The ongoing persecution of LGBT asylum seekers must end! Where is the outrage?

 

In the past two weeks, two separate reports have highlighted the ongoing persecution of LGBT asylum seekers in the United States and the United Kingdom. On October 26, Stonewall and the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, or UKLGIG, released No Safe Refuge: Experiences of LGBT Asylum Seekers in Detention. On the same day, the Center for American Progress released its finding, “ICE Officers Overwhelmingly Use Their Discretion to Detain LGBT Immigrants.” While the research of both organizations is both urgent and important and the stories are all too familiarly heartrending, the only new piece in both reports is that the abuse of LGBT asylum seekers is intensifying and expanding, and even that is not really new, since the pattern has been ongoing for some time now. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals travel great journeys to arrive at something like haven or sanctuary, and they are increasingly thrown into cages where they are rendered ever more vulnerable. Consider a cursory examination of the past five years.

Brenda Namigadde fled Uganda in 2003 after her house was destroyed and her life was threatened … because her life partner was a woman. Namigadde fled to the United Kingdom, where she sought asylum. In 2011, she was turned down, because of insufficient proof of `being lesbian’. Namigadde was sent to Yarl’s Wood, where she awaited, in terror, to be deported to Uganda. Thanks to an international campaign and the murder of David Kato just days before her scheduled deportation flight, Brenda Namigadde’s case was re-opened.

Also in 2011, Betty Tibikawa, a Ugandan lesbian who applied for asylum in the United Kingdom, was turned down and thrown in Yarl’s Wood. Betty Tibikawa’s family had disowned her. The infamous Ugandan tabloid, the Red Pepper, identified Tibikawa as lesbian, and so extended the threat to her life and well being. And she had been tortured. Having just graduated from high school, Betty Tibikawa was preparing to go to university in Kampala when three men abducted her. They took her to an abandoned building and branded her thighs with a hot iron. They left her unconscious. She remained at home, in bed, for two months. In the home of the family that then disowned her for being lesbian. Betty Tibikawa was deemed insufficiently lesbian for asylum.

Jackie Nanyonjo died in Kampala, Uganda, March 8, 2013. Jackie Nanyonjo was a lesbian who fled Uganda, made it to England, and applied for asylum. Jackie Nanyonjo fought for the rights, power and dignity of women, LGBTI individuals and communities, lesbians, asylum seekers. She fought for those rights on the streets; in the cells and corridors of Yarl’s Wood; and in the airplane that took her back to Kampala. When she arrived in Kampala, she went into hiding. She didn’t contact members of the organized LGBT rights communities, most likely because of the pogroms against lesbians and gays and their organizations. And so she died in hiding.

In 2014, Aidah Asaba, a Ugandan lesbian asylum seeker in England, was thrown into Yarl’s Wood, again for insufficient lesbianism. While Aidah Asaba sat in Yarl’s Wood, openly lesbian Anne Nasozzi was taken from Yarl’s Wood and deported to Uganda.

In 2014, the United Kingdom tried to crush Nigerian lesbian, feminist, asylum seeker Aderonke Apata. They threw her into Yarl’s Wood. She organized and mobilized. They tried to cast doubt on her claim of being a lesbian. She looked at them with pity, and then provided evidence. They tried to silence her. She founded Manchester Migrant Solidarity, aka MiSol, “a convergence space for migrants (including asylum seekers, economic migrants etc.) and non-migrants, offering practical and social activities for mutual support, empowerment and solidarity.” Today, Aderonke Apata is still organizing across England, surrounded by the ghosts of sisters sent off and the voices of sisters inside.

The stories in the United States, such as that of Sulma Franco, a 31-year-old LGBT activist, are equally disgraceful and disturbing. Except that the State is neither disgraced nor disturbed, and therein lies the tragedy. There have been and will be reports, thoroughly researched and nothing short of tragic. And through the long trek of reports, the situation worsens. Proportionately more lesbian, gay, bi, and trans asylum seekers are incarcerated, and in raw numbers more LGBT asylum seekers are behind bars. The persecution intensifies as it expands. There is still little to no concern among the magistrates and judges, and little to less than no training among the staff, and so the violations continue, intensify and expand.

Where is the outrage? Why must vulnerable people, and in particular lesbian and transgender women, go through the heroics of Aderonke Apata or Sulma Franco in order to secure a modicum of dignity and respect from the State? How many stories of torture and trauma will it take before we close this era of witch trials?

 

 

(Image Credit 1: Center for American Progress) (Image Credit 2: Stonewall)

From fast track to rocket dockets: On the assembly line of rejected women asylum seekers

Another week, another `discovery’ that the liberal democratic State is in the business of torturing women asylum seekers. This week’s offering, Report on an unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, opens: “Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire held 354 detainees at the time of this inspection. Most of those held were single women … The centre has been controversial since it opened in 2001 and in recent months it has been the subject of new allegations about the treatment of women held there and the conduct of staff. We last inspected the centre in June 2013 … This inspection found that in some important areas the treatment and conditions of those held at the centre had deteriorated significantly, the main concerns we had in 2013 had not been resolved and there was greater evidence of the distress caused to vulnerable women by their detention.” Yarl’s Wood has always been bad, and now it’s `deteriorated.’

The Chief Inspector concludes, “Yarl’s Wood is rightly a place of national concern … Yarl’s Wood is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held … We have raised many of the concerns in this report before. Pregnant detainees and women with mental health problems should only be held in the most exceptional circumstances. Rule 35 processes are meant to protect people from detention when they have been tortured and traumatised or are extremely vulnerable in other ways. Staff should have the training and support they need to better understand the experiences of the women for whom they are responsible. There are not enough female staff. This inspection has also identified new concerns. Health care needs to improve urgently. Staffing levels as a whole are just too low to meet the needs of the population. Yarl’s Wood has deteriorated since our last inspection and the needs of the women held have grown. In my view, decisive action is needed to ensure women are only detained as a last resort. Procedures to ensure the most vulnerable women are never detained should be strengthened and managers held accountable for ensuring they are applied consistently. Depriving anyone of their liberty should be an exceptional and serious step. Other well-respected bodies have recently called for time limits on administrative detention. In my view, the rigorously evidenced concerns we have identified in this inspection provide strong support for these calls, and a strict time limit must now be introduced on the length of time that anyone can be administratively detained.”

None of this is new; we have raised many of the concerns before. One by one by one, women tell their stories of life, and death, inside Yarl’s Wood, and, after a momentary shuffle, Yarl’s Wood remains. A year ago today, in response to the abuse rained upon Nigerian lesbian, feminist, asylum seeker Aderonke Apata, we wrote, “End the United Kingdom’s current witch-hunt against African lesbians, against African women asylum seekers, against African women generally. Shut down Yarl’s Wood. Don’t delay, don’t pretend it’s complicated. It’s not. The `conditions in there are very bad.’ Every day Yarl’s Wood is open, women living trauma are forced to engage with their past traumas wrapped into new ones, with the pain intensifying by the second. Every day Yarl’s Wood is open, women who sought help are exploited and then exploited again more intensively. It’s not complicated. Shut down Yarl’s Wood, because it’s bad and wrong, and every day it’s open, we are steeped deeper and deeper into guilt and shame. All of us are. Shut down Yarl’s Wood. Do it today.”

365 days later, the protest numbers grow, and Yarl’s Wood stands, solid as ever.

Yarl’s Wood is part of the global economy of miserable efficiencies, in which women who seek haven are criminalized and then forced to pay for “the troubles” they have caused. From fast track in the UK to rocket dockets in the USA, time is money. The assembly line of rejected women, and children, asylum seekers, overwhelmingly racially and ethnically identified, must continually accelerate. No time for health care. These women can’t afford that, anyway. No time to hire adequate staff. These women can’t afford to pay for proper staff. Why are women seeking asylum put in prison? Because these women can’t afford to live here. That’s the law.

 

(Photo Credit: Sally Hayden / VICE News)

#SetHerFree: We want Yarl’s Wood to close, not just today, or tomorrow, but forever!

 

Hundreds of people showed up at Yarl’s Wood today, with one message. Shut it down now! Never open it again! Set her free! #SetHerFree. The hundreds included activists, organizers, advocates, and unusual suspects. Green Party and Conservative Party members showed up in support. Women chanted from one side of the fence surrounding the prison, and the women inside Yarl’s Wood responded, amplifying the demand to shut it down immediately and permanently. Lively protesters successfully pulled down parts of the outside perimeter fence, to the cheering of those inside as well as outside. Action unites.

The event was organized primarily by Women for Refugee Women, in coalition with other groups. Delighted at the numbers and energy of the turnout, Women for Refugee Women spokeswoman Sophie Radice commented, “The time was right for this protest because now people know what’s going on they want to take action. People come here to seek asylum and we lock them up like criminals. We will not stop campaigning until it is shut down … The atmosphere is defiant and it’s been a real show of force. We’ll carry on until the abomination that is Yarl’s Wood is shut down.”

When asked about the “problem with illegal immigration”, Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights organization Liberty, responded, “There is a problem in the world with turmoil and war and also for displaced people who need who need support and protection. But why should human rights abuses only be a justification for wars `over there’ and not refugee and human rights laws over here? … These brave women – some pregnant; some survivors of rape and torture; some suffering from mental or physical health problems – are indefinitely detained in a prison where abuse is endemic. Yarl’s Wood shames our great nation of immigrants – elsewhere criminal suspects detained without charge must be released after 14 days. Shut it down and set them free.”

As a local Conservative MP explained, 15 years ago, detention of asylum seekers was rare. Now “it’s the default.” It’s costly, ineffective, and inhumane, and that’s from a tough-on-immigration Conservative.

Yarl’s Wood is supposed to be the house of the dead, a factory that churns out packets of pain, suffering, and ultimately death. But the women of Yarl’s Wood have refused to lie down and die. They have rejected the special hell slotted for them. In 2010, at the age of 16, former Yarl’s Wood prisoner Meltem Avcil began campaigning to shut it down. In 2007, women asylum seekers banded together to take care of each other, help one another with anti-deportation campaigns, and to publicize the particulars of being a woman asylum seeker in Britain in 2007. They formed Women Asylum Seekers Together, WAST, as a women only safe space for those threatened every second of every day, women asylum seekers. Today, eight years later, they are all over the country.

Lydia Besong left Yarl’s Wood and wrote a play, How I Became an Asylum Seeker, which WAST took up and performed across the country. Nigerian lesbian feminist Aderonke Apata was dumped into Yarl’s Wood, or so they thought. She organized, founded Manchester MiSol, Manchester Migrant Solidarity, who hooked up with WAST, and today Yarl’s Wood was surrounded by chants, songs, and bodies pushing against the fence. Shut it down! Shut it down! Set her free!

Not long ago, WAST formed a choir, the Nightingales, who sing of women’s rights, women’s power, women’s dreams, and they begin, but it’s only a beginning, with this: “We want Yarl’s Wood to close, not just today, or tomorrow, but forever”. Sing it loud, sing it proud, shut it down, set her free, not just today, or tomorrow, but forever. Amen.

 

(Photo Credit 1: BBC)  (Photo Credit 2: Women for Refugee Women) (Video Credit: Channel 4 / YouTube)

#SetHerFree: Women call for the closure of Yarl’s Wood and beyond

Women for Refugee Women’s latest report, I Am Human: Refugee women’s experiences of detention in the UK is hard and all too familiar reading. Women seek asylum because they have been tortured, raped, forced into marriage, persecuted, and then they are imprisoned and tortured anew when they apply for asylum. Two thousand women are locked up in Yarl’s Wood, every year. Detention is never good for women asylum seekers. Detained asylum seekers suffer much higher rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD than those who live in the community while their applications are assessed. None of this is surprising.

Yarl’s Wood staff is 52% male, 48% female, according to testimony before Parliament last year. So, the reports of routine violation of privacy and sexual intimidation and exploitation are also not surprising. All of this is part of the design of a program that imprisons women who seek help.

Margaret fled the DRC, ended up in the UK, applied for asylum: “We arrived at midnight. And I saw it was a prison. I came here only just to ask asylum, I’m not a criminal. 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. When the men watch me it makes me have so many bad feelings about myself and my body. 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.”

Margaret now has refugee status in the United Kingdom. What exactly is the investment the State has made in driving Margaret mad? What good can possibly come from such a policy? None. Repeatedly, current and former prisoners of Yarl’s Wood describe the programmatic assault on their humanity, and they wonder, “What good can from a policy of dehumanizing women?” None.

The only good is from those women who are organizing to smash this system. The report ends with a straightforward message: TOGETHER WE ARE STRONG: CAMPAIGNING TO END DETENTION ACROSS THE UK. Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester organize with Aderonke Apata to shut down Yarl’s Wood and beyond. Embrace in Stoke-on-Trent is doing likewise. Why Refugee Women, in Bradford, was organized by Beatrice Botomani, a former detainee. There’s Hope Projects, in Birmingham, and the London Refugee Women’s Forum. And there’s Women for Refugee Women, and in particular, the #SetHerFree campaign, launched by former Yarl’s Wood prisoners, Meltem Avcil and Lydia Besong.

Women refusing to be silent, speaking and shouting and dancing in the streets, halls, corridors, meeting rooms, classrooms and everywhere else – that’s the real story here. While it’s not surprising to those who know anything about women’s social justice work, across the centuries, it’s still a welcome astonishment. Women asylum seekers ask for haven and shelter, but they know that TOGETHER THEY ARE STRONG, and they will tear down the walls of Yarl’s Wood. And that will be only the beginning of the real asylum process. Setting them free is a next step in setting us all free. Set her free. Set us free.

 

(Image Credit: flickr.com)

Now you have touched Aderonke Apata, you have struck a rock, you will be crushed!

The United Kingdom tried to crush Nigerian lesbian, feminist, asylum seeker Aderonke Apata. Big mistake. They threw her into Yarl’s Wood, the notorious prison for women asylum seekers and migrants. She organized and mobilized. They tried to cast doubt on her claim of being a lesbian. She looked at them with pity, and then provided evidence. They tried to silence her. She founded Manchester Migrant Solidarity, aka MiSol, “a convergence space for migrants (including asylum seekers, economic migrants etc.) and non-migrants, offering practical and social activities for mutual support, empowerment and solidarity.” MiSol joined with WAST, Women Asylum Seekers Together; and Safety4Sisters to make clear there is only way forward: Shut Yarl’s Wood.

The State tried to turn Aderonke Apata into a spectacle, then into a cipher, then into a ghost. Each time the State failed, or, better, each time Aderonke Apata succeeded in organizing, mobilizing, articulating, shouting, whispering, speaking, singing, being heard and being fearless.

At a #ShutDownYarlsWood demonstration in June, Apata explained, “This wasn’t people speaking for other people, we heard women telling their own stories about what goes on in Yarl’s Wood. … Conditions in there are very bad, with poor healthcare, abuse and bad treatment, when these are women who have experienced imprisonment and torture before … Many women develop mental health problems that they didn’t have before. The prison environment brings back bad memories. There is no reason to detain these women in prison, for this is what Yarl’s Wood is …This is going on in our backyards, and yet people do not know about it. When they find out, they are enraged … We will speak with a louder voice until it is heard and continue to make more noise about Yarl’s Wood until it is shut down.”

Apata’s asylum case, and status, is still pending. Nevertheless, and because irony is decidedly not dead, Aderonke Apata, this past week, made the shortlist for a National Diversity Award, in the Positive LGBT Role Model category. In the eyes of some, Aderonke Apata is a hero, and the State is condemned.

Awards are nice, acknowledgement of one’s work is great, action is the best. End the United Kingdom’s current witch-hunt against African lesbians, against African women asylum seekers, against African women generally. Shut down Yarl’s Wood. Don’t delay, don’t pretend it’s complicated. It’s not. The “conditions in there are very bad.” Every day Yarl’s Wood is open, women living trauma are forced to engage with their past traumas wrapped into new ones, with the pain intensifying by the second. Every day Yarl’s Wood is open, women who sought help are exploited and then exploited again more intensively. It’s not complicated. Shut down Yarl’s Wood, because it’s bad and wrong, and every day it’s open, we are steeped deeper and deeper into guilt and shame. All of us are. Shut down Yarl’s Wood. Do it today.

 

(Photo Credit; Flickr.com)

Harriet Nakigudde, Aderonke Apata … African Lesbian Asylum Seekers

 

Harriet Nakigudde

The surveillance and security State has a new version of an old song: “Don’t talk of stars burning above. If you are queer, show me.” The newest subjects of this travesty are Harriet Nakigudde, a 30-year-old lesbian from Uganda, and Aderonke Apata, a 47-year-old lesbian from Nigeria. Both live in England, but the treatment they’re receiving could as easily be in the United States, anywhere in the European Union, South Africa, Australia or any other country that receives gay and lesbian asylum seekers on the condition that they `prove’ that they are not only homosexual but also exclusively homosexual. There are no multiple subject positionalities in the modern asylum process.

Given that African refugees and asylum seekers are already “the untouchables of our time,” African lesbian asylum seekers suffer a more intense and more layered, some would say intersectional, untouchability. Home Affair Offices, Border Agencies, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, whatever, all collude in a public policy that is producing a new identity, the Lesbian Asylum Seeker. And within that identity is the most denigrated, the African Lesbian Asylum Seeker.

Harriet Nakigudde was supposed to be sent back to Uganda today. Why? Because she failed to prove that she is sufficiently lesbian. Due to “administrative reasons”, her flight was cancelled. But Harriet Nakigudde is still on the hook, as of now. She still faces return to a family that persecuted and raped her, in order to “cure” her, and to a country that increasingly criminalizes all same-sex engagements.

Aderonke Apata has provided all sorts of evidence of her lesbian identity and of the dangers she personally faces if returned to Nigeria. Home Affairs wants more, and so Apata is providing a home video of herself and her partner: ““I feel so bad it’s got to this stage. It’s such a desperate and precarious situation to be in, very dangerous, because anything could happen to those pictures, those videos.”.

With one face, the State sings, “Show me” to the African Lesbian Asylum Seeker and, with the other face, decries the State homophobia of the backward African nations. It’s textbook sexual orientalism at work. Instead of virgin or whore, you now have victim or vixen, as long as they’re `African.’

At one level, this is old news. Critics, activists, scholars have long discussed the representational challenges of lesbian asylum claims. While policies may formally change, the staffs do not, and so in England, for example, there’s no special training to those who adjudicate asylum claims based on sexual identity. Asylum is asylum is asylum, and, under Fast-Track Detention, that means pretty much everyone is guilty until proven guiltier.

Lesbian asylum seekers, and refugees, are constructed as deportable before the fact. Their `identities’ are largely declared as undecipherable by the State. If the State can’t read the bar code of your sexual identity, you don’t get into the club. With that policy, the State produces its new extravagantly disposable subject, the African Lesbian Asylum Seeker, who must prove that she has not only been persecuted but has been raped, who must proved that she is not only lesbian, but is fully immersed in a lesbian life style, who must prove … that which really cannot be proven. “Show me, show me now.”

 

(Photo Credit: GayStarNews.com)