Words by Aida Abbashar, photography by Ro Murphy.
This International Women’s Day, over 200 refugee and migrant women went to Parliament to demand their rights to safety, liberty and dignity. We listened to each other’s experiences, called on our MPs to act, and we celebrated the strength and bravery of refugee and migrant women.
Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu chaired the event comprised of a full line-up of courageous women with refugee and migrant backgrounds who directly addressed MPs with their stories of traumatising months in Yarl’s Wood detention centre; becoming vulnerable to violence because of destitution; separation from their families and the human cost of hostile immigration policies. The room buzzed with energy as the voices of women who are too often silenced echoed around the halls of power.
Tracy N’Dovi of Survivors Speak OUT highlighted the significance of refugee and migrant women having the opportunity to speak out in Parliament: ‘It takes a lot of strength to stand up as a refugee women and speak out. We are resilient. Please remember that our voices must be heard in Parliament.’
‘We wish we could be celebrating with you on this day, but we are not free to do so.’ The women on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood sent us a powerful statement to share at the lobby (published in full here).
Their words were supported by other first-hand accounts from survivors of detention, including Mariam Yusuf from WAST Manchester: ‘I thought when I came to Britain I would be safe, and not locked up like a criminal.‘ Anju, from City of Sanctuary, read a poem about her time in Yarl’s Wood where she asked the audience, ‘Am I a criminal?’
Talha from Coventry Asylum Seeker and Refugee Action Group explained, ‘You have already suffered, and then they put you in detention.’
As Kate Green MP said, ‘It is shameful that vulnerable women who come here for safety end up in detention.’
Through powerful speeches and performances, women described the difficulties they face in their daily life due to struggles to access healthcare, education, housing and employment. Zrinka Bralo, director of Migrants Organise, reminded us that the situation for migrants was much better when she came to the UK as a refugee from Bosnia, and that we can rebuild a fairer system in which migrant and refugee women have access to healthcare and housing. LGBT+ rights activist Shrouk El Attar, from STAR, spoke about the importance of education and her experience with the asylum process. She described the intrusive questioning of her sexuality during her asylum claim as a teenager, asking, ‘If this is too uncomfortable for adults to listen to in Parliament today, then why was it ever ok to ask a seventeen-year old?’
Agnes from Hope Projects in Birmingham said, ‘We are all looking for safety, freedom, peaceful life, better life, protection, security.’ Refugee and migrant women need dignity.
Maya Ghazal, a Syrian refugee, spoke about the vital importance of family reunion for women seeking safety. There is an opportunity for members of Parliament to vote on an improved family reunion process on 16 March, so refugee women took the opportunity to call on their MPs to act and create safer routes for women to be reunited with their families.
Women from Safety4Sisters, Southall Black Sisters and Latin American Women’s Rights Service called for safe reporting mechanisms for women with insecure immigration status who suffer abuse and violence. They described how they have been failed while looking for safety and justice: “The police told me – you are illegal so we can’t do anything for you. When you are in my situation you are invisible, you are nobody and have no rights,” said a speaker from Southall Black Sisters. ‘A migrant woman like me needs to be believed by the police. My rights are above the passport I hold,’ G from LAWRS, said, sometimes overcome with emotion as she remembered her own struggle for safety.
Although each speaker spoke about their individual experiences, common themes arose. It was evident that every speaker had been failed by the government in one way or another, had been denied access to liberty, safety and dignity at some point in their lives or have had their struggles sidelined. The strength and unity shown by the women at the lobby filled the day with energy and a sense of the urgency of change. Priscille from Women for Refugee Women said, ‘We are proud to be around women who keep fighting regardless of the situations they are facing.’
To be part of an event led entirely by refugee and migrant women was empowering for all the women there. “Before, I felt like I was in prison, and the women threw open the doors for me today,” said one woman from Southall Black Sisters.
The lobby ended with a performance from WAST Manchester and cries for Yarl’s Wood detention centre to be shut down. We chanted ‘All Women Count’ and our voices echoed through Parliament.
The All Women Count lobby is a great example of collaboration between refugee and migrant women, and it was supported by over 40 partner organisations, from large organisations such as UNHCR and Liberty to smaller grassroots groups such as Hope Projects and Coventry Asylum Seeker and Refugee Action Group.
We were glad that a number of MPs attended and spoke, and also mentioned the lobby in the debate that was happening in the House of Commons at the same time, where Jess Phillips MP said: ‘We in this place need to recognise our commitment to ending the barriers faced by every woman in this country. We must never, ever forget that that includes refugee women, who face multiple disadvantage in our country.’
In the House of Lords, Baroness Healy said: ‘Today sees a lobby of Parliament by refugee and migrant women under the banner of All Women Count, which calls for safety, dignity and liberty for all women regardless of status in the UK. The Government currently locks up 1,600 asylum-seeking women every year… it is unfair to deprive a person of their liberty for administrative convenience; that detention is costly, ineffective and harmful, and that there are better alternatives.’
Top row from left: Baroness Lister, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, Baroness Jones, Vicky Foxcroft MP, Kate Green MP. Middle row from left: Dawn Butler MP, Jess Phillips MP, Stella Creasy MP, Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn with Marchu Girma. Bottom row from left: Virendra Shama MP, Stephen Timms MP, Liz Twist MP, Shadow Immigration Minister Afzal Khan with WAST Manchester, Louise Ellman MP.
And as Stella Creasy MP said at the event, ‘We achieve more together than we do alone.’ And this collaborative effort to listen to and act on all women’s calls for rights must not end here. Marchu Girma gave a rallying call for All Women Count continue to empower women and effect change: ‘We are the modern day suffragettes, carrying the fire and fury of wronged women. This is just the beginning.’
To stay in touch with the All Women Count movement and partner organisations’ campaigns for justice please visit: www.allwomencount.co.uk or follow #AllWomenCount on social media