Yarl's Wood women vow to continue hunger strike

Women in Yarl’s Wood vow to stay on hunger strike until they are released
Statement From: Black Women’s Rape Action Project

We have spoken to over 50 women in the last few days and they all have a compelling case to be released: their continued detention is either inhumane or contravenes Home Office rules. Some have been referred to lawyers because their detention is illegal.[1]

Survivors of rape and torture; mothers separated from children; not facing imminent removal; criminalised for trying to survive

STOP PRESS: we just heard that one woman has been released but three others faced removal. 50 still on hunger strike

Most women are:
SURVIVORS OF RAPE AND OTHER TORTURE.[2] Operations Enforcement Manual rules say they should only be detained “under very exceptional circumstances.”

MOTHERS SEPARATED FROM THEIR CHILDREN.  The impact of detention on children is finally widely condemned. But what about the impact of separation on children left with social services or other family members when their mothers are detained? Some families face permanent separation if women are deported. Mothers speak constantly of their anguish at not being able to care for their children who suffer depression, bed wetting and feel at risk of harm.

NOT FACING IMMINENT REMOVAL. According to the Home Office people should only be detained when: their removal is imminent; there is a risk of them absconding; other alternatives have been considered; and the person has no particular health needs or vulnerabilities. Yet many of the women on hunger strike have been detained for months, some for up to two years and no independent assessment of their circumstances has been done.[3]

CRIMINALISED FOR TRYING TO SURVIVE. What is not generally known is that many women are in detention having been convicted of “crimes” of destitution or for travelling on false papers (unavoidable when you are fleeing persecution).  They are convicted, imprisoned and then transferred straight to detention pending removal. Many have lived and raised families in the UK for years.

Lord Justice Sedley, a Court of Appeal judge, commented that the rule telling judges to dismiss asylum-seekers who have fled their home country using a false passport is a “serious invasion of judicial independence”.[4]

Hunger strikers are from a wide range of countries including: China, Cote D’Ivoire, Eritrea
Ghana, Guinea, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Qatar, Romani, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Vietnam, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Many women report suffering violence from guards. Some were left outside in snow storms on Monday wearing only light clothes. A recent report upheld 97% of complaints against UK Border staff.[5]

The All African Women’s Group, a self-help group of women asylum seekers, some of whose members are in detention, are part of a daily rota taking calls from hunger strikers.

Women on hunger strike include:

Ms O, who has now been taken to Holloway prison. She fled to the UK having suffered years of domestic violence from her uncle in Nigeria and was then threatened with Female Genital Mutilation. She was told by a woman who befriended her that she didn’t stand a chance of asylum.[6] In 2007, she was arrested and convicted of possessing criminal property as she had a little money in her bank account because her parents’ home had been sold. She was remanded in Holloway and eventually in desperation and believing that she would be released sooner, pleaded guilty. She was taken straight from prison to Yarl’s Wood. She reported to the Yarl’s Wood health centre that she was a survivor of torture and showed them her scars. But she remained in detention. (Women Against Rape helped another woman win £38, 000 in similar circumstances.) A lawyer demanded £4000 to represent her. Her barrister used the wrong name in court, didn’t present all the evidence in her case and she was refused. During the hunger strike, she was told by Yarl’s Wood staff that “You are from the jungle” and she should “go back”.

Ms D, a Black woman and a mother of two, has been detained for 11 months. She was convicted of “racially aggravated assault” after police were called to an argument in a shop. She tried to stop police taking her youngest son from her, was held down and accused of kicking a policeman. One of the police officers (all white) called her a ‘black bitch’ to which Ms D responded ‘white bastard’. This led to a conviction for possession of drugs.  She was imprisoned and then taken to Yarl’s Wood. Her 16 year old son is in the care of social services and her seven year old with a cousin. Ms D was assaulted by a guard on Monday and suffered bruising to her head. She is being held in segregation because she has visible bruises and she has had no medical treatment for her injuries.

Ms N, a lesbian woman and a single mum with two children, has been in the UK for 12 years. She fled to the UK from Jamaica after she witnessed a murder, was falsely accused of being a “police informer” and beaten and stabbed. She had no idea that she could claim asylum in the UK. For years she was unable to speak about the rape she suffered from her stepfather as a child. She eventually disclosed it to Women Against Rape describing how when she told her real father about the abuse, her stepfather killed her mum. She won asylum in late October but the Home Office appealed and has been kept in detention since. Her son has been attacked by a gang and threatened with guns while she’s been inside.

Ms W has been in Yarl’s Wood for eight months and is on the seventh day of her hunger strike.  She has lived in the UK for 10 years and her daughter is British. She was convicted and imprisoned for 10 months for possession of drugs after she was forced to carry a package by men who threatened to kill her and her daughter.  She could never speak about the threats as the men told her that they knew where her daughter was and would kill her if she talked. Ms W has not seen her seven year old daughter for 1 ½ years.  Her daughter cries constantly on the phone. Relatives say that she sometimes starts packing her bags to “go and see mummy”.

Ms S has been in Yarl’s Wood for eight months.  Ms S is from Jamaica. Her mother left for the UK when she was six and she didn’t join her mother until she was 12. She was traumatised by the separation.  In her teenage years, she started using drugs and at 19 was arrested for intent to supply.  She was threatened by a gang that if she gave information to the police she would be killed so, fearing for her life, she went on the run. After 15 months she was caught and got a heavier sentence because she had broken bail.  She now faces deportation to Jamaica where she has not been since a child. Other women say she has been transferred to prison but we can’t get hold of her.

Ms M fled rape and other torture in Gambia. She tried to get help from the legal aid clinic in Yarl’s Wood but they didn’t get back to her for four months.  She is on five different medications but still joined the hunger strike.

Women are available for interview: 07980659831
More information about the conditions in Yarl’s Wood reported by women recently released who spoke at the House of Commons 14 January 2010.

Black Women’s Rape Action Project
Crossroads Women’s Centre
230a Kentish Town Rd
London NW5 2AB   020 7482 2496
12 February 2010

[1] Minister ‘admits paying millions to detained migrants’ Thursday, 11 February 2010
[2] 70% of women in Yarl’s Wood are survivors of rape and other torture. “Bleak House in  Our Times: An investigation into women’s rights violations.” Legal Action for Women, June 2006
[3] Council of Europe report: “The detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Europe” (January 2010) provides 10 guiding principles governing detention including that “detention shall be ordered only for the specific purpose of preventing an unauthorised entry or with a view to deportation or extradition; vulnerable people should not, as a rule, be placed in detention.
[4] “Asylum-seekers put at risk by law, warns top judge.” The Independent, Wednesday, 2 July 2008
[5] ‘Fast and fair?’ A report by the Parliamentary Ombudsman on the UK Border Agency Fourth report Session 2009/2010 found 478 complaints made against the UKBA since last June.  97% of those investigated were upheld.
[6] Home Office Operational Guidance Notes on Nigeria accept that FGM is widely practiced in Nigeria, that women are unlikely to get state protection but say that it would be safe for a woman to relocate to another area. Asylum claims should therefore be “certified as clearly unfounded”.

Comments are closed.