On Saturday 12th March up to 2000 people descended on a bleak business park on the outskirts of Bedford to protest outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Dozens of coaches lined up one after another along a quiet street, impressing on us that if not for our presence there was nothing but sterile new builds and a fat Orwellian watchtower looming over us. We never did find out the purpose of that watchtower.
Our coach pulled up to crowds of people with brightly lit banners congregating on the green by the side of the road. The chants of the protesters, sunshine and colourful displays provided the welcoming embrace which was otherwise lacking in this sterile industrial suburb.
After speeches, organising and a very long queue for the stand alone portable toilet, we were on our way by foot to the detention centre. We had to trek across muddy fields filled with crops of some sort and as we did we held up our banners and chanted, while collecting the mud on our shoes. The gaps in the fences provided a gateway to the open green, where we finally pitched up.
On one side of the open green stood a high fence and behind it windows, and behind the windows women’s hands and faces and then it hit us: there in front of us was our border, 90 miles inland from Southend on Sea, and those behind it our friends and sisters.
The trapped women, stuck behind windows and fences started the protest and we were joining them. They held their banners, made out of t-shirts and bedsheets displaying their cries of freedom as they banged their palms against the windows. Each rectangle window forming blocks one above another and side by side. A window contained a room and each room a crowd of women.
The womens’ protest was against their detention and exploitation in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and we were there in solidarity with them, along with many BME women, refugees, women working in BME community organisations and Sisters Against the Cuts campaigners.
We conducted 4 interviews with women working and volunteering in grassroots community organisations in London, the Black Women’s Rape Action Project, and All Africa Women’s Group. These organisations have been key in supporting women claiming asylum in the UK and making crucial links with refugees behind our borders but on our land. Detention centres are our internal borders.
Interview with Cristel from from Black Women’s Rape Action Project
Kat: Hi Cristel, what organisation are you from and can you tell Screaming Violets a bit about what you do and why you’re here today?
Cristel: I am from Black Women’s Rape Action Project an organisation supporting survivors of rape and racist attacks and women seeking asylum including on the grounds of sexual violence and other torture. We work alongside the All Africa Women’s group, Queer Strike and Women Against Rape campaigning to expose institutional racist and sexual abuse in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.
Women refugees are protagonists and fighters in their own countries. Detainees can be treated brutally and inhumanely in Britain and reminiscent of the torture they fled. The policy to deny refugees safety and protection is designed to deter people from seeking asylum.
How do you provide support to women in detention?
Organisations and groups such as ourselves, Women’s Rape Action Project and the All Africa Women’s group provide life-saving information calling women back who contact us. We send them Legal Action for Women’s free Self-Help Guide for Asylum Seekers a simple guide which gives life-saving advise on what to do. As the law reduces the rights of refugees and women can no longer get legal aid to assert some of their human rights, access to free support in communities is crucial. Legal representation is essential to make complex legal arguments, because women who claim rape rarely have evidence and need legal aid for expert medical reports.
Women refugees may not open up about the circumstances around why they fled, for example: rape is very difficult to speak about and marital rape is not a criminal offence in many countries. There is often the fear of being stigmatised and blamed which prevents women speaking frankly about the sexual violence they suffer. Women do not know that speaking out about what they have been through can help them win their asylum claim.
The Home Office routinely disbelieved women and put up barriers to deny credible claims when women are from countries like DRC and other war zones. Women leaving their homes and risking their lives are doing so for a reason, they take the brunt of regional conflict and persecution because it’s much more difficult for women to move around as freely as men because they are the primary carers for family members.
How does today’s protest relate to broader issues and struggles?
We should link up our struggles. Women are expected to pick up the shortfall when there are austerity cuts, including cuts to benefits. The survival of every community globally depends on the caring work of women and girls. New Labour brought in an apartheid system of benefits for asylum seekers – . Asylum seekers slashed their benefits, forcing many including families with children to live on vouchers and well below already poverty level benefits. Asylum seekers were the first to be targeted by austerity cuts and when the governments find they can get away with taking away mainstream welfare benefits from the most vulnerable, no-one is safe – now they feel able to go after people on disabilities benefits, so our struggles are the same.
As women in AAWG constantly remind us, the wealth in this country is the result of pillage from the rest of the world, which is often hidden.
There are a lot of young people here today which is great but not surprising, because young people have taken many blows in recent years, such as paying for education and losing housing. People are beginning to connect their struggles.
What are the links between community campaign groups and Yarl’s Wood?
Yarl’s Wood represents a decade of resistance which we have documented in our Dossier. SERCO persistently denied that women have anything to protest about and downplays their protests. Yet women have mounted at least four major hunger strikes and have been supported by campaign groups . We have put a spotlight on the detention centre, by getting women on the radio to talk about their experiences. More recently women have spoken about rape and other sexual abuse, racist treatment and language was caught by Channel 4’s undercover film. However, not a single abuser in Yarl’s Wood has been brought to justice for their actions, but that’s not surprising given 6.7% conviction rates for reported rape in this country.
The new Immigration bill currently going through the House of Lords will bring in even more draconian measures – including returning asylum seekers and forcing them to appeal for protection in the countries they fled and turning landlords and GPs into border police. This fuels existing racism – already in some parts of the country – doors where asylum seekers live are being painted red – what is the difference between being forced to have a red door and being forced to wear a yellow star or a pink triangle?.
Why do you think there are so many supporters out today?
A Change happened, a little boy’s body was picked out of the sea and this change of consciousness was quantifiable. It showed up on surveys that 35% of households across the UK were willing to help. Not everyone was going with the right-wing narrative. There are 2000 people on today’s protest supporting women who are putting themselves at great risk, demonstrating and speaking out.
Interview with Yunia from the All Africa Women’s Group
Cristel, from the Black Women’s Rape Action project, introduces us to Yunia, who is a member of the All Africa’s Women’s Group. Yunia is from Uganda.
Kat: Hi Yunia. Why are you here today?
Yunia: I am fighting for asylum in the UK. I have been here for 10 years and have only just recently claimed asylum. I had the final interview last Wednesday and I am just awaiting a decision from the Home Office. I pray I am going to win.
Cristel to Yunia: But you must keep up the struggle.
Yunia: Yes I will.
Cristel: 99% of applications for asylum are turned down in the first instance so most people have to appeal.
Interview with Ana from Crossroads
Cristel also introduces us to Ana who volunteers at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London. Ana is from Albania (Ana is an alias to protect her true identity).
Cristel: Ana is claiming asylum in Britain. She is awaiting a decision from the Home Office.
Kat: Hi Ana.
Ana: Hi. Yes, I have been here since 2008, when my brother and I came here as children with our mum. My mum claimed asylum in 2008 but she was refused and the Home Office didn’t have a decision for us. Mum appealed the decision but this was finally refused. A fresh claim was made in November 2010 and because we were still under 18 we formed part of the claim. We have been awaiting a decision for 5 ½ years and I just don’t know when a decision will be made by the Home Office.
Kat: What are you doing now and are you able to work?
Ana: We both studied, but I can’t get on with my life because I am still awaiting a decision regarding my status. I have written to my local MP who has in turn spoken to the Home Office. I have an accounting AAT professional qualification which took 3 years to complete and I was funded by a children’s charity because I do not have any recourse to public funds. I cannot get a job in the area I am qualified in because I can only get jobs which are on the national shortage occupation list such as nursing or teaching and then the amount of money I am allowed to earn is limited.
Kat: How do you get by? Do you live on NASS (national asylum seekers support)? Do you have any children of your own?
Ana: I have to live on £35 per week. I don’t have children but my mum has a new baby to look after.
I have to get my clothes from organisations such as Crossroads. The Women’s Centre relies on donations of food and clothes from the local community. Everything I have has been paid for by charities, including my education.
Cristel: Ana is a core volunteer at the Crossroads Women’s Centre, helping with other women’s cases and the Women in Yarl’s Wood.
Ana: The support I receive from the Women’s Centre is crucial to my life, it’s not just the clothes, but also the emotional support to keep fighting because it’s so hard.
Cristel: They go to each other’s immigration tribunal hearings and if anyone is sick everyone will provide care and support.
Ana was overcome with emotion and you can really feel why, thousands of people are out and making noise for the women in Yarl’s Wood and all refugees fleeing war and persecution.
Ana: I am just so emotional because of this support from all these people out today.
Interview with Laura
Cristel introduces Kat to Laura from the All Africa Women’s Group.
Kat: Can you tell me a bit about your organisation?
Laura: Yes. The All Africa Women’s Group comprises of between 60-70 women from many African but also other countries – I’m from India and there are others from Latin America, The Caribbean, Iran and other nations. We have a meeting every 2 weeks to discuss cases, share victories relating to our asylum cases, decide whether anyone needs help and support and offer advice.
Kat: What kind of advice do you offer?
Laura: We are more of a self-help support network, but the groups at Crossroads Women’s Centre arrange training programmes to help us write personal asylum statements. This can improve the chances of getting legal aid (legal aid is more difficult to obtain at the appeal stage, because the appeal has to have a 50% or above chance of success).
The support we offer is to people who get stuck in the system, so we get an opportunity to help each other and learn from each other’s mistakes.
We provide help with housing and registering with a GP and help with support letters for immigration tribunal hearings. At the time of the hearings supporters within our groups will all attend the hearings together to support each other.
Laura is also claiming asylum.
The day ended with banging on the fence and calls of solidarity to the women of Yarl’s Wood, which were met with more banging on windows and the shouts from the women inside. We waved and shouted that we won’t forget them and walked our energy of resistance back through the muddy fields, leaving behind our friends, with promises to keep up the struggle. We talked amongst each other and heard more stories and told our own. The women in Yarl’s Wood are our strength and we are united in the struggle.