A year with Women for Refugee Women

by Alphonsine Kabagabo

I joined Women for Refugee Women (WRW) as director one year ago. And what a year it has been!

When I joined WRW last January, in the middle of the pandemic, I was very much impressed by how the team has been able to innovate and continue to support the women in our network to access services online and to make them feel included and looked after despite a very challenging time. I was struck by the commitment and passion of our staff team, volunteers and trustees who are determined not to let the pandemic make women seeking asylum more vulnerable than ever before.

Above all, I have been struck by the resilience of the women we support who continue to share solidarity, love and joy despite being badly affected by the pandemic and the increasingly hostile political environment.

I am very proud of what we have achieved:

  • Strengthening our digital inclusion project so women seeking asylum can access the internet and continue to support each other and build networks. Last year more than 100 women accessed equipment or training to enable them to connect with their support networks and join our activities.
  • Strengthening our partnerships with organisations that provide immigration advice and support the mental health and wellbeing of the women in our network.
  • Running two campaigns to challenge harmful new proposals by the government and advocate for a just and humane asylum process:
    • We have worked to challenge the government’s harmful new Nationality and Borders Bill by speaking out in Parliament, working with leading barristers and organisations in the women’s sector to provide evidence on the dangers of the Bill, and co-organising a large #RefugeesWelcome rally.
    • We have worked hard with local campaigners in County Durham to stop the opening of a new women's immigration detention centre in County Durham, as we know how inhumane it is to detain women who are seeking safety and protection. Despite our efforts, the Home Office began detaining the first women at the site on New Year’s Eve and so our fight for justice must intensify this year.
  • Through social media and work with TV, radio, print and digital journalists we’ve ensured that the voices of women in our network can be heard by wide audiences.
  • We have embarked on a strategic review to ensure we can provide excellent support to the women in our network so that they are able to rebuild their lives and campaign for the changes they want to see in the asylum process. It is clear that our focus will remain on empowering women to thrive through online and in person support and activities, amplifying their voices to influence the public perception and equipping them with the tools and skills to continue to campaign for an asylum system that listens to them and treats them with humanity. We would like to continue to strengthen how we put the women at the centre of everything we do, and how we live our values and principles of being an antiracist, feminist and inclusive organisation. We would like to strengthen our collaborations and partnerships with other organisations and be part of building a movement for change.

As we look ahead to 2022, we are realistic about the challenges that the pandemic and increasingly hostile government policies will pose. However, I feel inspired and hopeful because I know that the power of our network of women seeking asylum and our connections and partnerships with others will again be an important and effective force for change. Together, we will keep pushing for a just and humane asylum process through which women can rebuild their lives and achieve their ambitions.

I would like to thank everyone who has supported us and stood up for women seeking asylum over the last year. We have shown the power of solidarity, compassion and hope and that will carry us through the next year as we continue to advocate for a fairer society for everyone!

Above: Members of our Rainbow Sisters group for LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum at the Refugees Welcome Rally in October 2021 (credit: Natasa Leoni)


Yarl's Wood: 20 years of cruelty

Today, Friday 19 November 2021, marks 20 years since Yarl's Wood detention centre was opened.

To mark this, we gathered at the site with women who have previously been detained there to call on the government to permanently close Yarl's Wood and to stop detaining women.

For 20 years, Yarl's Wood has been a site of cruelty. Despite repeated calls for closure, reports of racist abuse and the widely documented harm to the mental and physical health of women detained there, Yarl's Wood is still open. It is time to shut it down.

Here's a selection of photographs from the day. Together we made a lot of noise to send messages of solidarity, hope and love to those currently detained at Yarl's Wood, and to show the government that it is time to close it down and end detention altogether.

Campaigners and women who were formerly detained gather at the entrance of Yarl's Wood to demand that it be shut down
Thousands have been traumatised over the 20 years Yarl's Wood has been open as an immigration detention centre
Agnes Tanoh, Women for Refugee Women's Detention Campaigns Spokesperson

Being locked up in detention when you need protection destroys a woman. I know this because I was locked up at Yarl's Wood for more than 3 months by the Home Office, before they recognised that I am a refugee.

Immigration detention is a deliberate tactic they use for the only purposes of harming vulnerable women and to allow private companies to make money from the pain of women.

I don't want any more of my sisters to be locked up or for their families to be ripped apart.

Agnes Tanoh

Remembering those who died in detention at Yarl's Wood

For many women who joined us today, it was their first time back at Yarl's Wood since they were released from detention.

Today I'm taking back my power. Yarl's Wood can't have a hold over me anymore. I am free. - 'B'

20 years a disgrace
It's time to shut down Yarl's Wood!

The government chooses detention, harm, abuse.

We choose kindness and compassion.

Stand with us and take action to stop the proposed new detention centre for women, in County Durham, from opening:


#RefugeesWelcome Rally

On Wednesday 20th October 2021, we joined hundreds of people and other fantastic organisations at Parliament Square in London to resist the #AntiRefugeeBill and to say #RefugeesWelcome!

Here's our favourite selection of photographs which capture the uplifting spirit of solidarity, compassion and togetherness felt on the day. Thank you to all who joined us!

Credit: @luketapley
Credit: @luketapley
Credit: @luketapley
Credit: @luketapley
Credit: Natasa Leoni. Photo of Rainbow Sisters
Credit: Natasa Leoni. Photo of Rainbow Sisters
Credit: Natasa Leoni. Photo of Mariam Yusuf

I am speaking at the rally because who can say it better than a person living the experience. The hostile environment has a negative impact on people seeking asylum, we are experiencing destitution, no access to basic needs. The system is already hard, and the government is going to make it even harder with the new Nationality and Borders Bill which is moving closer to becoming law. This bill will make it much harder for people to seek safety in the UK. For women the bill will put them in further danger of exploitation, violence and abuse.

Lord Alf Dubs with Jade, Olivia and Mariam
Our Director, Alphonsine Kabagabo

I am speaking today not only as the Director of WRW, an organisation that supports women seeking asylum in UK, to have a voice and rebuild their lives with respect and dignity, but also as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. I know how it feels to flee your country in the middle of a war/ genocide and how it feels when you reach a safe country and you are able to rebuild your life!

We must stand up for refugees and people seeking asylum and I’m glad that you have joined us today to challenge this new bill and to shout loudly that refugees should be warmly welcomed.

Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!

Members of our London grassroots network
Disbelieved, detained, deported: Asylum for LGBT+ refugees!
Rainbow Sisters
Rainbow Sisters
MPs Paul Blomfield, Kate Osamor and Florence Eshalomi
Jeremy Corbyn MP
Marchu Girma, Hibiscus

Marchu Girma, CEO of Hibiscus Initiatives started her speech by reading a powerful letter from women who are currently being held in immigration detention. "Every day I cry. I've felt this way in the past - it was when I was abused. I miss freedom. I wish I was completely free."

Mariam Yusuf
Olivia and Mariam
Olivia Namutebi
Rainbow Sisters
Sarah Navaa performing
Sarah Navaa
Women With Hope
Speaker Zahra Joya (left)

 

Please continue to stand with us as we resist the harmful #AntiRefugeeBill which will disproportionately affect women and unfairly punish them for factors outside of their control.

We believe that every woman who crosses borders for her safety deserves a fair hearing and the chance to rebuild her life. We hope you do too.

Stand with us and take action!

  • Write to your MP and ask them to stand up for women seeking safety in the UK using this easy and quick template
  • Donate to support our work with refugee and asylum-seeking women

5 ways the Nationality and Borders Bill threatens women

The government is currently trying to push through legislation that will prevent women from getting refugee status in the UK. As one refugee woman, 'Sara', put it: “They might as well be ending the asylum system completely.”

The Bill will put even more women, who have fled persecution, in further danger of violence, abuse and exploitation. Instead of offering sanctuary to women who have been forced to leave their homes and cross borders, the government is drawing up a law that actively causes harm to them. Now more than ever, we must speak up alongside our refugee sisters.

The Bill is currently being examined by a small group of MPs. On Thursday, our director Alphonsine Kabagabo and our policy and advocacy coordinator Priscilla Dudhia will give oral evidence to these MPs, explaining how this Bill threatens the safety of the women.

Five ways the Nationality and Borders Bill threatens women:

1. Women who are desperate for safety will be punished.

People fleeing danger don’t usually have a choice about how they travel – they need to take whichever route to safety they can. But under the Bill refugees who are forced to take 'irregular' routes, including by boat or lorry, will not be allowed to stay in the UK permanently, or reunite with their loved ones.   

2. Women will be denied a fair hearing.

Many women need mental health support, proper legal advice and to feel safe before they can open up about the violence and abuse they have fled. Yet the Bill will require traumatised women to give all the reasons for their asylum claim immediately – and if they do not their credibility will be questioned.

3. Principles vital for women’s protection will be eroded.

The Bill changes the test for deciding if someone is a refugee, making it even harder to satisfy. Since gender isn’t listed in the Refugee Convention, many women also have to prove that the persecution they have faced makes them a member of a ‘particular social group’ – yet the Bill introduces an additional hurdle to women being recognised as refugees in this way. 

4. More women will be locked up in detention centres.

The Bill will allow the government to set up ‘offshore’ detention facilities outside of the UK, where women could be locked up while their asylum claims are processed. Women in offshore detention are at risk of sexual violence and abuse. The Bill will also reintroduce a ‘fast-track’ asylum appeals process for people in detention – even though the previous process like this was ruled unlawful, and abolished by the government. 

5. More women who have been trafficked or trapped in modern slavery will seriously struggle to access safety.

The Bill raises the test for being recognised as a trafficking victim, making it more difficult for them to get protection. It also forces victims to disclose information about their exploitation by a certain deadline – or they may be deemed untrustworthy and refused help. Yet it can take months, sometimes years, for a woman who has been forced into sexual or other exploitation to talk about the abuse she has suffered. 


For more information and to help us spread the word about how this Bill will harm women, please read and share our short explainer:

TAKE ACTION:

Please join us on 20 October 2021, at the Refugees Welcome rally in London, to hear from refugees and to show your solidarity. We’ll be gathering from 4.30-6.30pm outside Parliament.


Dear Sister

A letter to women arriving in the UK from Afghanistan, from members of the Writing Group at Women for Refugee Women


Dear Sister,

Firstly, we would like to say, “Welcome!”

We can imagine this time is a time of great challenge for you. Relief that you are safe, but also grief for the home, the people and the life you left behind.

You’ll meet so many women who’ve had different problems and troubles but the same pain in your heart as you have now. Maybe you think the pain in your heart will continue forever. Maybe you think you can’t have a different life with new opportunities. But there are many ways to have a better life here. You just need to discover the best one for yourself.

We want to tell you that you are not alone here. Don’t isolate yourself. Reach out, speak out, be bold. You have people around that understand what you are going through and are there to walk alongside you, to be there for you and with you in your new journey.

We also want to tell you that it is also all right if you want to be by yourself. To be alone, quiet, to want to wrap yourself up and be still, for as long as you need. Then, when you are ready, we will be here.

Take care of your body. Keep warm. Get some thick socks, a good winter coat. Be kind to yourself. Eat good, nourishing food. Listen to music you love. Dance. Go on walks, explore your new home. And watch British telly, it is a spectacle.

In this country you will be able to find your traditional food and clothes. Each nation is free to live their own culture. You don’t have to give up your culture, religion, friends here. Just don’t forget that you also have a chance to see and live the cultures of the UK. You will see so many different rules here. Try to accept official rules. It will make your life easier and better.

Take care of your mind. Reach out to people, to organisations. There is no shame in this. We have all been there. Get the tools you need to cope, to survive and then ultimately, to thrive and thrive well.

Knowledge is power. Try to learn English, the health system, job options. Try to have routines, to go to the park, have a walk, attend workshops or courses according to your interests and abilities.

You’re safe here. You can get help whenever you need. You don’t need anything special to be important and accepted in this country. You are valuable as you are.

We want you to feel alive again, to find hope and love and support and belonging, to live freely in the community.

Be strong. Don’t hide. Ask for help. You are not alone.

With love,

Your Sisters


Agnes Tanoh's speech for local demonstration against Hassockfield detention centre

Today, Saturday 21 August, local campaign groups No To Hassockfield, Abolish Hassockfield and the Durham People's Assembly are demonstrating against the planned new detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham. Our Agnes Tanoh shares this speech in support of this demonstration to stop Hassockfield.

 

 

My name is Agnes.
I am a 60 year old woman.
I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, when I was seeking sanctuary.

In my country, I was the assistant to the First Lady.
When civil war broke out my life was in danger. Friends and colleagues were killed. Escaping was the only way to survive. So I came to the UK.
I needed safety. But instead, I was locked up for more than 3 months.

After 7 years of waiting, telling the same story, I finally got my refugee status.
The government finally agreed I needed protection.
So, why was I locked up?
Why was I harmed?

Can you imagine the things I saw in detention?
Detention destroys a woman, destroys our mental health, destroys our hope.
I saw a woman try to kill herself.
I saw guards abuse women.
I saw families broken down.
Can you imagine what happens to a child separated from their mum because she is in prison?
Detention achieves nothing except making a few private companies richer.
All it does is harm our fellow human beings.

My heart is here with you today.
Together we are standing against the detention of vulnerable women.
Together we want to support women who have fled persecution, torture or slavery.
Together we will keep fighting to stop Hassockfield.
Together we will win.

The Home Office promised to detain fewer women.
We must hold them to account!
No more detention centres should be built.
Instead, shut them down!

I say, 'SET HER FREE'!
Give her a chance to rebuild her life.
Give her a chance to be a human being.
Give her a chance to be free.

Let us say something,
Let us do something good,
Let us be compassionate,
Let us share love.

Can we women who are seeking safety count on you?
If yes, then let us say together ‘No to Hassockfield’!
NO TO HASSOCKFIELD!


Take action with Agnes! Please sign and share Agnes's petition against the proposed new detention centre for women at Hassockfield: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women


The Home Office’s reckless approach to detaining women

By Gemma Lousley, Detention Policy and Research Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women

In February this year, it emerged that the Home Office is planning to open a new immigration detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham. This is despite the fact that the number of women detained is currently at a historic low. Five years ago, at the beginning of 2016, there were over 300 women in detention. By the end of March this year, this number had fallen to just 25.

The Home Office could end its use of detention for women today, then. Instead, it has decided to open a new immigration prison which will hold around 80 women.

The Home Office is fully aware of the immense harm that detention inflicts. Women for Refugee Women has been supporting and listening to women in detention for many years – and the research we have published has repeatedly shown that the majority of women detained are survivors of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and trafficking. Locking these women up devastates their mental health.

Our 2014 report Detained, for instance, found that one in five of the women we interviewed who had been locked up in Yarl’s Wood – until recently the main detention centre for women – had tried to kill themselves there.

One woman who we interviewed for the report told us:

‘I was tortured in my country of origin and now I am getting a second torture by the Home Office. Being back in detention has brought back all the memories of torture.’

Another woman said:

‘I saw so much misery and depression and mental illness while I was in detention. There is constant crying and self-harm because the women don’t know why they are there or for how long. These are women who are desperate.’

Nonetheless, the Home Office is planning to open the new Hassockfield detention centre for women in early October. Attempting to justify this decision, the Immigration Minister, Chris Philp, has recently stated that the operation of Hassockfield will ‘reflect the lessons learned from detaining women at Yarl’s Wood’.

Yet there is very little evidence of this. In fact, what we know of the Home Office’s approach to Hassockfield so far indicates that it will also be characterised by the lack of concern for women’s dignity and rights with which Yarl’s Wood became synonymous.

One of the most significant issues that we highlighted through our research on Yarl’s Wood was the complete lack of regard for women’s privacy and dignity there. Our 2015 report I Am Human showed how, for instance, women were being subjected to pat-down body searches by male officers, or while male officers were present. Male staff were also searching women’s rooms.

Additionally, women were routinely being watched in intimate situations by male staff. So, women who were deemed to be at risk of suicide, and placed on ‘constant supervision’ – meaning that they were watched at all times by detention centre staff – were being watched by male officers while they were showering, on the toilet, or getting undressed.

One woman we spoke to for I Am Human said:

‘I felt ashamed. A total stranger just saw you naked and you have to see them all day. It breaks your confidence.’

When we initially raised these concerns with the Home Office, they denied this was happening, and stated: ‘Male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm.’

Yet, the Prison Inspectorate’s subsequent report on Yarl’s Wood, published in late 2015, corroborated our findings. Following this, the Home Office accepted the recommendation that, in women’s detention centres, at least 60% of staff in direct contact with women should also be women – to ensure that male staff are not used in inappropriate situations.

Despite this, the Home Office has been deliberately vague on this issue in relation to Hassockfield. In a recent parliamentary answer, for example, the Immigration Minister gave the weak response that: ‘It is our aim that around 60% of uniformed staff will be women.

The reasons for his non-committal answer seem clear. Yarl’s Wood consistently struggled to reach the minimum target of 60% and recruit enough female staff. Two years after the Home Office accepted this target, in 2017, the Prisons Inspectorate went to Yarl’s Wood again and found that the proportion of female officers there ‘was still too low, at 54%’.

Alongside this, the Home Office has contracted a private company to run Hassockfield that has recently had allegations of sexual harassment made about its staff. In July this year, a woman quarantining at a hotel in Birmingham said that a male security guard provided by Mitie – which has been given a contract worth £166 million to run Hassockfield – had sexually harassed her.

The Home Office’s careless approach to conditions for women at Hassockfield demonstrates how little they are concerned with treating women with dignity and respect, and upholding and protecting their rights.

The Home Office also knows that detaining women is usually completely pointless. The stated purpose of detention is removal from the UK. Yet, figures that we recently obtained show that in 2019, just 122 of the 1,550 asylum-seeking women released from detention were removed from the UK. That’s 8%.

The vast majority – 1,428 women, or 92% – were released back into the community, to continue with their cases.

Soon after the decision to open Hassockfield became public knowledge, the Immigration Minister said: ‘The public rightly expects us to maintain a robust immigration system, and immigration detention plays a crucial role in this’. But, as the Home Office is well aware, immigration detention is not a necessary or inevitable part of the immigration system.

In early 2019 the Home Office began an ‘alternative to detention’ pilot scheme, focused on resolving women’s immigration cases without the use of detention. This scheme has now been abandoned, even though fewer than half the number of women the Home Office intended actually participated in it.

But it is not too late to reverse this harmful change in direction. We are calling on the Home Office to halt its reckless approach to detaining women, by cancelling its plans for Hassockfield immediately. Instead, it should invest in programmes that support women to resolve their immigration cases, and rebuild their lives, in the community.


Please sign and share Agnes Tanoh's petition to stop Hassockfield detention centre for women from opening: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women


Rainbow Sisters social media Takeover - Pride 2021

To mark Pride 2021, Rainbow Sisters, our support group for LGBT+ women and non-binary individuals, have planned a takeover of Women for Refugee Women's social media!

Make sure you're following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to see what they get up to!

Who are we?

In Rainbow Sisters, we have a professional netball player, a microbiologist, a makeup artist, a singer, an accountant and so many more diverse skills and talents.

CeeCee, one of our members, is a phenomenal make-up artist! Here's her special look for pride. Check out more of her amazing work on TikTok.

 

 

Rainbow Sisters helps us love who we are.

Pride makes us feel recognised. When we can march together, we feel love from the crowd. It's a time to be yourself, without judgement.

But Pride isn't perfect. The fact that we need a Black Pride shows how Black people have been marginalised from Pride. We mustn't forget that Pride started as a protest by a black trans woman: Marsha P. Johnson.

The Home Office makes it extremely difficult for LGBT+ people to find safety here in the UK. All we are asking for is a chance to have a fair hearing and to rebuild our lives in safety.

"The Home Office assumes you are lying. When you go to them, it is not to share your story, it is to defend yourself, because they've already decided you are lying. They have to start seeing us as people."

As Rainbow Sisters, we just want to be us! You can support us by donating here.

And finally, we are proud to be...

We hope you enjoyed our takeover!


Volunteer Week: "I volunteer...to be part of a political movement for refugee women"

by Katie, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women

Volunteers are people who take on unpaid work because they have a deep belief about service and what they are meant to do with their lives. And they keep doing it even if it is difficult or heart-breaking. And there are rewards.

One of the biggest rewards for me has been the connections with other volunteers: the other women who do check-in calls to women in our network.  The volunteers in other organisations that I liaise with who make sure food and nappies and clothes get delivered. The volunteers who teach English, knitting, writing and lullabies- a shout out to Mariam, Sandra, Jane, Helen, Stephanie and Hilkka-Liisa. We share how we are affected by the women we support and think together how we can support them better.

Being able to enrol one of the women I support in a class was a delight, added to later by hearing how much they were getting out of it.

I volunteer for Women for Refugee Women in order to be part of a political movement for refugee women. So, to the women in our network who volunteer to develop and promote the wider political work, I salute you.


This week is Volunteers’ Week! At Women for Refugee Women we are so grateful to our talented volunteers who share their time and skills with us each week, helping us to welcome and support our London network of over 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Each day this week we will be sharing one of our wonderful volunteer’s reflections, read the rest of this series here.


Volunteer Week: "The organisation inspires me"

by Sandra, volunteer for Women for Refugee Women

My experience of volunteering with WRW is many-layered and the organisation inspires me on many levels.

When I first started to call the women in the group I was allocated at the beginning of the second lockdown, I thought it would simply involve a friendly ear every couple of weeks.  As the months pass by and my involvement with the lives of individual women in a range of situations, some distressed, some in pain, some resigned and others just getting on with life, this meant much more to me and to them, I think.

Often, I can offer support through WRW, referrals or just talk through thorny issues as one human to another. Sometimes I can feel helpless or even guilty, and this is one area in which WRW are so impressive - not only are they committed to giving the women from refugee backgrounds a voice, they also listen to the volunteers' anxieties and concerns.  Not only through regular team meetings and one-to-one calls with our Co-ordinator, but also by offering us sessions with a professional psychologist and zoom space just for the volunteers.

WRW also listens to our suggestions and has supported me in setting up a Radical Knitting session for those women who want to learn.  The experience of seeing the pride of six women who can now knit is joyous! The sessions are chaotic and full of laughter.

Finally, through the other volunteers and my own reflections on my experience, I am continuing on a journey of my own self-development, signing up for a module in working with people from refugee backgrounds and workshops on shame resilience and transformation skills. The continuing evolution of WRW, its self-awareness and willingness to listen and respond is laudable.


This week is Volunteers’ Week! At Women for Refugee Women we are so grateful to our talented volunteers who share their time and skills with us each week, helping us to welcome and support our London network of over 350 refugee and asylum-seeking women. Each day this week we will be sharing one of our wonderful volunteer’s reflections, read the rest of this series here.