Women for Refugee Women leads the Set Her Free campaign against the detention of refugee women in the UK.
This campaign has already resulted in changes in awareness and understanding – and real policy reform. There is now widespread momentum building from the grassroots to the corridors of power to create wider change. The Set Her Free campaign is shaped by women who have been locked up in detention.
Why we campaign
More than 1500 women who have come to the UK to seek asylum are locked up in detention every year.
Most of them are not removed from the UK, they are released back into the community to continue with their cases.
There is no time limit on immigration detention – women can be locked up for days, weeks, even months and years.
Detention is unnecessary and expensive – and also very traumatic for women who are detained, many of whom have already survived rape and torture.
We and other organisations have made the case clearly that it would be fairer and more humane for women’s asylum cases to be resolved while they are living in the community.
Because every woman deserves her liberty and a chance to rebuild her life.
End the detention of asylum seeking women
End the detention of survivors of gender-based violence
End the detention of pregnant women
Put a 28-day time limit on all immigration detention
What we have achieved
This campaign has helped to create policy change, including:
A TIME LIMIT ON THE DETENTION OF PREGNANT WOMEN
In 2016 we lobbied on the detention of pregnant women – we held an event in Parliament hosted by Caroline Spelman MP, with our partners Medical Justice and Bhatt Murphy Solicitors. Three women who had been detained while pregnant addressed the meeting. Subsequently the Home Office agreed to limit the detention of pregnant women to 72 hours.
IMPROVEMENT IN CONDITIONS FOR WOMEN IN YARL’S WOOD
In 2015 we exposed the fact that male staff were routinely watching women in detention on suicide watch, including while they were in bed or in the bathroom. At first the Home Office denied this ever happened, but as we kept up the pressure they conceded and introduced a Detention Service Order which stated this should not happen, and so far this guidance is being followed.
The campaign is led and shaped by women who have been detained.
Meltem Avcil, who was herself detained as a child, started the petition which gained over 100,000 signatures and won the Liberty Young Human Rights Campaigner award and Cosmo Ultimate Campaigner award. She said: “I either carry on with my life, and just create an illusion of happiness, or I do something about this."
LEADERS WITH EXPERIENCE OF DETENTION
Women who have been detained lead and shape the campaign. We run English classes, drama workshops and campaign training for women to give them the tools to speak out. We have organised three national conferences for refugee women to build solidarity and share ideas for action. Over 50 women who have been detained have spoken to politicians, the public and journalists during the campaign with us so far.
The campaign has changed minds and raised awareness:
Our research reports have transformed understanding of who is being detained and the effects of detention. Detained sets out that the majority of women who are detained are survivors of sexual violence or torture. I Am Human exposed how women who are detained are denied privacy and dignity. The Way Ahead explains how the government could build an asylum system without detention. We Are Still Here shows how promised reforms have not delivered for vulnerable women in detention.
We place stories about detention throughout the media, from BBC Woman’s Hour to Sky News, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, from Stylist to Teen Vogue. For instance, in 2014 the campaign was the New Statesman Christmas campaign. In 2015 we worked with Channel 4 News for their influential investigation of conditions in Yarl’s Wood. In 2017 we worked with BBC Three for a short video, ‘Things Refugees are Tired of Hearing’. In 2018 we appeared on BBC Woman’s Hour during the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike.
We work with many inspiring supporters to raise awareness of detention. For instance, in 2014 Zadie Smith wrote a statement for the campaign. In 2014 Angelina Jolie wrote a message for us in solidarity with detained women at the End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit. In 2016 99 influential women including Noma Dumezweni, Mary Beard, Charlotte Church and Anoushka Shankar wrote messages of solidarity which we delivered to the Home Office.
EVENTS AND ART PROJECTS
We organise events up and down the country, including protests, plays and debates. For instance, in 2014 Juliet Stevenson and Cush Jumbo performed our play, A Day in Detention, at the Women of the World festival. In 2015 we organised the biggest ever protest at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. In 2017 our drama group performed their Set Her Free poem at the Women’s March on London to over 80,000 people.
We work with dozens of other organisations, from the Women’s Institute – with whom we knitted a fantastic solidarity quilt, to Mumsnet – who made a powerful video for us about pregnant women in detention. We take part in numerous events and actions organised by others and currently work closely with Liberty, Amnesty International and Detention Forum on the call to end indefinite detention.
Earlier in 2018, we organised the All Women Count lobby of Parliament which saw over 40 organisations, from UNHCR to Southall Black Sisters, come together to lobby for liberty, safety and dignity for refugee and migrant women.
PARLIAMENT AND POLICY-MAKERS
We are in contact with politicians of all major parties, give evidence to committees and inquiries, and help shape policy proposals. Over the lifetime of the campaign so far, Women for Refugee Women has been mentioned 49 times in Parliament and Yarl’s Wood has been mentioned nearly 300 times.
For instance, a Conservative MP, Richard Fuller, said in Parliament in 2015: "This is about the type of people we are. When it comes to Yarl’s Wood, it is time for the Minister to close it down and set her free," and a Labour MP, Stella Creasy, said: "I am proud to be a member of the Set Her Free campaign and to work with Women for Refugee Women."