Women for Refugee Women is delighted to announce the appointment of our new director, Alphonsine Kabagabo

Women for Refugee Women is delighted to announce the appointment of Alphonsine Kabagabo as our new Director. From January 2021, Alphonsine will be leading the charity and all our work to support and empower refugee women to tell their own stories and advocate for a fairer asylum process.

Alphonsine brings over 20 years of professional experience dedicated to empowering women and girls, as well as personal experience as a refugee woman. Alphonsine is an inspiring leader who will take our work forward into the future so that we can continue to build the confidence and skills of refugee women and create transformative change.

Alphonsine says:

“I am delighted to have been appointed as Women for Refugee Women’s next Director from January 2021.

My own journey as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi and a refugee woman has taught me the importance of having the voice and the skills to change my life. I am extremely excited to be joining an organisation that gives women who are seeking asylum the chance to live a fulfilling life through empowering them with skills to be confident, to tell their stories, and to advocate for a fairer asylum process that treats women with respect and dignity.

I am bringing to WRW my deep passion for empowering girls and women, and over 20 years of experience in leading and managing programmes for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). I led the development of transformative programmes that have given hundreds of young women the confidence to speak out and influence changes to policies on issues that are important to them, such as child marriage, HIV/AIDS prevention, fighting violence against girls and young women, and providing reproductive health services to women in refugee camps. I am also bringing my experience of being a past trustee of Womankind, an international feminist organisation supporting women’s rights and a trustee of SURF, a non-profit organisation supporting survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

I am excited to be joining a team of dedicated trustees, staff and volunteers and to work with them to ensure that Women for Refugee Women continue to grow and achieve its ambition. I am delighted that Natasha Walter, the founder of WRW, will remain in the organisation and I am looking forward to building on the amazing work she has started.

I look forward to ensuring that we continue to amplify the voices of the refugee women, that we strengthen and build new partnerships, and that we can achieve systematic changes for a fair asylum system.”

Rachel Krys, chair of Women for Refugee Women’s board of trustees, says:

"I and all the trustees at Women for Refugee Women are absolutely delighted that Alphonsine Kabagabo will be joining the charity as our new director. We were clear from the start of the recruitment process that we needed to find a leader who would build on the legacy of the last 14 years and take us forward into the next stage. Alphonsine will bring so much experience and so much understanding to the role, as well as her commitment to social justice and her lived experience as a refugee woman. I personally look forward to supporting her over the coming years to ensure that the voices of refugee women continue to be heard and to build a fairer asylum process."

Women for Refugee Women joins commitment to end racism within our sector

Women for Refugee Women are proud to sign up to the end Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector call to action to end racism within our movement. Systemic racism causes harm to the women in our network and shapes how many refugee and asylum-seeking women experience violence, and their access to safety, support and justice.

Over the next six months we will:

  • Establish a working group of trustees, team members and women from our network to develop a framework to ensure our all work meets the values and pledges set out in the anti-racism call to action.
  • Develop and share an action plan for WRW to meet the commitments to which we’ve signed up.
  • Work with colleagues on the VAWG sector anti-racism group to develop an anti-racism charter and support the work to tackle racism in the VAWG sector.

Women for Refugee Women is an organisation committed to challenging the injustices experienced by women who have sought asylum in the UK. We empower refugee and asylum-seeking women to speak out, become leaders and advocate for change. The values of anti-racism are at the centre of this work and we will continue to do everything in our power to tackle racism through care and collaboration.

The call to action is available at: www.endingracisminvawg.org

Priscilla Dudhia, Policy and Research Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women and member of the anti-racism working group that developed this call to action, says:

As a daughter of migrants, this work is very personal to me. A world in which refugee women are treated with dignity will never be possible unless we tackle deep-rooted injustices, such as the racism within the Home Office’s treatment of people who are seeking asylum. But in order to be legitimate in that fight, to make meaningful long-term change, we must first get our own houses into order. I am pleased that Women for Refugee Women have committed to the call to action, a journey that will involve difficult questions, openness and honesty, and of course practical changes - not just statements. I hope that others will join us too, so that we can all live in a kinder, more equal world.  

Venus Abduallah, Office Manager at Women for Refugee Women, says:

"I am in awe of Priscilla and the amazing Black and minoritised women who worked so hard to bring about this call to action to end racism within our movement. As a Black African woman I have faced discrimination and racism while working in the charity sector in the UK. I do this work with love and solidarity to fight for social justice and create genuine change, but instead I have often felt disempowered, hindered and invisible. That is why this call to action is of special importance to me; it not only sets a framework and minimum standards for organisations to ensure their work is anti-racist, but it also paves the way for more accountability, meaningful reflection and radical change in the VAWG sector and eventually other sectors. I look forward to continue being part of developing Women for Refugee Women's own anti-racist practice."

Tuka Almaleh, Digital Inclusion Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women, says:

"When I first came to the UK, I thought that it would be a free country where all people are treated equally regardless of their background, appearance or skin colour. Apparently, I was wrong, and I have since been labelled and categorised in many ways. I struggle to free myself from the accusations and stereotypes that are only present in others' minds. I really believe it is time to reinforce solidarity and stand together as human beings to fight racism. My thanks go to Priscilla and the Black and minoritised women who developed this call to action, for working to end racisms in our movement and for seeking a better world."

The ‘re-purposing’ of Yarl’s Wood and the invisibility of women in immigration detention

by Gemma Lousley, Detention Policy and Research Coordinator

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of women held in immigration detention in the UK has dropped dramatically. At the end of December 2019, there were 121 women in detention. By the end of March 2020 – just after the first national lockdown came into force – this number had fallen to 42. By mid-August, there were fewer than 20 women in detention.

At this point, the Home Office announced that they were ‘re-purposing’ Yarl’s Wood, which for so long had been the only detention centre in the UK predominantly for women. It was stated that Yarl’s Wood would become a short-term holding facility, instead, for men arriving in the UK by boat.

The arrival of refugees in the UK via the English Channel has, increasingly over the past six months, been whipped up as a ‘crisis’ by the government and some sections of the media – despite the fact that the proportion of the world’s refugees who manage to get to the UK is tiny. As some have pointed out, by presenting the arrival of refugees via the Channel as a ‘crisis’ and proposing various ‘solutions’ to this, including the re-deployment of Yarl’s Wood, the government has attempted to distract from its incompetence and neglect in the handling of the pandemic.

So, Yarl’s Wood did not close; it simply became a different type of detention centre. For the men held there since its ‘re-purposing’, Yarl’s Wood has continued to inflict the same racist harms that defined it while it was locking up women. A recent report on the use of Yarl’s Wood as a short-term holding facility highlights that the men detained there are from countries including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. These men have found it almost impossible to get proper legal advice; they have not been able to access safeguarding mechanisms for survivors of torture and trafficking, which are supposed to protect against their detention; and they have not been provided with adequate medical care.

Keeping Yarl’s Wood ‘open’ has also meant that the Home Office could ‘re-purpose’ it once more at a moment’s notice – which it now has done. We have just learned that, alongside operating it as a short-term holding facility for men, the Home Office has started indefinitely detaining women at Yarl’s Wood again. We understand that there are currently around 10 women locked up there.

The Home Office apparently re-started the indefinite detention of women at Yarl’s Wood about three weeks ago. In contrast with the ‘re-purposing’ of Yarl’s Wood in August, however – and indeed the ‘closure’ of Morton Hall detention centre in July, which has not in fact been closed but turned into a prison – the Home Office has not made any public announcement about this latest development. Re-starting the indefinite detention of women at Yarl’s Wood – a place that in 2015 the Chief Inspector of Prisons labelled ‘a place of national concern’ – is apparently not considered significant enough to warrant this. It just happened.

The Home Office’s non-announcement of this latest development at Yarl’s Wood is partly about its lack of transparency and desire to avoid any accountability. But it is also about the invisibility of women in immigration detention. Women have always made up a small proportion of those held under immigration powers – and, currently, their numbers are very low. Consequently, what happens to women in detention is often overlooked and considered unimportant – and not only by the Home Office.

Earlier this year, for example, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published the first annual inspection of the Adults at Risk process, which is the process designed by the Home Office to supposedly prevent the detention of people who are vulnerable. In the report, the Chief Inspector explains that to conduct the inspection it was not only detention centres that were visited; inspectors also went to four prisons where people were being held under immigration powers. What the Chief Inspector should have said, however, was that four prisons for men had been visited. No women’s prisons were visited during the inspection at all.

But the small numbers of women in immigration detention does not mean that the use of detention for them is insignificant. As Women for Refugee Women has repeatedly highlighted, the majority of women detained are survivors of rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Locking up these women indefinitely causes immense harm and re-traumatises them. One in five of the women we spoke to for our 2014 report Detained said that they had tried to kill themselves in detention. Forty per cent of the women we interviewed for our 2015 report I Am Human said that they had self-harmed while detained. One woman we interviewed for our 2017 report We Are Still Here told us: ‘Detention is another form of torture. You think you’ve escaped it in your country, but then you get here and you go through more.’ 

Moreover, the vast majority of women locked up in detention are not removed from the country, but released back into the community to continue with their cases. In 2018, just 14% of asylum-seeking women leaving detention were removed from the UK. This, of course, has been exacerbated by the global pandemic we are now living under. In a recent ‘short scrutiny’ report of four detention centres, including Yarl’s Wood, HM Inspectorate of Prisons highlighted that since the start of the pandemic 'few removals had taken place and few were scheduled'.

What the small number of women currently in immigration detention does mean, however, is that the Home Office could formally put an end to the detention of women today. Since 2019 the Home Office, with the charity Action Foundation, has been running a case management-focused alternative to detention pilot for women – a pilot that is due to come to an end in early 2021. The Home Office is therefore in a position to use emerging findings from this pilot to develop and expand the use of alternatives to detention for women, and to stop locking them up now.

At the time of Yarl’s Wood’s first ‘re-purposing’ in August this year, Mariam Yusuf, a campaigner who was detained at Yarl’s Wood, said: It is time to shut down Yarl’s Wood for good to put an end to this site of injustice and inhumanity.’ We are calling on the Home Office to recognise that the historically low numbers of women currently in detention presents a real opportunity for meaningful change. Given how low these numbers are, the Home Office could formally end the detention of women immediately. This would be an important step towards abolishing immigration detention, and the immense harm that it inflicts, in the UK altogether.

Women for Refugee Women is recruiting a Director (closed)

Director - Women for Refugee Women
£60,000 - £70,000
Full-time, permanent (flexible, part time and job share considered)

Women for Refugee Women is an organisation committed to challenging the injustices experienced by women and children who have sought asylum in the UK. Our overarching vision is that women who seek asylum should be able to live in safety, dignity and liberty.

We currently work in three main ways: to empower refugee women to tell their own stories; to communicate the experiences of refugee women to wide audiences, and to advocate for policy change and a fairer asylum process.

In what has been an extremely challenging year, we have continued to support asylum-seeking and refugee women, in London and in partnership with groups across England and Wales, and campaign against unlawful detention, the impact of destitution, and for a fairer asylum system. In part because of a generous legacy left to us by a committed volunteer, and the support from our funders, we have been able to keep going through the COVID crisis and support other grassroots organisations to continue their vital work.

The Director we are looking for will share our values of human rights, anti-racism and intersectional feminism and bring a commitment to empowering women to communicate their own experiences. Your remit will be to lead an organisation in a controversial policy area with confidence and calmness while holding a vision of radical change. You will lead and support a team of experienced and passionate professionals, all of whom bring unquestionable commitment to this cause.

Who you are, your values, your experience and your commitment to our mission is what we are interested in first and foremost and we look forward to hearing from you. Whatever your professional and life experience background, you will be the emotionally intelligent leader who is able to influence and engage with stakeholders, government, media, funding bodies and existing and future partners.

We believe passionately in women telling their own stories to achieve social change. If you do too then we would be delighted to hear from you.

How to apply

You can download the candidate information pack here.

For an informal conversation about the role, please contact our recruitment partner, Carroll Lloyd, Director, NFP Consulting on 07765 001 033 or email carroll.lloyd@nfpconsulting.co.uk

Applications can be made online at www.nfpconsulting.co.uk/womenforrefugeewomen

We are happy to accept written applications in whatever format works best for you. Please contact us and tell us how you would prefer to apply for the role.

Closing date: 10.00 a.m. Monday 26th October

Women for Refugee Women is committed to diversity and inclusion in its workforce. We seek to attract applications from the widest possible talent pool and to appoint on ability irrespective of race, religion, age, disability (including hidden disabilities), marital/civil partnership status, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. We particularly welcome applications from women with a refugee background with lived experience of the issues we are tackling who can lead and influence change for the women we serve.

You can read our founder Natasha Walter's blog about the story of Women for Refugee Women so far and why now is the time for new leadership here.

A message from our director, Natasha Walter

Today, I’m sharing news that feels pretty momentous for me. After 14 years of leading Women for Refugee Women I’ve decided to step aside from the role of director. I won’t be leaving the charity entirely. I’m taking on a new creative role so that I can continue to contribute to the work of Women for Refugee Women, and I’ll share more about that later.

When I founded Women for Refugee Women in 2006 I had absolutely no idea how far I would go on this journey. At the time, I was a journalist at the Guardian. I had spent some time working on a story about asylum seekers being forced into destitution in the UK, and had met a woman called Angelique. She had fled sexual violence in DR Congo, but when she arrived in the UK had been refused asylum and left on the streets. When I met her, she was homeless and heavily pregnant, walking from one end of London to another in search of food and shelter.

Listening to her, I felt so furious at how our broken asylum system lets down women who are fleeing violence, and so frustrated by the silence that surrounds their plight. With my friend Sarah Cutler I decided to organise an event to draw attention to this hidden scandal. The event took place on a warm May evening at the ICA in London. It was extraordinary. The courage of refugee women who shared their stories for actors to tell, or spoke themselves, met the generosity of the audience. I felt on that night that something magical had happened - that women were being heard, that sisterhood was being formed.

I knew that I couldn’t stop at that one event. But all we had at that time was a great deal of passion, a couple of thousand pounds from our first donors, and a network of courageous refugee women who wanted to speak up on this issue.

So we went on, step by step. We held meetings and pitched stories to journalists. We set up a trustee board and took on a first volunteer, and then a staff member. Ten years ago, we employed Marchu Girma as Grassroots Co-ordinator and the charity as it is now came into being. Marchu, a refugee woman herself, worked to ensure that refugee women’s voices and leadership are recognised at the charity and that refugee women are given pathways to develop their confidence and skills.

Over the years, WRW has taken on campaigns with honesty and passion, always looking for new allies and new ways to tell stories. In 2007, I visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre with Juliet Stevenson and we met two families with 13-year-old girls who were locked up there.  I wrote a play, Motherland, based on the experiences of Meltem Avcil and other children who had been detained, and Juliet Stevenson put it on at the Young Vic with other great actors including Harriet Walter and Noma Dumezweni. The play helped to change the conversation about this scandal, and we continued to work closely with others in the field – including the Children’s Society, Medical Justice and Bail for Immigration Detainees – against the detention of children. When the government announced the end of the detention of children in 2010, we could celebrate a step forward.

After that, the debate around detention died down, and so in 2014, we started the Set Her Free campaign against the detention of women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. This campaign has transformed public understanding of detention, as well as changing practice and policy. The launch showed the way. It was led by refugee women who had been held at Yarl’s Wood, who spoke directly to influential supporters, including Philippe Sands, Stella Creasy, Leyla Hussein, Caroline Criado Perez and Laura Bates.

We then organised a demonstration at Yarl’s Wood, one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen outside a UK detention centre, with speakers including Rahela Sidiqi and Nimko Ali alongside Helena Kennedy QC and the local MP, Richard Fuller. We exposed the reality of women’s experiences in the centre, working with Channel 4 News on their influential exposé of abuse in Yarl’s Wood and publishing our own reports on how male staff deny women privacy in detention and how trafficked women are routinely detained.

We organised creative actions: a solidarity quilt was stitched with messages by the Women’s Institute and exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum; women who attended the Women of the World festival wrote cards to Theresa May; 99 influential women including Charlotte Church and Mary Beard wrote messages of support for the 99 pregnant women detained that year. We sang songs outside the Home Office. We talked to Angelina Jolie at the End Sexual Violence in Conflict conference, and enabled her to write a message of support for the campaign. We wrote more plays, performed by Cush Jumbo, Bryony Hannah and Alan Rickman as well as Juliet Stevenson, and went on more demonstrations, and spoke on more radio and television programmes, and lobbied more politicians, and never stopped. In 2017 we saw over 20,000 women in Trafalgar Square shout ‘Set Her Free’ at the women’s march in response to our refugee women’s drama group.

And we have seen successes in practice. Working with MPs from all parties, we achieved a time limit on the detention of pregnant women. Pressure on the treatment of women in detention has led the Home Office to set up a pilot of alternative to detention for women. Over the years, we have seen a steady reduction overall of those detained. In August this year, we heard that there are no women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

In 2020 Women for Refugee Women launched a new campaign, Sisters Not Strangers, against the forced destitution of refugee women. There are still too many women like Angelique, who have fled violence only to find themselves hungry and homeless in the UK. We now work more effectively at the grassroots, and in February 2020 we saw more than 250 refugee women and supporters come together to launch the campaign at a conference in Birmingham.

So here we are now. An organisation that started with a single event and a couple of donations and a lot of goodwill is now a registered charity with eight staff, two freelancers, 12 trustees and dozens of volunteers, and partner organisations all over the UK. We have a track record of insightful research and successful campaigning. Over 300 asylum-seeking women are on our register in London, and before the pandemic were attending our centre regularly for English classes, advice, support and creative projects. We are supported by trusts and foundations, and donors and fundraisers both small and large.

We have weathered a number of internal challenges that will be familiar to those working in this area. Trying to create an equal, kind, hopeful organisation in a society that is often none of those things can feel like an uphill struggle at times. We have made mistakes, and we – and I - have learnt a tremendous amount. Above all we work in an increasingly challenging political environment which is making some of the injustices faced by refugee women even harder to overcome.

But none of those challenges are why I have decided to step aside from the role of director. When I started Women for Refugee Women I was working as a writer, and writing is still my passion. I have published two books while running the charity. I completed the first while on maternity leave with my second child and my second on a short sabbatical. I am way overdue on a contract to write the next one.

For months, I have found myself trying to manage the charity and also write this book, wondering how long I could go on working at that pace. In March, the pandemic hit, and I found myself running even faster. I realised that there are only so many hours in the day, and this charity – this cause – needs a leader who can guide colleagues through new challenges with renewed zeal. In the summer my valued colleague Marchu Girma told me that she was leaving to take up a new role as CEO at Hibiscus Initiatives. I felt that the charity now has an opportunity to find new leadership, an opportunity which we should seize immediately.

As I say, I won’t be leaving the charity entirely. I will go on working on our creative projects, alongside refugee women who want to develop their communication and leadership skills. I want to carve out new spaces for their voices to be heard, and ensure that their stories and voices find new audiences.

The reason why WRW has achieved so much, from that one event back in May 2006, is because of all the extraordinary women who have worked with us. Refugee women such as Marjorie Ojule and Meltem Avcil, Farhat Khan and Rahela Sidiqi, Jade Amoli-Jackson and Loraine Mponela, and hundreds more, have shaped our values and work. Staff, trustees and volunteers have given time, energy and imagination. Politicians, journalists and lawyers have listened to us and worked alongside us. Funders and donors have ensured we have the resources we need. You – women and men in all walks of life –have supported us by listening, donating, turning up to events, demonstrating, and sharing our work. I’m very lucky to be able to continue being part of an amazing network that puts solidarity and sisterhood into action.

This is the start of a new chapter for Women for Refugee Women, and I’m really excited to turn the next page.

If you could be our next leader or know someone else who would be great for this role, please click here for more information about the role and how to apply.

Women for Refugee Women Who We Are Staff And Trustees

Goodbye and good luck to Marchu Girma, who is moving on after 10 amazing years

We want to share the news with you that our deputy director Marchu Girma is leaving us to lead the charity Hibiscus Initiatives. Marchu has been a vital part of Women for Refugee Women for 10 years, and has really grown and shaped the organisation. She has brought her own experience of being a refugee woman into the charity, and has led our work to ensure that refugee women are supported to join and lead our work at every level.  She has been an inspiration and a mentor to many of us, and a great spokeswoman for refugee women.

We are sorry that she is leaving us, but wish her so much luck in her new role.

Marchu says:

“I joined WRW as a Grassroots Co-ordinator, when the organisation had just started. It has been such a privilege to see and be part of the transformation, growth and success of the organisation. The refugee women in the network are my inspiration. I have and always will be in awe of their strength and determination to not only survive but thrive. It was a huge privilege to work with them and see their transformation on journeys of empowerment. I truly believe their stories can and will change the world, so keep telling them!

It has also been my great privilege to work with an exceptionally dedicated and skilled team. Thank you for your support in helping me grow, develop and become the leader I am today. I really believe we lived up to Angela Davis’s words that everyday we acted as if it were possible to radically transform the world and we did it all the time.

It is with great sadness that I leave Women for Refugee Women. I am sure that whatever the future holds for the charity, I know that it will be one of success!”

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, says:

“Marchu has been a guide and inspiration for me, as well as a valued colleague. She has been a great part of the success of Women for Refugee Women over the last ten years, and has built a powerful model of support and engagement for refugee women who join our activities, so that they can move on a journey into confidence and empowerment. She has organised conferences, co-written reports, led actions, supported individual women, and built coalitions. She has constantly spoken up for refugee women and their potential to contribute and lead in every area of our society. Everyone at Women for Refugee Women has benefited so much from Marchu’s courageous and creative spirit, and wish her all the best in her next role.”

Olivia, member of  Women for Refugee Women's grassroots network, says:

"Marchu has been a brilliant mentor to so many women. Her contribution has been so empowering and has opened up so many doors for me. She has made space for many women with lived experience in the organisation. I will cherish all the moments of having been under her mentorship and will miss her positive energy and leadership. I wish her all the best in her new job!"

Mariam, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women and member of the WAST Manchester Management Committee, says:

"Marchu has been an inspiration to me and has encouraged me to always aim higher and to fight for what is right. She has been a charismatic mentor and I wish her good luck in her new job."

Women leave Yarl’s Wood detention centre: MPs, campaigners and women who have previously been detained respond

Yesterday it was reported that Yarl’s Wood detention centre has been emptied of women and may be 'repurposed' as a holding centre for people who have crossed the channel.

Women for Refugee Women has been campaigning against the detention of women seeking asylum since 2014. While we welcome the news that Yarl’s Wood detention centre is being emptied of women, there are many unanswered questions, including what the centre is going to be used for now and what is going to happen to women who might have faced detention there. We are calling on the Home Office to be transparent about the future use of the centre and to be proactive about the development of alternatives to detention in the asylum process.

Mariam Yusuf, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood and now volunteers with Women for Refugee Women and Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, says:

“I came to the UK seeking safety, but instead I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood. That experience tore my life apart and I know many other women who continue to struggle with the trauma of being locked up there. For many years I have campaigned to shut down Yarl’s Wood. To hear that it is now becoming empty fills me with hope. But it is time to go further and shut down Yarl’s Wood for good to put an end to this site of injustice and inhumanity.”

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, says:

“I first visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre in 2007, when children were still detained there. We saw an end to the indefinite detention of children in 2011, and I hope that we are now moving away from the detention of women and all those caught in this inhumane system. I have worked with so many women who have been locked up in this centre, who have spoken so eloquently of the pain and suffering they have experienced. It is time not only to move women out of this particular centre, but to put an end to the system of detention and ensure that women in the asylum process can be supported in the community.” 

Philippe Sands QC, human rights lawyer and author of East West Street and The Ratline, spoke at the launch of the Set Her Free campaign in 2014. He says:

“The indefinite detention of those who come to this country to seek safety from persecution is a stain on all our consciences. The right to seek asylum was enshrined in British and international law in the wake of the Second World War and  all of us who care about the rule of law need to uphold it into the future. I hope that the news that Yarl's Wood detention centre is being emptied of women could be a sign that this government will move away from its reliance on detention and start to ensure that those seeking protection here are given liberty, dignity and a fair hearing.”

Juliet Stevenson, actor and supporter of the Set Her Free campaign, says:

“I am glad to hear that women are no longer being held in this facility which brought so much needless suffering to so many women who were seeking sanctuary from war, rape and torture. I have been proud to stand with many of these women to campaign against their detention and I hope that they can now find safety and hope for the future.”

Stella Creasy MP (Labour) says:

“For years many of us have campaigned alongside brave women detained in Yarl's Wood detention centre, because we have been horrified by the stories of women who have fled sexual violence and persecution only to be locked up indefinitely when they came here for protection. The centre has been a place of suffering and trauma for too long and it’s good to hear that women are no longer being held there. The Home Office should now be transparent about its future plans, and close Yarl's Wood immediately rather than keeping it open under its multi-million pound agreement with Serco."

Richard Fuller, Conservative MP for Bedfordshire (the constituency where Yarl’s Wood is situated):

“Indefinite immigration detention is both expensive, and harmful to those individuals who are locked up. I cautiously welcome the news that women are no longer being held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre but join the call for further transparency and hope that we will see greater humanity when it comes to ensuring that those who seek asylum here are given a fair hearing.”

Women for Refugee Women has led the Set Her Free campaign since 2014. It has enabled many women in detention to speak about their experiences and brought together Parliamentarians from all parties to demand change.

  • In 2014, we published research that showed that the majority of women in Yarl’s Wood were survivors of sexual violence and that detention re-traumatised them.
  • In 2015, we published research showing that women in the centre were routinely denied privacy and dignity, and were being watched by male staff even in bed and on the toilet.
  • In 2016, 99 influential women wrote messages of solidarity for the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood, leading to a change in policy and a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women.
  • In 2017, we pressed the government to explore viable alternatives to detention for women seeking asylum.
  • In 2019, we published research on the experiences of Chinese women in detention, showing that they were often locked up despite clear evidence of trafficking.
  • In 2020, we shone a light on how women were being held without due regard to their rights and safety at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's time to shut down Yarl's Wood and put an end to immigration detention altogether.

Hear us: the experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking women during the pandemic

Today, 20 July 2020, the Sisters Not Strangers coalition publish a report which exposes the hardships experienced by asylum-seeking women in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic and calls for far-reaching reform of the asylum process.

The new report, Hear us: the experiences of refugee and asylum-seeking women during the pandemic, shows that women who have sought asylum in the UK, who were already living in poverty before the pandemic, have been made even more vulnerable to hunger and ill health.

  • Three quarters of women surveyed went hungry during the pandemic, including mothers who struggled to feed their children.
  • A fifth of women surveyed were homeless, relying on temporary arrangements with acquaintances for shelter, or sleeping outside or on buses.
  • More than 20 of the women surveyed said they did not feel able to go to the NHS even when they or a family member had COVID-19 symptoms.
  • The vast majority (82%) said that their mental health had worsened during the crisis, because of isolation and being cut off from support services.
  • The organisations who produced the report had all supported women trapped in abusive or exploitative situations during the pandemic, including women forced to do unpaid work for shelter and women living with violent partners.

The Sisters Not Strangers coalition is calling for a grant of leave to remain for all those who have applied for asylum, so that they can access support, housing and healthcare during this time of crisis. It is also calling for an uplift in asylum support, reform of the legal aid system, and the right to work for asylum-seekers.

Lo Lo, an asylum-seeking woman who was homeless in London during lockdown says:

I have serious health conditions that mean it would be particularly dangerous for me to catch the virus. For a week during lockdown, I slept on buses. I went from one side of London to the other, because it was free to travel on the bus then.  I would like the government to respect us, let us be safe and treat us with dignity as human beings.

Edna, who is living with no statutory support and relying on charities for her survival in Liverpool, says:

Being destitute during a pandemic is the worst feeling ever. It makes you feel like you are just a box and if someone wanted to kick you, they could; you are just an object, not a human with feelings. It’s not easy relying on other people for food and shelter and it has caused me a lot of mental health issues. I have thoughts about harming myself. It’s not been easy at all for me during the pandemic - not being free, not being able to do what I want, everything comes with a restriction.

Loraine Mponela, chair of Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group, says:

This research is so important because when we speak as individuals it can sound as if we are trying to dramatise the situation.
It's not drama, it's real life. These are the problems that we are going through on a day-to-day basis as asylum-seeking women. We need to build solidarity to carry us through this crisis and also enable us to work together after the pandemic to create a more equal and safer society for women.

Jessica Baker, Family and Asylum Integration Officer of Oasis Cardiff, says:

We are still faced with an outdated asylum system that is in drastic need of an overhaul. Women are more vulnerable than ever during the current social climate, and face further challenges as a result of their asylum status. Moreover, lack of access to basic human needs such as education, clothing, housing, food and internet is simply unacceptable. We need change now and our voices need to be acknowledged and heard.

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women says:

Previous research has established that almost all women who seek asylum in the UK are survivors of gender-based violence. Even before this crisis, we have seen how they are forced into poverty and struggle to find safety. During the pandemic they have too often been left without basic support including food and shelter. It is now vital that we listen to these women and ensure that we build a fairer and more caring society.

Read the report here.


Women for Refugee Women is recruiting a Digital Inclusion Coordinator (no longer accepting applications)

Women for Refugee Women is seeking a Digital Inclusion Co-ordinator to work closely with our team to facilitate digital access and improve IT skills among our network of refugee and asylum-seeking women.

Women for Refugee Women is a charity that supports women seeking asylum in the UK and challenges the injustices they experience. We work at the grassroots by empowering refugee women to speak out and advocate for themselves, and through communications and campaigning work which engages the mainstream media and politicians.

The role will include assessing women’s basic needs and skills and providing the essential equipment and support to enable them to move forwards. It will involve supporting women to participate in learning, solidarity and advocacy opportunities at WRW, as well as enabling them to access other services and participate more effectively in their communities.

Women for Refugee Women particularly welcomes applications from individuals with experience of migration and/or a refugee background.


Salary: £28,000 per annum for 35 hours a week

Hours: Full time if possible, part-time or flexible hours if preferred

Accountable to: WRW’s Grassroots Co-ordinator

Location: working from home or in the WRW office near Old Street (depending on the situation caused by the pandemic, the wishes of the post holder and the needs of the organisation)

Women for Refugee Women is a small organisation where every team member is valued, and everyone is supported to carry out their role effectively. We encourage staff members to take up training opportunities to develop their skills, all staff members are able to access individual counselling support if desired, and we enable staff members to work flexibly according to individual preferences. We try to ensure that WRW provides a supportive environment where individuals can grow and develop their roles in line with our values and vision.


How to apply:

Please download and read the Digital Inclusion Co-ordinator application pack.

To apply, please email joinus@refugeewomen.co.uk with your CV and a covering letter stating how you meet the person specification and why you would like to join WRW.

Applications will be considered from 7 July on a rolling basis, so that applicants may be invited for interview from 8 July onwards. Interviews will take place remotely by Zoom. Due to our restricted capacity, only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

Refugee Week 2020: Keeping our sisters safe in Halifax!

This Refugee Week, we are sharing a series of blogs written by refugee and asylum-seeking women who are supporting other women in their local communities.

Today, Jolanda Skura (pictured right), Co-Founder of Sisters United, writes about their amazing work in Halifax.

Sisters United was set up in 2017 by and for women in Halifax. Many of us have lived experience of the UK’s asylum system. Supporting one another is our main objective and we have been doing this for a long time. But we are now facing many new and different challenges because of COVID-19. Now more than ever our sisters need help, but due to the pandemic we have had to close the doors of our centre where we used to meet every week to provide vital support to vulnerable women.

We support women who are seeking asylum, who are forced to live on £5.39 a day. Many other women, who have been refused asylum, are living completely destitute with no support at all. These women are struggling to survive. They are some of the most vulnerable people in our country and the government has completely abandoned them.

When the crisis started, sisters started speaking to each other about how we can support the women in our group. First, we messaged everyone, sharing information about the virus and the lockdown measures, and we’ve continued to do this through our WhatsApp group. We then started calling all the women on a weekly basis to check they understood what was going on and the official guidance, and to see if they needed any support with food, medicine, and other basics. Many sisters don’t have a TV or internet access, so we needed to make sure they were aware of how to keep themselves safe. We found this difficult at times, as not all women speak English, but we managed; nothing is impossible!

We have been topping up women’s phones so that they can call us or a community member if they need help. Some of the women we support haven’t been able to get to the supermarkets to buy food because they have no money or because they are more vulnerable due to their age or a serious medical condition. So we have also been helping them access food parcels from community organisations and churches. We have helped with clothes and cleaning products, especially for those who live in shared houses with non-family members and who are therefore more vulnerable to catching the virus.

Accessing school meal vouchers has been a big challenge for asylum-seeking women who are struggling to feed their children. Some sisters didn’t receive the vouchers and we had to contact the schools many times to advocate for them. Many sisters are single parents and being alone during this time has been really challenging. ‘What is going to happen to my children, if something happens to me?’ I have heard this many times since the pandemic.

These mothers also need WiFi and laptops or tablets so that they can support their children’s learning while they are not at school, but that has been really difficult to access. What felt good though was when we managed to find two bicycles for a couple of kids. A sister who received one for her son thanked us so many times. He was so happy to play with it!

All of this work is being done by amazing volunteers! Their work is needed every day, and I want to thank them for always trying their best to make sure our sisters are safe. But what is the government doing for us?

We are proud to work alongside wonderful women like Jolanda and the members of Sisters United.

To stay updated on their work, follow Sisters United on Twitter and Facebook!