Australia is NOT shocked by the routine torture of women asylum seekers on Nauru

Yesterday, Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru released a report, Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women on Nauru at Risk. It’s a powerful, and all too familiar, description that ends with recommendations for Australia, guilty of waging a war on women, through a campaign of systemic sexual violence and torture. While gruesome and horrifying, none of this is new, and the Australian government is not shocked by the routine torture of women asylum seekers on Nauru. If anything, it’s proud of the system of routine, deterrent torture.

After briefly detailing the recent intensification of violence against women asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru, the report notes, “Ample evidence of the likely damaging impact of inde nite detention and lack of adequate health facilities on detainees was readily accessible when Labor reopened Nauru. For example, an Oxfam Report published in 2007 painted `a shocking picture of psychological damage for the detainees’ including mass hunger strikes, multiple incidents of self-harm and widespread depression and other psychological conditions. Oxfam may have been shocked, but this was already old news to those who had erected the Nauru adventure.

A page later, the report notes, “Stories of the sexual assault of women on Nauru both in the camps and in the community have been told in horrified whispers to trusted people. They are backed up by reports of shocking incidents.” Maybe ordinary people with a sense of conscience or humanity would find these incidents shocking, but, again, not the members of the Australian Parliament.

Repeatedly, the population was allowed to be shocked as long as its elected government refused the shock: “The Australian population had been shocked by vivid footage of the SIEV 221 carrying mainly Iranian asylum seekers foundering onto the jagged cliffs of Christmas Island in December 2010. More than 40 people died, including children and babies. In 2013, when Rudd was Prime Minister again, he announced that none of those detained in o shore centres would ever make it to Australia.”

In 2012, when an Expert Panel recommended the re-opening of offshore centers, “the refugee and human rights sector was visibly shocked.” The centers were re-opened.

There was no shock when one atrocity after another was reported, and there was no shock when the detention center and later the island itself became “a black site, with access to the island denied to the international media.” There can be no shock, given the purpose of Nauru. Nauru was set up as a dumping ground built on a legalistic nicety: “The detention centres on Nauru house women and children who arrived in Australia by sea seeking asylum after 19 July 2013 and who the Australian government has declared will not have their claims processed in Australia, nor will they be allowed to settle in Australia.”

The name for the policy that allows this toxic legerdemain is No Advantage. In 2001, Australia established offshore centers. In 2008, the Nauru center was closed. In 2012, under the No Advantage policy, the Nauru center was re-opened: “The basic premise was that asylum seekers arriving after 13 August 2012 would be given no advantage over those who waited for a humanitarian visa in a refugee camp overseas.” The result was predictable. Four years later, “No Advantage underpins the punitive offshore regime where even death by violence, death by medical neglect, rape of women and sexual abuse of children has not deterred either the current or the previous government from this policy.” No one is shocked.

None of this will come as a shock to members of the Australian Parliament. Letters and photographs detailing the attacks on women have been sent to every Member of Parliament and Senator. They know what is happening on Nauru.”

The report is harrowing as was the last and as will be the next. Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru has done great work here. Their recommendations to Australia are eminently sensible and familiar: obey the law; close Nauru and Manus Island; transfer everyone to Australia; invest in ending violence against women on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.

But no one is shocked by “a deliberate policy of sending women who have already been exposed to sexual violence to a place where they are exposed to further violence.” No one is shocked by the torment of women on Nauru. We need a new kind of report. Let the next report on the atrocities in the camps focus on the members of Parliament who are not shocked. Show the faces of members of Parliament as they yawn and roll their eyes at the stories of rape and torture. Include mirrors, because right now, no one is shocked by the routine torture of women asylum seekers on Nauru or anywhere else.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Australian Women in Support of Women on Nauru) (Photo Credit 2: New Matilda / Refugee Action Coalition)

Yarl’s Wood’s “appropriate vulnerability” is violence against women

Every year or so, a new report uncovers the programmatic abuse of women asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood. In 2006, Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) and Women Against Rape (WAR) released Misjudging rape – Breaching Gender Guidelines and International Law in Asylum Appeals, which examined 65 rulings by immigration judges. The judges rejected rape claims in 65% of the cases, arguing each woman had failed to mention the rape early on and so must be lying. Since then, the reports have continued, and each shows the situation has, if anything, worsened. If everything stays the same, or declines, what’s new?

“Appropriate vulnerability.”

The most recent study, “Reason to disbelieve: evaluating the rape claims of women seeking asylum in the UK”, finds “the structural and practical obstacles faced in establishing credibility, and the existence of scepticism about rape claims and asylum-seeking more generally, mean that decision-making can often be experienced as arbitrary, unjust, uninformed or contradictory, making it difficult for women asylum applicants who allege rape to find refuge in the UK.”

In a more popular article this week, the author’s explained, “The structure of the asylum system, as well as working cultures around decision-making, can negatively impact women whose asylum claims involve rape allegations. Evaluations of credibility are often influenced by dubious assumptions regarding culture, gender, and sexual violence, and draw upon limited experience of, or empathy with, the peculiar challenges faced by ‘others’. The structural and evidential demands of the asylum process, as well as the political controversies that it attracts, do little to facilitate improvements in the handling of disclosures of rape. Ultimately, success in securing refugee status continues, for too many women, to depend upon their ability to position themselves as ‘appropriately’ vulnerable victims.”

Though grim, the report is in no way surprising. We know that asylum seekers who have been raped must struggle for justice, and, more often than not, don’t get it. We know that such is the case for women generally, and so even more so for the poor and the stranger in our midst. We know the misogyny that informs dismissal of claims of sexual violence. We know that the State and Civil Society built and maintain Yarl’s Wood, where survivors of sexual and domestic violence are not only routinely but brutally denied care services, as are their children, children who have often witnessed the violation of their mothers. We know that from before the beginning to beyond the end, the conditions are designed to further violate women asylum seekers, “this is a journey haunted by silence.” None of this is new, none of this is news, and we know and have known all of it for some time now.

“Appropriate vulnerability” suggests much more than “the treatment of those who come to the UK seeking protection from sexual abuse often remains inadequate.” It’s not inadequate. It’s designed to brutalize women. It is time; it is way past time, to stop analyzing the brutality of Yarl’s Wood as a lack or absence. The State wanted, and wants, a house of non-national women held in a state of perpetual and intensifying violence, and it built it, named it Yarl’s Wood, and called its light Day and its darkness Night, and behold …

Who aspires to “appropriate vulnerability”? No one should, but the State forces women to do so. We have had enough reasoned and balanced reports. We know it is time to end State violence against women, committed in our names. Do it now! #ShutDownYarlsWood #SetHerFree

 

(Photo Credit: CavaSundays) (Woodprint by Jacob Steinhardt, at Velveteen Rabbi)

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)

Sacrificing women asylum seekers on the altar of speed and convenience

 

Since 2003, those seeking asylum who come to the United Kingdom are greeted with what the State delicately refers to as the Detained Fast-Track Asylum System, or DFT. The only thing systematic in DFT is violence, and in particular violence against women. Two weeks ago, the High Court found the system unlawful and should be ended immediately. The State replied that stopping the system would be “inconvenient”, and the high court agreed, granting a stay on the order. Detention Action appealed the delay, and last Friday, the Court of Appeals agreed with them, meaning the system has to close down. The Home Office is in chaos.

The State loves throwing asylum seekers behind bars. In 2013, the latest figures available show 4,286 asylum seekers locked up, via DFT, in Yarl’s Wood, Colnbrook or Harmondsworth. 4,286 human beings seeking help and haven end up in cages. In 2012, Detained Fast Track sent 2,477 asylum seekers to Yarl’s Wood, Colnbrook and Harmondsworth. That’s an increase of 73% in one year. Cruelty and inhumanity are a growth industry.

This is the third time Detained Fast Track has been found unlawful. As Detention Action noted, “The High Court first ruled in July 2014 that the operation of the Detained Fast Track was at the time unlawful. Then, on 16th December 2014 the Court of Appeal found that the detention of asylum seekers who were not at risk of absconding whilst their appeals are pending was unlawful. Yet still the Fast Track continues.”

Now asylum seekers might be able to apply for bail. Having faced war, destitution, sexual violence in their home countries, and often in their homes, having made it to England only to be jailed, having often undergone further intimidation, brutality, including sexual violence, at the hands of the prison staff, these `dangers to society’ might be able to approach the shadowlands of due process. It’s not justice, but at least it’s due process.

The latest High Court trial was heard before High Court Justice Andrew Nicol, who concluded, “In my judgment the FTR [Fast Track Rules] do incorporate structural unfairness. They put the Appellant at a serious procedural disadvantage … What seems to me to make the FTR structurally unfair is the serious procedural disadvantage which comes from the abbreviated timetable and curtailed case management powers together with the imposition of this disadvantage on the appellant by the respondent to the appeal.”

Justice Nicol goes on to discuss what happens when `efficiency’ trumps justice:

“I recall that the SSHD [Secretary of State for the Home Department] opposed the TPC’s [Tribunal Procedure Committee] preliminary view that separate Fast Track Rules should be abolished and the Tribunal judiciary be left with discretion to shorten time limits either on an individual basis or through Practice Directions from the Chamber Presidents. As the TPC’s consultation document had said, `the Home Office is concerned that leaving procedures to the discretion of Tribunal Judges would not deliver the clear, consistent and truncated timetable that the current rules provide for.’

“From the perspective of an executive department that is a perfectly understandable objective, but it is not consistent with a procedural scheme which must give an element of priority to fairness and seeing that justice is done. On the contrary, it looks uncomfortably akin to what Sedley LJ in Refugee Legal Centre said should not happen, namely sacrificing fairness on the altar of speed and convenience.”

Fine words, and a good decision, but there is neither altar nor sacrifice in this tragedy. There was a determination that too many Black and Brown women – mostly African and Middle Eastern – would tip the boat, and so speed and `convenience’ justified the construction of a charnel-house network for those, and especially those women, “Black as if bereav’d of light,” whose only value is to enact death-in-life and then die, either behind bars or somewhere else. Shut it down. #SetHerFree

 

(Image Credit: Detention Action)

They have no names: Europe’s unmournable women

There is the work of mourning, and then there is the labor of the unmournable. Two weeks ago, the Institute of Race Relations published Unwanted, Unnoticed: an audit of 160 asylum and immigration-related deaths in Europe. Of 160 deaths from January 2010 to December 2014, 123 resulted from the immigration and asylum system. While the numbers are chilling, this is pure ice: “Because migrants who suffer inside Europe are denied access to welfare, entombed within detention centres or forced into a sub-subsistence life at the very margins of society, their deaths are unmournable, or, to use a phrase that one would have hoped would be obsolete, ‘Life unworthy of life’ (Lebensunwertes Leben).”

The numbers and data come from largely from local media reports and from local migrant and anti-racist support groups. Many governments don’t keep records of migrant deaths, and the ones that do are filled with black holes. The 160 is both a snapshot and the tip of a growing iceberg, and here’s a picture of the world of the unmournable: “In too many cases, those who die are unidentified. Sometimes only a nationality and an age are recorded, sometimes not even that. None of the twenty-three who died in Norway’s reception centres are identified, and we know the names of only four of the eighteen who died, mostly in direct provision hostels, in Ireland in the past five years. Eight of those who died in Greece are unidentified, seven of the dead in France, eleven of those who died in Germany. In such cases, the dead are in a very literal sense ‘unmournable’.”

The dead are in a very literal sense unmournable, and among those dead, the women are even more so. Of the 123 who died as a consequence of the immigration-and-asylum system, 13 were women. Some of them, like Samba Martine and Christine Case, are well known. Others, like Alta Ming, Tatiana Serykh, and Yeni P. should be. And the remaining 8, more than half of the group, are “unidentified.” These women are the unmournable unmournables. Their families may not know, their friends and even those who hunted them down don’t know, and the nation-States where they died refuse to know.

Of the 123 people who died as a result of the immigration-and-asylum system, 60 committed suicide. Of the 13 women who died in this nightmare, only three committed suicide. Three others died of “illnesses”, which means they were left to die. Christine Case was left to die in Yarl’s Wood. Samba Martine was left to die in the Aluche immigration detention center in Madrid. Alta Ming was left to die by both France and the Netherlands. One woman, an unidentified Nepalese undocumented migrant in Cyprus, heard police enter her building. Thinking it was a raid and fearing deportation, she jumped from a fifth-floor balcony to her death. There was no raid, and there has been no subsequent investigation. That was 2012. Three years later, she remains “unidentified.” Undocumented even in death.

And then there’s the Irish Five: five unidentified women asylum seekers who died of “unknown causes”. Two died in 2010, two in 2012, and one in 2013. Unidentified, unknown, unmournable.

This is the house of unmourning, and within its walls women are. They have no names.

 

(Photo Credit: David Sleator / The Irish Times)

UK uses destitution and violence to `protect’ women domestic violence victims

In London last week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights presented Parliament with its report, Violence Against Women and Girls. As before, the report is grim, in particular when it comes to State inaction vis-à-vis domestic violence. The authors of the report describe themselves as troubled and concerned, especially about women asylum seekers and refugees: “We heard particular concerns regarding victims with insecure immigration status, asylum seekers or refugees. These women and girls are often overlooked. Immigration policy is developed separately from policy about violence against women and girls. We urge the Government to address the gap in service provision for women with insecure immigration status and to review the use of the detained fast track process for victims of violence against women and girls.”

The abusive treatment of women asylum seekers who are in abusive relationships is State policy, not the error of overworked or unimaginative staff members. “The gap in service provision” and “the use of the detained fast track process” are not oversights. They achieve their intended goals: render efficiencies at the expense of women whose lives mean less than nothing to the State: “Throughout our inquiry we have heard about the experiences of a wide range of different groups of women including those with particular needs, for example women seeking asylum or refugees, women with learning difficulties, women from black and minority ethnic communities and women from communities of belief or religion.”

The treatment of women asylum seekers and refugees in abusive relationships in the UK is in direct opposition to the treatment of women in post-disaster zones: “We are concerned that, during the time it takes for a spouse suffering from violence to regularise their immigration status, they are very often left facing destitution or having to remain in a violent relationship. We find it worrying that current Home Office policies leave people destitute during the asylum and immigration process and that this in itself leads to women being at a greater risk of being a victim of violence. This is in contrast to funding being provided by the Department for International Development to post-disaster zones which looks specifically to address such survival strategies used by women.”

In other words, what’s good for Darfur is no good for Dover. Why is that?

To answer that, the report analyzes the fast track detention system; the culture of disbelief; and the lack of gender sensitivity; and concludes: “Despite the Minister’s assurances, we are disturbed by the evidence we received that the routine use of male interpreters, the operation of fast-track detention system and the reported culture of disbelief within the Home Office all result in victims suffering further trauma whilst seeking asylum or immigration to the UK. We find this unacceptable.”

We find this unacceptable. “This” is the systematic behavior and public policy of the State. The report has been described as demonstrating a failure: “UK failing to protect female domestic violence victims”; “Trapped with your abuser: How the Home Office fails domestic violence victims.” The Home Office didn’t fail; it achieved its stated goals. Calling it failure is an alibi. Rather say this: UK refuses to protect female domestic violence victims. How the Home Offices violates domestic violence victims. How the State uses destitution and violence to `protect’ women domestic violence victims. We find this unacceptable.

 

(Photo Credit: Asylum Aid)

#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)

Pregnant asylum seekers in the UK: Punished for being a woman

Most women asylum seekers are fleeing so-called ‘non-political’ violence. Domestic violence, including within the extended family and community, ranks high. So does religious persecution of women and violence against lesbians. Women flee such violence because they know it’s wrong. When women asylum seekers are criminalized for seeking asylum, they are being punished for the knowledge they have as women. That’s a witch-hunt, and that’s what’s happening around the world today.

Last week, world leaders overwhelmingly endorsed the Every Newborn Action Plan, which calls for a global concerted effort to address infant mortality. This endorsement came on the heels of a major report, also released last week, which notes, “Every year, 2·9 million newborn babies die from largely preventable causes, and 2·6 million more are stillborn.” The report argues that every newborn counts, and, implicitly, that every mother of every newborn counts.

Would that it were true.

Around the world, women asylum seekers learn that not all maternities are equal. For example, in the United Kingdom, a recent study found asylum seekers receiving housing and subsistence support from the Home Office are regularly `dispersed’ to areas outside London. Pregnant women seeking asylum are often dispersed very late in their pregnancies or soon after delivery. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has argued that pregnant women asylum seekers have special needs and particular vulnerabilities and need additional and particular support. The Home Office has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that finding. Women asylum seekers have reported the experience of `dispersal’ is distressing. `Dispersal’ interrupted established maternity care. It left women without social and family support. Because of the day-to-day realities of dispersal and of childbirth, many women asylum seekers gave birth alone. Midwives have reported that they do the best they can, but the `dispersal’ system disrupts everything.

A pregnant woman asylum seeker suffered flashbacks from sexual violence in her home country. She was `dispersed’ in late pregnancy. According to her midwife, “She needed some stability and care because she felt confident with the people who were looking after her and felt she could trust them. The best outcome would have been for her not to be transferred especially at that late stage.”

Since 2000, there has been a 9% increase in maternal mortality in the United Kingdom. One of the factors pumping the increase is “poorer access to healthcare, especially in some ethnic minority communities and among asylum seekers.”

The criminalization of asylum seekers is an assault on “mental, developmental and physical health,” and it is part and parcel of global mass incarceration. The criminalization of women asylum seekers inevitably means the pain, suffering and often death of women in childbirth as of their children. And who are these women? Women fleeing torture, seeking justice. Punished for fleeing, punished for remembering, punished for needing, punished for being a woman.

 

(Image Credit: freedomfromtorture.org)

Aidah Asaba, “Sana” and the witch trials of Yarl’s Wood

Aidah Asaba, a Ugandan lesbian seeking asylum in the United Kingdom, and a woman called “Sana”, a domestic violence survivor from Pakistan seeking asylum in the United Kingdom, are among the most recent subjects of the witch trials of Yarl’s Wood. So are Leah and Tilia, and so many others whose names recede into the background.

In the past couple weeks, Aidah Asaba and “Sana” have sort of directed some attention back on the so-called `secret world of immigration removal.” It’s not secret, and these women are not simply `immigrants’. They are asylum seekers, whose very status should imply a test case for our collective and individual humanity.

Instead, what happens in Yarl’s Wood is a witch trial that extends to the entirety of the country, in this instance the United Kingdom, and beyond that to the entire world in which women who seek asylum are deemed criminal. What happens to lesbians seeking asylum? What happens to women fleeing household, family and community violence? They ask for asylum, and they are tortured. Sometimes swiftly, more often than not slowly and by degrees.

This is not about Serco, which runs Yarl’s Wood, although certainly has much to answer for. This is about the entire system that recognizes and identifies a group of women as “the most vulnerable” and then proceeds to torture them. In a recent scholarly journal book review, a writer noted, “Anyone who has visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire knows that asylum seekers are virtually imprisoned as they await the result of their cases, and live under dreadful conditions with risks of malnutrition and sexual assault every day.”

There is no secret. Anyone who has visited knows, and everyone who can read does as well. Now that, after much struggle, some women’s stories are beginning to emerge, some are claiming shock and calling for inquiries. Now we hear the women’s stories of the sexual predators who rule Yarl’s Wood. Now we hear, from a former official, that over half the women in Yarl’s Wood engage in self harm, and that many women have been deported with little or no mental health assessments, much less care. Now we hear … exactly what we heard before.

Aidah Asaba was released, for how long is unclear, from Yarl’s Wood on Friday, while the Home Office `reviews’ her case. She was supposed to be deported over the weekend. `Sana’ is out of Yarl’s Wood, and living somewhere in the north of England. She talks of the abuse, and evidences the trauma: “We are not criminals. They are treating us like animals.”

Sadly, no, not like animals. They are treating you as they treat Asian women, African women, women of color, women seeking help. And by “they”, I mean “we.”

 

(Photo Credit: Ruth Whitworth / Demotix / Corbis / Guardian)

It’s not the system, it’s the heart

Cecilia Cortes and her two children

“Once in a while a letter of anguish makes its way out of one of the detention facilities for Haitian refugees, as this one to [the] President … did a few weeks ago: `We did not flee our country in search of food and drink, like they say. You know this as well as we do, and yet you treat us like animals, like old rags forgotten in some corner. Do you think that in acting that way you dissuade us from our purpose? Do you think that you are thus morally destroying us? You are wrong.’ The letter, signed by 38 Haitian women [in] detention, went on: ‘This is a cry of despair, a final call to your nobleness, to your good judgment, to your title as a great power. We would be honored by a satisfactory answer from you, an answer to these luckless refugees who ask only for the charity of liberty.’

Those words were published April 24, 1982. The President was Ronald Reagan. The detention center for the 38 Haitian women was Fort Allen, in Puerto Rico. The article also reported, “Thirty-three (Haitian) women have been on a hunger strike for a week, protesting for freedom. Three are being fed intravenously. Physicians there report that the long incarceration has created widespread depression in the camp.” Those women were at Krome Detention Center, in Florida. Fort Allen is no longer used as a detention center. Krome is, very much so.

It’s 32 years since those Haitian women sought asylum, since they met the hard hand of mercy, as administered by the United States. The women then understood what women asylum seekers today understand. Being a refugee in the United States is hard, being an asylum seeker in the United States is somewhere between purgatory and hell, and being a woman asylum seeker is to inhabit and to be inhabited by a hell designed for women.

Increasingly, asylum seekers, like Cecilia Cortes or Marco Antonio Alfaro Garcia, find their application for asylum has turned them into “long term detainees.”

This week, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the ACLU of Northern California, the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), and the law firm Reed Smith LLP, today filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution who have faced months of detention while they await reasonable fear determinations, the first step in seeking protection in the United States when someone is forced to return following a deportation order.

That’s promising. But it’s been promising now for thirty some years, with court case after court case, individual victory after individual victory, and then the return, or worse the leap forward, to the same old same old.

What the Haitian women knew was this: it’s not `the system’ that’s broken. It’s the heart. All the clever distinctions, such as political and economic, are heartless and inhumane, because they erase the core suffering and thus the possibility of hope.

It’s that time of the year, the time for sermons and speeches about liberty, emancipation, and love. Here’s mine: Love thy neighbor. Let none be treated like animals or like rags. Heed the cry of despair and the call to your own nobility. Practice the charity of liberty. Study the wisdom of the 71 Haitian women who wrote, who starved, for your freedom as much as for theirs. Make that wisdom yours.

 

(Photo Credit: Javier Galvan / Broward Palm Beach New Times)