Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration finds that the Home Office is still detaining vulnerable people

A report published today by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) has found that, more than three years since its introduction, the Home Office’s ‘Adults at Risk’ policy is still not operating effectively to keep vulnerable people out of immigration detention.

The inspection identifies ‘significant weaknesses’ in Home Office processes for identifying vulnerable people before they are locked up in detention. It also points to a ‘host of problems’ with mechanisms that are supposed to act as safeguards for vulnerable people once they have been detained.

The findings of the ICIBI’s report are even more troubling in the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Detention centres put vulnerable people with underlying physical health conditions at particular risk of infection, as living conditions make it impossible to self-isolate effectively and uphold social distancing. There have already been at least two cases of Covid-19 in detention centres.

Women for Refugee Women is also in touch with survivors of trafficking, torture and rape who have been locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre for weeks, and in some cases months. Being detained while a global pandemic is ongoing is causing these vulnerable women immense distress. There are also serious questions about the legality of their detention. Immigration detention is only supposed to be used for purposes of removal, but as borders around the world have closed there is currently no possibility of removing these women from the UK.

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

"Even in normal circumstances, as the ICIBI report makes clear, safeguards that are meant to protect vulnerable people from being held in immigration detention are simply not working. Immigration detention is both traumatic and unnecessary, and potentially unlawful at this time when removal is not possible. The Home Office is putting vulnerable women at risk by continuing to detain them. We call  on the Home Office to shut down detention centres now, and to provide everyone currently in detention with accommodation in the community so that they can self-isolate."


Keeping strong during lockdown - a poem by Olivia

Olivia Namutebi is a member of the Women for Refugee Women drama group. She has written this poem to share what has helped her to stay strong during the lockdown. She says, "I hope that my poem will encourage someone else and give them strength during this challenging time."

 

Fear Panic Anxiety

The first three weeks of lockdown

Overwhelmed with fear, panic and anxiety

I didn’t know how I would cope.

This is how I’ve managed to help myself,

I felt very alone, I knew I had to manage to help myself.

 

I read recently that anything is possible if you put your mind to it

Those words have kept me driving myself forward.

I had to acknowledge all my feelings

And remember that actually I’m NOT alone:

Everyone is in lockdown

But this will end, this will end.

 

A positive attitude is everything

I am learning to appreciate the things I was taking for granted

Life, the support network around me, my children, a hot meal, a bed to sleep in, I can take a shower or a bath, I can do my laundry…

Perhaps someone else doesn’t even have that.

Think of the things that bring you joy

That help you live.

 

I disconnected myself from social media and all the bad news

Switch off the TV

Switch off your phone

Switch off all the breaking news

A quick check once a day is enough

Escape the endless repetitive news

Disconnect from the media and take time to talk so someone

Take your brain away from the screens

Talk safely to those near you, those around you,

Take time to hear their voices.

 

I’ve remembered to move my body

A simple workout, yoga, a dance

Twenty minutes of moving my body

Simple movements

Move your body in a way that works for you.

Stretching my arms over my head

Turning and stretching my neck

Coming back to centre

Coming back to feel the pleasure in my body

Hold your hips and swing them in circles

Turning my ankles and stretching my feet

It makes me happy, I’m laughing when I think of it!

 

Take a walk to slow the pressure of life

Safely walk far from strangers

Walking through the sunny park

Listening to the birds singing

Just watching them fly

Watching the birds having fun against the blue sky

The greenery blossoming in the sunshine

Yellow, white, pink flowers by my feet

New green leaves appearing each day

It uplifts my spirit!

 

Do nothing.  Sit and listen to the sounds of life.

Cars. The wind in the trees.

I take time to listen to the sounds of the world as it turns.

It calms me.

 

Be creative, write, I let my mind wander,

Remembering something I’ve read

Reading something new

My books and newspapers give me ideas

I record my new ideas

Building my collage of ideas that keeps my mind active and learning.

Do what you like: do it!  Cleaning, cooking, a massage, perfect your make up, do some painting.

Do the things that make you feel good.

A little head rub to make you smile.

 

Get enough sleep.  Eat well if you can.  Eat healthy food to keep strong.

It’s new to me feeling like this, so alone and isolated,

But I realise for some people this is always their life.

Those people inspire me.

For me it’s temporary, so I need to be optimistic, to keep my hope strong.

 

When we meet again

We’ll be so full of ideas but also mindful, careful,

Making sure we look after each other and keep safe.

Safe together again for the future.

Everything has shut down, it will open again.

As the world carries on turning we’ll have another chance,

A different way of looking at the whole world.

Hope, optimism, love

In the time after lockdown

Hope, optimism, love

That’s how we will cope…


Women for Refugee Women submit evidence to the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into Home Office preparedness for Covid-19

Women for Refugee Women (WRW) is a charity that supports women seeking asylum in the UK and challenges the injustices that they experience. We have submitted evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on two key areas of our expertise: first, women in immigration detention and second, women who have been refused asylum and have been forced into destitution.

You can read the full submission here.

Women in immigration detention

WRW is in touch with women currently locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. We have worked for years to highlight the pointless and inhumane nature of immigration detention, particularly for women who have already survived violence, torture and trafficking. We are very concerned by the way the Home Office has prepared for and responded to the coronavirus pandemic in relation to people in detention. Our submission includes evidence on five key areas:

1. Lack of preparedness for coronavirus in Yarl’s Wood and inadequate response once a case was confirmed

Women detained at Yarl's Wood told us that there was a lax attitude to hygiene in the detention centre, with insufficient access to soap and hand sanitiser. One woman told us:

‘I don’t feel safe. I’ve locked myself away and am not talking to anyone because I have asthma and am afraid for my health. I just want to get out. This whole thing is just terrifying.’

2. Arrival of newly detained people into Yarl’s Wood

In the week following the confirmed case on 22 March, for instance, we were aware of six new women who were brought into Yarl’s Wood. More recently, on 13 April around 40 men were detained in the short-term holding facility there. Our understanding is that these men may have recently arrived in the UK by boat.

The health implications of bringing new people into the detention estate are extremely worrying and it is very difficult to understand why the Home Office is continuing with any new detentions at the moment, since it is simply not possible to remove anyone from the UK.

3. Continued detention of women during the pandemic, including women with underlying physical health conditions who are particularly at risk

We are aware of women with serious underlying physical health conditions which would put them at particular risk if they were to be infected with coronavirus, who were kept in Yarl’s Wood following the confirmed case and are still there. Additionally, we are in touch with women who are survivors of rape, trafficking and torture, and are very concerned about the impact on them of being detained during this extremely stressful time.

4. Lack of access to legal advice and other support in Yarl’s Wood

Detention centres are now closed to most outside visitors, including legal representatives, and as a consequence it appears that the legal advice surgery in Yarl’s Wood is no longer operating. This raises serious concerns about women’s access to justice.

Other services in Yarl’s Wood have been stripped back considerably. For instance, we understand that most of those working for the Wellbeing service, which provides mental health support, are now working remotely, and that the Welfare department is now completely shut. The effect of this, of course, is that already vulnerable women, who are being re-traumatised by detention, are now unable to access the limited support that was in place for them previously.

5. Insufficient support given to women upon release

We know from solicitors and other advocacy groups working in this field that some people have been released from detention to destitution. We are also aware of instances where the Home Office and Serco have failed to ensure that women can safely travel to their accommodation, ignoring their duty of care to highly vulnerable women who speak very little English.

Key recommendation:
All detention centres should be closed and those women who are currently detained should be provided with support and safe accommodation where they would have the means to self-isolate.

 

Asylum-seeking women living destitute

Many of the women we work with at WRW are living destitute, banned from working and with no access to statutory financial or housing support. We are very concerned by the way the Home Office has prepared for and responded to the pandemic in relation to these incredibly vulnerable women.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, WRW has moved to supporting around 300 asylum-seeking women via telephone. We are therefore aware of the pressing and growing needs of these women, as their usual sources of support cut down on activities or shut their doors. On a daily basis, we are hearing from women who are unable to buy food for themselves and their children, who are unable to self-isolate safely, and who are trapped in abusive situations.

One destitute woman in our network, Sarah, has stayed in various places in London since her asylum claim was refused some months ago. When we spoke with her on 14 April, she had no money, no food, and nowhere to stay. The mosque where she had been sleeping had asked her to leave due to concerns about the virus. WRW exhausted all options to secure safe accommodation for Sarah, including by contacting homelessness services. We also contacted multiple hotels and hostels but were informed that they were not accepting anyone other than key workers. Sarah had walked past police officers whilst she was wandering the streets, but was too afraid to seek help for fear of being detained due to her insecure immigration status. Sarah has now spent two nights sleeping outside, on night buses and in a park in central London.

Another woman we spoke with, Maxine, a survivor of sexual violence, has also moved several times since being forced into destitution due to a refusal of her asylum claim over a year ago. She is currently sleeping on the floor in an overcrowded house. To avoid street homelessness, she is forced to cook and clean for everyone, and shares her room with a man she does not know.

Asylum-seeking women who are made destitute are, in ordinary times, at heightened risk of abuse and illness. In a public health emergency, everyone should be protected.

Key recommendation:
Every destitute woman in the UK, even if she has had a refusal on her asylum claim, should be given immediate access to financial support and accommodation where she can self-isolate safely, whether through the existing system of asylum support or through the mainstream benefits system. This should be introduced with no caveats, no exemptions and no refusals.

You can read the full submission here.


Our diary: Supporting refugee women through the pandemic

Women for Refugee Women is a small charity that works directly with women who are seeking asylum in the UK. Most of the women we work with have survived rape or torture in their countries of origin and have come to this country seeking safety.   

Yet many find themselves hungry, homeless and vulnerable to abuse in the UK. The outbreak of coronavirus is hitting the women we work with particularly hard, exacerbating the difficulties they already faced.  

On Monday 16 March, we had to make the sad decision to suspend our face-to-face activities, but we are adapting our work to continue to support refugee women in other ways: 

Checking in with the women in our network 

Our amazing volunteers are helping us to check in over the phone with around 300 women in our London network on a regular basis, to make sure that women understand the current guidance on keeping safe and for a friendly chatWe are hearing from women about the challenges they are facing but also about how women are managing to support one another at this difficult time.  

Mary* told us,

Women for Refugee Women is always here for me. It means so much that you are thinking about me. Just hearing a friendly voice has brightened my day!” 

Supporting the most vulnerable 

Thanks to the continued support of our generous donors, we have been able to provide women in extreme hardship with small grants to enable them to meet their basic needs. For example, we gave £20 to a woman who has just given birth and who was struggling to buy nutritious food. Her friend managed to get her what she needed and she has been chatting with one of our volunteers about the joys and challenges of motherhood! 

We are also working with two qualified advisors, in partnership with Notre Dame Refugee Centre, who are able to provide quality telephone advice to women on their asylum claims and to connect them with other forms of support. 

Advocating for the safe release of women locked up at Yarl’s Wood 

Following the confirmed case of coronavirus in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, we have been working hard to draw attention to the inhumanity of locking vulnerable people up in close proximity during a global pandemic. We have been supporting women who have serious health conditions or who have survived trafficking, rape and other extreme abuses – women who should never be detained, even under normal circumstances. 

We have heard that there are only around 20 women still detained at Yarl’s Wood. These women should all be released into accommodation where they can safely self-isolate within the community. We will keep supporting women in Yarl’s Wood and connecting them with good solicitors who can challenge their detention, as well as maintaining pressure for the complete closure of Yarl’s Wood 

Ann*, who was released this week, told us:

Yarl’s Wood turned my world upside down. Now I have been released, I am still trying to adjust. This is such a strange time. But because you are with me every step of the way I am starting to get my smile back. Thank you for making me feel that I am not alone right now.” 

Speaking on BBC Woman’s Hour yesterday, our director Natasha Walter said, 

“We'll only come through this crisis with our values intact if we remember our solidarity with the most vulnerable in our community.” 

Sharing solidarity 

A real sense of solidarity and community is apparent even in these challenging times. It has been amazing to see communities come together to support one another through mutual aid groups and neighbourly kindness. 

Our drama group are adjusting to not being able to meet face-to-face by sharing songs and short exercises over video:

 

 

And our Rainbow Sisters group for LGBT asylum-seeking women are holding weekly group video calls to stay in touch and support one another:

 

 

Grassroots groups across the UK are doing amazing work to continue supporting refugee women through this time 

We are also continuing to work alongside grassroots groups who are supporting refugee and asylum-seeking women across the UK. They have been sending us moving updates from women in their networks. Here are just a few examples: 

Oasis Cardiff are distributing emergency supplies to women in hardship and continuing to provide a warm Welsh welcome to asylum-seeking women through their wellbeing WhatsApp group. One woman they supported says:

“I would like to thank Oasis for helping us in this situation. Their food parcels are great and will help to get through this terrible time. It’s like you guys pour water over a forever dry desert. Be safe and keep on saving!!” 

Agnes from Women with Hope in Birmingham is doing incredible work to help keep women in their network connected:

Since yesterday I have been able to buy phone top up vouchers so that the women in our network can check on their friends. I have been working to distribute these vouchers."

Eunice from WAST Manchester shared an update on one of the asylum-seeking women in their network: 

“She’s really struggling to cope with the situation because she’s lonely and there’s no TV in her room. She is stressed.”  

WAST Manchester is a supportive community, providing a lifeline for isolated women. 

We would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has supported us through this difficult time so far! We couldn’t do this work without you. 

If you would like to donate to help us continue our support for refugee women and our regional partners, you can do so here.

 

*All names have been changed 


Women for Refugee Women Campaign Yarls Wood

COVID-19 case in Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Women who are currently locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre have told the charity Women for Refugee Women (WRW) that there is a case of COVID-19 in the centre, and that measures being put in place are confusing and poorly implemented.

Women have stated that:

  • There has been a lax attitude to hygiene up to now in the centre, with women having to ask staff to remind others to wash hands, and no extra soap or hand sanitisers provided at mealtimes;
  • Last night, while the women were eating, staff came in and everyone was told to go to their rooms immediately and stay there;
  • This morning women were given masks and gloves and told to wash their hands every half an hour and that they could move around the centre if they used the masks and gloves – but they were only given one pair of gloves and one mask each and no information about how to use them effectively;
  • Some of the women in contact with WRW have underlying health conditions that would make them more vulnerable if they became infected with COVID-19, but they have not been given any extra protection or information.

One woman who has been in the centre for more than a fortnight said:

“Now they are taking precautions, but they were taking no precautions until yesterday. So right now everyone is panicking. We know there is a pandemic going on and here we are not being given the means to protect ourselves.”

Another woman who has serious underlying health conditions, said:

“I am so scared that I will die. I am not a young woman and my health problems mean that I am at high risk. I feel so afraid.”

Another woman said:

“I don’t feel safe. I’ve locked myself away and am not talking to anyone because I have asthma and am afraid for my health. I just want to get out. This whole thing is just terrifying.”

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

“Immigration detention is pointless and cruel even in normal circumstances. From what women are telling us now, even basic precautions have not been taken at the centre to prevent and deal with a COVID-19 infection. Many of the women in detention have underlying health conditions that would make them even more at risk if infected. The Home Office is putting already vulnerable women at risk through its chaotic and inhumane system of detention. It is time to close the detention centre, and ensure that every individual receives the support they need to protect themselves and others during this pandemic.”


Coronavirus pandemic: we have closed our face-to-face activities with refugee women

We are sad to announce that today we closed our drop-in centre, which is a place of warmth and solidarity for hundreds of refugee women.

We are doing this because it is not safe for us to be meeting in groups during the Coronavirus pandemic.

But we know that these women are some of the most vulnerable in our society and may suffer some of the worst effects from this public health emergency. They are often homeless, often already unwell and struggling to get healthcare.

We will step up our telephone contact with women and will try to support them individually in the weeks and months ahead. We will continue to advocate for those who are destitute and marginalised in our communities and for those who are locked up in detention centres.

These women are our sisters and friends - and we will still be here for them, even if we cannot physically be with many of them for some time.


This International Women's Day refugee women across the country gather in solidarity

Today, International Women's Day, refugee women's groups and their supporters across the UK gathered to sing in solidarity with refugee women, because we are #SistersNotStrangers.

Actions took place in ten cities:

  • London (organised by Women for Refugee Women) – 8 March, 1.30pm, Whitehall Place.
  • Manchester (organised by Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester) – 8 March, 1pm, Piccadilly Gardens.
  • Coventry (organised by Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group) – 8 March, 1pm, Godiva Statue in Broadgate.
  • Cardiff (organised by Oasis Cardiff) – 8 March, 4.30pm, Wales Millennium Centre foyer, Cardiff Bay.
  • Edinburgh (organised by DEWA project) – 8 March.
  • Sheffield (organised by DEWA project) – 8 March.
  • Newcastle (organised by N.E.S.T.) – 8 March, closed event.
  • Halifax (organised by Sisters United) – 9 March, 12.45pm, Piece Hall.
  • Liverpool (organised by Refugee Women Connect) – closed event.
  • Swansea (organised by Swansea Women’s Asylum and Refugee Support Group) – 8 March.

Marchu Girma, deputy director of Women for Refugee Women, said:

"This International Women's Day, women seeking asylum invited us to sing in solidarity with them across the nation, and help them amplify their voice.  At Women for Refugee Women, we have seen how their potential for a new start in life has been swept away from them, and women who have fled rape and violence to seek safety in the UK are being left homeless, hungry and vulnerable to further abuse because of lack of support.  These incredibly resilient women are rising up to demand for a just and humane asylum process."

In London, we joined CARE UK at the #March4Women:


"Will I ever be safe?" Asylum-seeking women made destitute in the UK

Today, Women for Refugee Women and regional partners publish their new report, Will I ever be safe? Asylum-seeking women made destitute in the UK. The report explores the experiences of 106 destitute asylum-seeking women who have struggled to survive in the UK, making it the largest piece of research on the topic.

Asylum-seeking women are being made homeless, hungry and vulnerable to abuse in the UK:

  • 32 of these 106 women said they were raped or sexually abused in their country of origin and again when destitute in the UK.
  • Almost half were street homeless while destitute in the UK. ‘Rosie’, who was trafficked from Nigeria, slept outside for a continuous period of six months, while she was pregnant.
    • 25% said they were raped or experienced sexual violence while sleeping outside.
  • 95% were hungry while destitute.
  • 95% felt depressed; a third tried to kill themselves.

These women have already experienced abuse and violence in their countries of origin:

  • 78% of these 106 women said they had fled gender-based violence in their country of origin.
    • A third said they were raped by state authorities in their countries of origin.
  • A quarter of them came from DR Congo, where women have been targeted in ongoing conflicts and repression.
  • 16% are lesbian or bisexual and were targeted because of their sexuality, in countries where homosexuality is illegal, such as Uganda and Cameroon.

Most of the women in the survey were made destitute after their asylum claim was refused, but when they were unable to return to their countries of origin due to their fears of further persecution. Some women were made destitute after getting leave to remain, due to the challenges of moving on to mainstream benefits.

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

“It is shocking to see how women who have already survived extreme violence and abuse are being left with no support when they come to the UK to seek safety. These punitive policies are leaving women who have already gone through rape and torture vulnerable to abuse all over again in this country. Too often, our government is ignoring the needs of women who cross borders. It is time to build a fairer asylum process in which women are protected from harm and in which they can be supported to live with dignity.”

‘Mary’, a refugee woman who was persecuted by the state in Uganda, says:

“It was not safe for me in Uganda. I was captured and locked up by soldiers who raped and tortured me because they thought that I was supporting the opposition. When I got to the UK and claimed asylum the Home Office refused me because they mixed up my story with another woman who had a similar name. It broke my heart that they refused me, after everything I had been through. And it made my life in the UK dangerous. I had nowhere to go so I had to sleep outside; it’s not safe for a woman. Men abused me and I couldn’t tell the police because I was afraid of the authorities after what happened to me back in Uganda. I thought that if I told them I would be sent back to Uganda where I would be killed. Being homeless made me feel so depressed that I tried to kill myself. I got refugee status in the end, but after so much pain and suffering.”

‘Evelyn’, who was trafficked to the UK from west Africa and caught in a cycle of sexual violence, says:

“I was trafficked to the UK by a man who kept me locked up and raped me. When I managed to get away I claimed asylum, but the Home Office didn’t believe what had happened to me. I had no accommodation or support for six years. It was so hard for me. I met a man who said that I could stay with him, but he forced me to have sex with him and abused me in other ways. I didn’t want to be with him but I had no choice. Then I became pregnant. It was a difficult pregnancy and getting medical help was nearly impossible because I had no money to get anywhere. I felt so alone and scared of how I would look after my baby, when I had nothing at all.”

On 14 February, refugee women will gather in Birmingham to share solidarity and support on this issue and launch a new campaign against the destitution of asylum-seeking women, #SistersNotStrangers.

Zarah Sultana MP will give the keynote address.

Agnes Tanoh, of Women with Hope in Birmingham, will say at the conference:

I came to the UK escaping political persecution. When I applied for asylum, I was not believed. I spent 7 years as a destitute woman in Birmingham. Being destitute, it breaks you, because you have no choice over your life. You feel like you are disappearing as each day, month and year passes. If you are given £20 by a charity for the week, you have to make really hard decisions. Do you get a bus pass to get around to meet a solicitor, or tinned food for the week, or toilet paper? Those are the decisions I had to make. After so much suffering, I now have my refugee status, but I am not going to stop campaigning. Because I have a dream that one day, everyone who seeks asylum will be treated with dignity and their human rights respected. I encourage you all to join this fight, because we have to support each other and stand in solidarity with our sisters.”

It's time for change, join the #SistersNotStrangers movement


Women in our network are looking forward to the National Refugee Women's Conference in Birmingham!

On 14 February 2020, we are holding the fourth National Refugee Women's Conference, this time in Birmingham.

The Home Office continues to make women who have come to the UK to seek safety homeless, hungry and vulnerable to further abuse. So, this year, the conference will be focussing on growing and supporting grassroots campaigns against destitution.

The conference is organised by Women for Refugee Women together with our wonderful partner organisations: Women with Hope, WAST ManchesterCARAGRefugee Women Connect, and other grassroots groups. It will bring together refugee and asylum-seeking women, and others, from across the UK for a day of learning and building solidarity – as well as some poetry and singing!

Everyone is welcome! There's still time to book your tickets here.

This week, refugee and asylum-seeking women in our London network told us why they want to come to the conference. This is what they said:

As I am seeking asylum, I feel that my participation will contribute to generating new knowledge. I am looking forward to networking and sharing my ideas and experiences.

This will be my first conference. I am looking forward to meeting new people and discussing the challenges that we face as refugees. It will be a great opportunity for me to meet other women and tell them about our Rainbow Sisters group.

I will be getting to meet more people like myself.

I want to exchange ideas and speak out my mind about what I know and what needs to change. As a woman it will be good for me to associate with other women.

I would like to take part in this conference to know more about the experiences of other women who are destitute. I took part in the Storytelling with a Purpose course last year and I would like to gain more experience and confidence sharing my story to the public.

I would like to take part in the conference to support all refugee women and to have the chance to express myself about the difficult situation that I have been through.

I would like to see a new place and make new friends.

I want to get involved and learn from others.

I want to learn more about how to be a strong woman.

I always enjoy going to a conference where I can be part of something interesting and give my point of view.

As a destitute woman myself, I want to join the movement to end destitution. To be destitute is particularly hard for women like me who have young children. I worry that my child will be homeless, unable to join activities at school and will fall in with the wrong crowd. I want to support other women for a better future.

I want to take part in the campaign against destitution and talk about my own experience: the hardship and the frustration.

I would like to take part in the conference to be involved in different workshops, to connect to different people and above all to be able to speak and ask questions about the steps being taken to end destitution.

I would like to improve my knowledge and communication skills.

A fairer, more equal world is possible. Be part of the change!

Join us at the conference on 14 February! For more information about the speakers, workshops and delicious lunch provided by Change kitchen, please head to our Eventbrite page, where you can also book your tickets.


Listen to refugee women this election

Asylum-seeking women in our English classes at Women for Refugee Women have been discussing what the upcoming election means to them. Refugee and migrant women in the UK often do not have the right to vote, and yet are affected by laws and policies decided in Westminster. This election, let’s not forget those women whose voices are too often not heard.


Intersectional Feminism group: Prioritise our safety, dignity and liberty

By Haje Keli, volunteer Intersectional Feminism group facilitator

 

The main debates of the upcoming general election on 12 December centre around Brexit and the future of the NHS. These are crucial issues that are at the core of what matters to most of those who live in the UK. But while these issues are dominating attention, the struggles of those pushed to the margins of society, such as asylum-seeking women, are being overlooked.

Among the countless media pieces, television segments and tweets on what the UK public wants from its next government there has been little mention of how the policy proposals of the various parties may affect refugee and asylum-seeking women, let alone what changes these women themselves need or want. It is possible to be concerned about healthcare and the consequences of a possible Brexit and also to listen to and stand in solidarity with refugee and asylum-seeking women.

Every Monday during term time, a group of over 20 women gather at the Women for Refugee Women spaces to discuss topics that are relevant to their lives and overall life in the UK. The Intersectional Feminism group enables women to improve their already advanced English language skills, and to engage critically with current events and political and social theories. We have built a trusting environment in which women of a broad range of ages and backgrounds can discuss their experiences and opinions.

During a recent session about the election, the women discussed the issues important to them and that they hope the next government will address. The women insisted that they wanted a more equal British society. They mentioned how poverty, racism and misogyny were becoming increasingly visible to them. The women want to see a more equal world, in which the most vulnerable members of our communities are treated fairly and are able to access opportunities.

More specific to their own experiences, the women wished that people seeking asylum were granted better rights and that the waiting time for a decision on their asylum claim would be reduced. “Many of us have been here for years with no end in sight,” one woman lamented. Most of the women suggested that they should be granted the right to work while waiting for a decision on their claims.  One young woman explained how she felt she had lost years of her life feeling invisible and wasting her skills while waiting for a decision on her asylum claim. All of the women agreed that if they were allowed to work they could contribute to society and be able to start rebuilding their lives.

The women also called for a fairer asylum process. They wished to receive increased support and better housing while waiting for a decision on their application. Women in the group also wanted to be able to access more guidance on opportunities to study while seeking asylum. They also hoped the new government would not deport those who have been denied asylum in the UK, because so often women’s asylum claims are wrongly refused. Women need to be given a fair hearing so that better decisions can be made on their initial asylum claim.

Finally, the most crucial point the participants made was their plea to whoever forms the next government to make their lives safer in the UK. One woman interjected that when women are not protected, they become at risk of abuse and exploitation. They fear being abused, coerced and subjected to violence because perpetrators know that there are rarely consequences to hurting women with insecure immigration status. The women all agreed with this point, which sadly confirms with the initial point of this article, that refugee and asylum-seeking women’s rights and wishes are not a current political priority.

The participants of the intersectional feminism group hope that the new government considers and addresses their needs in the larger discussion of what is crucial for the future of the United Kingdom.


Intermediate English Class: Real change is possible

By Jane Coles, volunteer English teacher

 

Each week our Intermediate English class focuses on improving refugee women's English language skills whilst learning about culture, sharing stories and encouraging one another. For the past two weeks we have been looking at the topic of politics, the general election and Brexit.

These topics are often not accessible for many of the women in the class, especially those who are not fluent English speakers. British politics in mass media tends to be surrounded by alienating language, unclear intentions and an unwillingness to break down barriers to include diverse voices in the conversation. When faced with these topics, the women in our class spoke loud and clear on their views for the British political system and the upcoming general election. Here is what they had to say:

We asked the women in our class "Why do you think it is important to vote?"

"It's important to vote if you want something to change!" - Sisika

"It is important to vote to fulfill your human rights. It is also important to vote to get the party that has the general public interest at heart with positive mission and vision." - Abi

"To have your say in what's going on with everyday life" - Cordel

When asked what policies were most important to them, the women spoke overwhelmingly to promote policies that champion equality. They expressed their frustration with policies that have become increasingly hostile towards people who have crossed borders in search of safety, and wished for better housing and healthcare.

"Peace of mind and good health with somewhere to live comfortably whilst avoiding the hostile environment gives a healthy community" - Abi

"Equal rights. More opportunities for black communities, access for those with disabilities. They can give every living person equal rights" - Angela

"Equality! Just equality!" - Christina

Many of the women in our class are not able to vote themselves, which made them feel a sense of hopelessness that their voices cannot be heard in this election. They urged the voting public to consider their views and vote for policies that promote equality. The women in our group feel strongly that real change is possible.