The defining issues of the past three years have been the refugee crisis and the rising tide of feminism. Thousands of people have marched under the banners of #RefugeesWelcome and #Time’sUp, and there seems to be real hunger for change. For refugee women these issues are intersecting, they are interconnecting and the scars of their consequences are woven into our everyday experiences. The systemic oppression of being a woman is magnified by not being a citizen, not belonging and not having our papers.
The hunger for change has been a literal hunger for women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The women who were on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood demonstrated to us how these issues come together. On International Women’s Day they sent a statement saying, “It is true that women have made much progress in the past century since the suffragettes won the right for some women to vote, but a hundred years does not negate an entire history of women being treated at best as inferior and at worst as property. We have a long way to go.” They see their struggle for liberty in the context of their struggle as women, and the wider oppression of women in this country.
Yarl’s Wood is a notorious immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire, where around 1,500 asylum seeking women are held every year. For our latest research, Women for Refugee Women spoke to women detained in Yarl’s Wood. 85% of these women said they were survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence. Although there is a Home Office policy that clearly states that vulnerable adults should not normally be detained, this policy is not working and women who are vulnerable are routinely detained. Detention leads to a deterioration of women’s health and mental well-being.
The hardest thing for women who are locked up in immigration detention is the fact that they don’t know when they are getting out. The UK, unlike every other EU country, does not have a time limit on detention. Afiya, a hunger striker at Yarl’s Wood, told us, “We are on a hunger strike because we are suffering unfair imprisonment and racist abuse. This is a desperate measure due to desperate circumstances. We feel voiceless, forgotten and ignored. We need a voice and more importantly we need someone to listen.”
The root cause of this sense of being voiceless, forgotten and ignored, is our broken asylum system which is not gender sensitive. Women have historically found it more difficult to qualify for refugee status than men. The 1951 Refugee Convention states that to qualify for recognition as a refugee, claimants must demonstrate that they have a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted’ which prevents them from returning home, and that their feared persecution is ‘for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’ The wording of the Refugee Convention does not include ‘sex’ or ‘gender’, and it has only been in the last two decades that widespread forms of persecution against women, such as rape, honour violence and FGM, have been recognised.
Refugee women are not only fleeing persecution by state actors, but sometimes are escaping persecution by non-state actors, such as rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. One refugee women, an ex-detainee told me, “We may not have come fleeing a war-torn country, but we have come escaping war on us [women].”
Female migrants and refugees are at greater risk of exploitation and abuse, including trafficking, on their route to safety. Helen from Eritrea had to flee her country and make a horrendous journey to the UK. She told us, “We crossed the Sahara desert in a lorry, travelling day and night for 15 days. It was so sandy and hot. Sometimes the men were forced to get off and lie on their backs in the desert. A bright light was shone into their eyes so they couldn’t see, and then we women were taken to the back and raped. All of us. They didn’t use any protection, nothing.”
When Helen made her asylum claim in the UK she was refused because the Home Office authorities did not believe her. There is a culture of disbelief in the asylum system and wrong decisions are made at the onset of many asylum-seeking women’s cases, which then leads them to a life of destitution and detention. Another woman who experienced detention told us, “It is not what happened to me in my country that broke me, but what happened to me here.”
We believe that there needs to be a more radical overhaul of the asylum process in the UK, one that needs to treat women with dignity and ensure their safety and liberty. Women for Refugee Women are working with other organisations to raise awareness about the particular issues faced by refugee women. We work to empower refugee women to tell their stories and campaign for a just and fair asylum process.
On International Women’s Day we organised the #AllWomenCount lobby led by migrant and refugee women asking for Parliamentarians to listen to our demands for safety, liberty and dignity. Over 200 refugee and migrant women were in the room and felt empowered by the experience. Yet we thought about the women who couldn’t be there with us on the day. We read out a statement from Afiya, which began, “We wish we could be celebrating with you on this day, but we are not free to do so.”
The names of the women in this article have been changed to protect their identity
Marchu Girma is a campaigner advocating for the rights of refugee and asylum seeking women. She works as the Grassroots Director for Women for Refugee Women and is passionate about empowering refugees and asylum seeking women to speak up about their experiences, and enabling them to use their voices for change.
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