#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)