By Natalie Stanton
Few conferences wrap up with a spontaneous dance party led by Yasmin Kadi, a successful singer/songwriter from Sierra Leone, dressed in fluorescent carnival gear. But Women for Refugee Women’s event on 1 March wasn’t your average conference. A forum both to reflect on the vulnerabilities of refugee women and celebrate their immense strength, the National Refugee Women’s conference provided refugee women with a unique platform to have their voices heard, and the day echoed with songs and poetry.
The National Refugee Women’s Conference 2017 marks a turning point in Women for Refugee Women’s work. Since the charity launched the Set Her Free campaign against the detention of women seeking asylum in January 2014, there have been a number positive policy developments around detention. For the first time, the UK government has explicitly stated that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence should not be detained. It has limited the duration that pregnant women can be detained to a maximum of 72 hours. And the Home Office has announced that women who are placed on constant supervision should never be watched by male guards. Each of these changes is a step in the right direction. However, one theme resonated from the conference loud and clear: more needs to be done.
“Shut down Yarl’s Wood, shut down Yarl’s Wood,” chanted the refugee women from Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, raising clenched fists into the air. The positive energy was contagious, and the cry soon rippled through the audience. It became clear that closing down this controversial detention facility, and others that serve the same purpose, was to be one of the key themes of the day. “There are ways to make people feel safe,” explained actress Noma Dumezweni (above) as she addressed the conference. “Detention isn’t one of them”.
Women for Refugee Women’s new report The Way Ahead: An asylum system without detention sets out a blueprint for how this could work. Overhauling the current “angry, punitive, racist and dehumanising” system, would create a space for “dignified, fair, protective and humane” policies characterised by a supportive case management system, says the charity’s policy and research coordinator Gemma Lousley.
Importantly, a number of members of parliament – from across party lines – agree that fundamental changes need to be made. Labour’s Kate Osamor took to the stage to denounce the UK’s current asylum policies, explaining how she has been working to raise awareness of the issues faced by women in detention since her election in 2015. Meanwhile, Conservative MP Richard Fuller made it clear that there should be no place for detention in the UK’s refugee system. He said, “we must fight and look forward to what we really want – a complete end to detention”. It may not be the most popular political issue at the moment, but MPs exist to “talk about people with the quietest voices, not the loudest”.
Amplifying refugee women’s voices
All speakers agreed that refugee women’s voices are slipping under the radar of the dominant narrative. But for many, this is nothing new. Mina Jaf, a refugee from Iraq and founder of Women Refugee Route, recalled how as a child she heard her mother and a friend discussing the rape and domestic violence some women faced regularly inside their refugee camp – the next day watching them pretending to live a happy life among their peers. Meanwhile, Eritrean refugee Saadia, who spent time living in the informal camp in Calais explained how so many other women in that context can’t speak enough English to seek help or tell their stories. “There are people across the sea who don’t have anything,” she said. “That’s why I’m here, to make sure they are heard”.
The first panel of the day provided an insight into the adversities faced by women during their journeys to safety – these range from an absence of menstrual products, to systematic unfavourable treatment by camp management. Speakers included Liz Clegg who set up the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre in Calais and founding director of the Refugee Rights Data project, Marta Welander, who led a major research study on refugee women in Greek camps last year.
A second panel investigated which actions refugee women are taking to help improve the dire conditions faced by women on their journeys. Zrinka Bralo, chief executive of Migrants Organise, said “the fascists are winning right now because they’re organised”. She launched a compelling call to action: “We need to connect in solidarity and start organising”.
So what would getting organised look like? Clare Ryder, who helped to plan the 100,000-strong Women’s March on London, provided some pointers. “There are tons of ways to protest,” she said. Just gathering outside Yarl’s Wood and making noise can have an enormous positive impact on the morale of those inside. Moreover, tiny seeds can grow its something much bigger – the Women’s March started with just eight people coming together on Facebook and deciding to take action. Feedback from the afternoon’s workshops contributed a wealth of other ideas to the discussion, from encouraging organisations to open their resources to refugee women, to planning a national day of lobbying, and ensuring that actions are scattered around different parts of the UK.
These ideas shine a light on a potential path forward. Women for Refugee Women’s founder and director Natasha Walter explained that a delegation representing the organisation would be delivering a card signed by conference delegates to the Home Office, and requesting a meeting with Home Secretary Amber Rudd. There are also other strategic plans brewing, for instance to ensure that International Women’s Day 2018 has a firm focus on refugees.
However, the most powerful messages of the day were those relating to community, solidarity and keeping up this sense of momentum over space and time. “My dreams are everyone’s dreams, my struggles are yours, my freedom is yours,” sang London Refugee Women’s Forum, who took to the stage ablaze with colour, waving #SetHerFree placards.
At a time of growing political extremism, it would be easy to feel despondent about the future. “But how can we lose hope when we have such inspiration from refugee women?” asks Women for Refugee Women’s grassroots coordinator Marchu Girma. You certainly can’t argue with that.