntary programmes. This research also has damning implications for the UK’s ‘hostile environment‘ policies:

“Making sure people have decent housing and adequate financial support helps to ensure compliance with immigration and asylum processes. Ensuring that the basic needs of migrants and asylum seekers are met is also associated with higher rates of voluntary departure. There is no evidence to show, conversely, that making people homeless and cutting off their financial support – as currently happens in the UK to many of those who have been refused asylum – ‘incentivises’ people to leave the UK.”

Steps Forward: What can we celebrate this International Women’s Day?

“In July 2014, a cross-party group of MPs and peers launched the first ever Parliamentary inquiry into the use of immigration detention in the UK. The report of the inquiry, published in March 2015, recognised that “the nature of detention is often particularly distressing for women” and recommended that survivors of rape and sexual violence, and pregnant women, should not be detained. It also recommended that a 28-day time limit on detention should be introduced, and set out the need for a “wholesale change” in the Home Office’s approach, away from the use of enforcement and detention and towards “community models of engagement”.

The Shaw review commissioned by the government and released in January 2016 reiterated many of these recommendations, and for the first time government policy introduced in September 2016 explicitly stated that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence should not be detained. But in reality, this practice continues as it does for survivors of torture. Britain remains the only European nation with no time limit on detention. Even pregnant women can still be detained for up to 72 hours and perhaps more significantly they live, like all women seeking asylum, in constant fear of detention 24 hours and 7 days a week.

Important steps forward have already been taken – but it’s a long road ahead. Today, celebrate the women who are walking it: migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and women in the wider community working together to #setherfree

Read the full report: click here

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