"From one hell to another": The detention of Chinese women who have been trafficked to the UK

Video by Fran Freeman

Today, Women for Refugee Women releases new research finding that the Home Office is harming vulnerable Chinese women who have been trafficked to the UK by routinely locking them up for long periods of time in detention.

Over the last year, we have worked alongside Duncan Lewis Solicitors to support many Chinese women who have been trafficked into sexual exploitation or forced labour and then locked up in Yarl's Wood detention centre by the Home Office.

The Home Office is flouting its own guidance that states that survivors of trafficking should not normally be detained and that they should be housed in safe accommodation and given emotional and practical support while their case is being considered.

Chinese women currently make up the largest group by nationality of women in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Looking at the case files of 14 Chinese women detained in the last year, the report shows:

  1. The Home Office is detaining women who are encountered in exploitative situations – including women who are picked up in brothels and massage parlours – and ignoring the clear indicators that they are trafficked.
  2. The Home Office is flouting its own guidance in order to refuse trafficking cases, and not supporting women whom they have recognised as survivors of trafficking.
  3. These women are being kept in detention for very long periods – every one of the 14 cases considered was detained for more than a month – even when their mental health is clearly deteriorating.
It is time for real change, and to end the practice of immigration detention.

Chinese woman in Yarl’s Wood detention centre:

The gang leaders forced me to do things that I didn’t want to do, things that made me feel ashamed. They made me have sex with men who would come to the house where I was imprisoned. If I tried to refuse they would beat me and starve me. I would often go for three days with no food or water. Then one day men in uniforms came to the house. I was terrified and tried to hide but they found me. They dragged me out and took me to the police station. Later, I was put in another van. It drove for a long time through the night and ended up at Yarl’s Wood. I was taken from one hell to another.

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women:

In all my time working with refugee and asylum-seeking women I have never heard stories more harrowing than those we are hearing from Chinese trafficked women in detention. These women have suffered extreme abuse and exploitation and do not receive the support and protection that is promised in policies. Instead, they are locked up and threatened with deportation. This situation must change now.

Shalini Patel, Duncan Lewis solicitors:

There is clear incompetence and sheer disregard for the safety of these women who have already been subjected to such horrendous sexual abuse and exploitation. These women are by no means fit for detention but despite this fact they are detained for months at a time with no adequate support.

Jess Phillips MP:

Hearing about Chinese women who are forced to have sex with more than ten men every day and beaten into submission is terrible. It is even more shocking to realise that when these women come to the attention of the Home Office, they are often being locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre rather than getting the support they need. It is time to stand up for the most vulnerable women in our society. The Home Office must carry out its own policies on trafficked women and ensure that they are protected.

Amy Chisholm, Clinical Psychiatrist at Helen Bamber Foundation:

In my role as a Clinical Psychologist I have worked with many highly vulnerable Chinese women who have been detained in Immigration Removal Centres. For these women it is clear that the experience of detention has exacerbated their already poor mental health. This exacerbation can occur via the intense anxiety created by fear of being returned at any moment to a place they believe they will again be harmed or killed. It can also occur via the environment reminding them of their previous experiences of abuse.

We are recruiting a Grassroots Coordinator

Women for Refugee Women (WRW) is looking for a dynamic and committed Grassroots Co-ordinator to carry through our activities in London for refugee and asylum-seeking women.

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

The Grassroots Coordinator role will involve managing a busy drop-in centre providing English classes and lunch to over 100 women once a week, as well as organising and supporting other activities including drama workshops, cultural outings and advice sessions.

You will need to be calm and well organised, and committed to ensuring that WRW can provide a welcoming environment and can support refugee women to rebuild their lives and confidence.

You will be based in our London office, working Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.

We are looking for someone with experience of working with refugees or other vulnerable groups, and a strong commitment to race and gender equality.


Main purpose of role: To co-ordinate the grassroots activities of Women for Refugee Women in London, including carrying out the administrative duties associated with a range of activities and ensuring that asylum-seeking women are supported and empowered in these activities.

Location: Old Street, London

Accountable to: Deputy Director

Hours: 4 days per week

Salary: £27,000 pro rata plus pension contribution

Length of contract: Permanent

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


How to apply:

Please download and read the Grassroots Co-ordinator Application Pack.

To apply, please write to admin@refugeewomen.co.uk by 11pm on 28 July 2019 with a CV and a covering letter explaining your experience, why you want to work with WRW, and how you meet the person specification.

Interviews will be held on 12 August 2019 in central London, and only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

Women for Refugee Women Cross Party Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights Calls to End Indefinite Detention

Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill calls for protections for migrant women reporting domestic abuse

In a report published today (14 June), MPs and Lords support better for protection for women reporting domestic abuse, including the creation of a firewall between support services and immigration control.

Members of the Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW) campaign - a coalition of more than 30 organisations, including Women for Refugee Women – welcome recommendations by the Joint Committee of MPs and Lords examining the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which echo their call for migrant women reporting domestic abuse to be protected and supported as victims, before any consideration of immigration status.

Calling the draft Domestic Abuse Bill a ‘missed opportunity’ to address the needs of migrant women, the Committee also urged that a new statutory definition should recognise a broader range of abusive behaviour, including perpetrators using insecure immigration status as a form of coercive control.

Acknowledging that migrant women experiencing domestic abuse had been effectively excluded from the draft Bill, and that this was not compliant with domestic and international human rights laws, the Committee also recommends strengthening protections against discrimination through a duty on public authorities to protect the rights of all victims of domestic abuse. They recommend this duty should mirror the language of the Istanbul Convention – the ‘gold standard’ treaty for combatting violence against women and girls.

SUMW campaigners welcomed the acknowledgment that migrant women with no recourse to public funds are effectively barred from accessing refuges and other support services. However, campaigners warned that the Government must do more to safeguard migrant women and calls for the Bill to remove no recourse to public funds restrictions for all survivors of domestic abuse.

Marchu Girma, Deputy Director Women for Refugee Women said:

"At Women for Refugee Women we see how asylum-seeking women struggle to find protection from domestic violence and abuse. We see time and again the barriers that women with no recourse to public funds face in accessing services and reporting crime. I was glad to be able to give evidence to the committee and remind them that protection must be needs based, not status based.

"We therefore welcome the statement from the committee that the bill is ‘currently a missed opportunity to address the needs of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds' and that the committee recognises the need for 'action to help this most vulnerable group of individuals'. We hope that action will indeed follow and that this will now be addressed by the government. Women's lives are at stake."

Lucila Granada, Director Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) said:

“At LAWRS we are very concerned about the growing number of women who choose not to report because of the lack of protection and anti-migrant attitudes. It is shameful that women facing abuse also fear the agencies that are there to support people at risk.

"For the past two years, the #StepUpMigrantWomen coalition has urged Government to listen to the survivors and to the expert specialist and human rights organisations. We now urge them to listen to their own peers and to take responsible steps and follow the Committee's recommendations to protect migrant women. We need a firewall, we need safe reporting, we need specialist support for women exiting violence, but with a dead-end road women won't be able to come forward. A 'NRPF label' should not trap women in abuse."

Andrea Simon, End Violence Against Women Coalition said:

“The Committee are absolutely right to highlight that the Government’s landmark Domestic Abuse Bill has neglected the situation and urgent needs of migrant women and children who do not have secure immigration status.

"Currently women’s support services really struggle to provide beds and other help for these women and their children because they are not entitled to housing and welfare support. We also know that women in this situation are facing widespread discrimination, and appallingly, often treated as immigration offenders before victims of abuse.

"This shames us as a society – when we put immigration enforcement before the lives of women and children. The Government must now take this opportunity to show it is listening and bring forward legislation that will protect ALL victims of domestic abuse equally.”

Zehrah Hasan, Liberty said:

“We welcome the Committee’s robust recommendations today, which would embed vital protections for migrant women in the Domestic Abuse Bill. Legislating for a ‘firewall’ between trusted public services and immigration enforcement is vital to ensure that all survivors and people with insecure immigration status can report crimes without fear.

“We urge the Government to implement these recommendations and go further still – by ensuring migrant women with no recourse to public funds can access safe accommodation, security and support. Without these comprehensive protections for migrant women, this Bill will be a missed opportunity that prioritises immigration control over public safety.”

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Women in our Transitions Group meet to discuss next steps in rebuilding their lives now that they have refugee status

Today, over 20 women who have been part of our Transitions Group joined us for a meeting to discuss their progress over the year.

The Transititions Group exists to support and build the confidence of women who have been granted refugee status so that they can begin taking the next steps in rebuilding their lives with dignity in the UK.

We discussed women's personal goals and opportunities that exist for them to begin looking for employment or volunteering opportunities so that they can continue developing their skills and contributing to their communities.

One woman, 'Jane', said:

"My goal for the next 5 years is to become a childminder. When I first came to Women for Refugee Women I couldn't speak any English and my confidence was low. But because of the support I have found here I am now able to go to college."

We are grateful to our amazing volunteer Tamanna Ali who has run the Transitions Group programme and provided so much support to the women in this group on a one-to-one basis!

Rainbow Sisters attend the UK Black Pride takeover of Hackney Town Hall

Last night, nine women in our Rainbow Sisters group attended the UK Black Pride takeover of Hackney Town Hall! This year UK Black Pride will move to its new home in Haggerston Park for the annual celebration for LGBTQ people of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Caribbean descent.

Lady Phyll (co-founder and executive director of UK Black Pride) and Philip Glanville (Mayor of Hackney) discussed Hackney as a destination for diasporic communities, how the council is working to create a truly inclusive and diverse borough and the necessity for movements like UK Black Pride. The members of Rainbow Sisters were delighted to meet Lady Phyll again and received warm introductions and applause at the event!

Marchu Girma gives evidence in Parliament on how the draft Domestic Abuse Bill fails women with insecure immigration status

Today our deputy director Marchu Girma gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill alongside Zehrah Hasan of Liberty, Lucila Granada of Latin American Women’s Rights Service and Jane Gordon of Sisters for Change.

The panel explained how the draft Domestic Abuse Bill fails to protect migrant survivors, and therefore fails to meet the Governments commitment to the Istanbul Convention.

Marchu explained why the Bill must provide equal protections for all women:

"Three women a week die because of domestic abuse in this country. We are talking about women’s lives. The cost of inadequate protections for women with insecure immigration status can be their lives. Protection must be needs-based, not status-based."

Watch the evidence session here:

Refugee women and other campaigners visit Parliament to call for a 28 day time-limit on detention

Amnesty International UK, Liberty, Women for Refugee Women and Freed Voices call for an immediate end to indefinite detention

Today, women from our network joined campaigners from Amnesty International UK, Liberty and Freed Voices to deliver a petition 100,000-signature petition to the Home Office calling for an end to indefinite detention. We met with MPs from across the political spectrum, including Harriet Harman, Andrew Mitchell, Tim Farron and Stuart McDonald, who expressed their support for the campaign.

Testimonies from women who have been detained in Yarl's Wood:

Adele said: “Detention is another form of torture. You think you’ve escaped it in your home country but then you get here and you go to more.”

Jane said: “I am traumatised by the memory of Yarl’s Wood. It was such a horrible experience and even though I left about six months ago I still have nightmares about being taken back. It’s like you are haunted by Yarl’s Wood.”

Gabby said: “I feel angry that the Home Office has said that they aren’t going to detain women who have been raped and trafficked, but then don’t even try to find out about what women have been through before they lock them up.”


Natasha Walter, Director of Women for Refugee Women, said:

“There have been enough promises and reviews from the Home Office. It is now time for the government to ensure that women who have already been through human rights abuses are not exposed to further trauma by being detained. It is time to end the detention of vulnerable women at Yarl’s Wood and move away from detention altogether.”

Sam Grant, Policy and Campaigns Manager, Liberty, said:

“The voices calling for an end to indefinite immigration detention grow stronger every day, both inside and outside of Parliament. Yet the Government is still locking up tens of thousands of people without telling them how long they will be held or when they will be released.

“People’s lives are being wasted, communities damaged and families separated in the name of this costly, failing system. We need urgent action, a move to more effective and humane alternatives and a time limit on detention at the earliest opportunity.”

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director, said:

“Today thousands of people showed their outrage at the wide, excessive and routine use of detention in our country.

“The message is clear - the UK’s immigration detention system is in urgent need of fundamental change and it’s high time for Parliament to step in and legislate.

“Indefinite detention causes inexcusable levels of suffering and it is a matter of profound shame that the UK’s immigration system has and continues to subject so many people to it. Indefinite detention must end.”

Mishka* from Freed Voices:

"It is time for radical detention reform, the introduction of a 28-day time limit, and a great reduction of the UK's detention estate by implementing alternatives to detention.

“In 2018, 24,748 people were put into immigration detention. There are eight long-term detention centres in the UK. Some people are also held in indefinite immigration detention in prisons.”

Call for reforms to the immigration detention system

In addition to an immediate end to indefinite immigration detention, Amnesty, Liberty, Women for Refugee Women and Freed Voices are calling for reforms including:

  • automatic universal judicial oversight of detention decisions;
  • the reintroduction of legal aid to help people to resolve their immigration cases;
  • and the closure of more immigration removal centres (detention centres).

Priscilla Dudhia (policy) and Venus Abduallah (office manager) join the team!

We are delighted to welcome Priscilla and Venus to the team!

As our new Office Manager, Venus will be supporting our operations and increasing capacity in all areas of the team. Priscilla will lead on our new research and campaigning work on the issue of destitution.

Refugee women gifted tickets to see Emilia in the West End

Thank you ⁦to Ben Hewis who launched a crowdfunding appeal to enable diverse groups of young women to see the musical Emilia in the Vaudeville Theatre. As part of this initiative, asylum-seeking women in our network were able to attend the performance. They left inspired by the incredible cast and emboldening story that sparked discussion about what it means to be a woman today.

Home Affairs Committee inquiry finds 'serious problems in every part of the immigration detention system'

Today, the Home Affairs Select Committee publish the report on their inquiry into immigration detention. Two women in our network, who were detained in Yarl's Wood for long periods, and our Policy and Research Coordinator, Gemma Lousley, gave evidence to the inquiry (available here).

During her evidence, 'Voke' told the Committee:

"I mentioned that I was tortured from my head to my toes. I have 12 marks on my body. After they [the Home Office] had proof that I had been tortured… they still kept me there. I was monumentally sick. I tried to kill myself twice. I later discovered that if you have been tortured you are not supposed to be in detention." 

She was detained for 8 months. Voke's experience illustrates the urgent need for a time limit on detention and improved safeguards to ensure that vulnerable people are not detained, as recommended in the report.

Gemma Lousley says:

“Following an extensive inquiry, the Home Affairs Committee has concluded that there are “serious problems in every part of the immigration detention system”. We completely agree. The Home Office is still routinely locking up survivors of torture, trafficking and rape, in contravention of its own Adults at Risk policy. Moreover, while the number of people in detention overall is falling, statistics also show that the number of people detained for over six months has actually increased.

We welcome the Committee’s recommendations, including that the Home Office should introduce a robust screening process to ensure vulnerable people are identified before a decision to detain is made, and that there should be a 28-day time limit on all immigration detention. But we also think there needs to be more radical change. The Committee’s report adds to the wealth of evidence showing that the immigration detention system is rotten to its core – so, the Home Office needs to abolish this system, and end the use of detention altogether.

The report recommends:

End indefinite detention

  • Bringing an end to indefinite immigration detention and implementing a maximum 28-day time limit. This time limit should be cumulative and accompanied by a robust series of regular checks and safeguards. Any extension should only be made in exceptional circumstances and with prior judicial approval.

Improved oversight

  • Stronger judicial oversight by subjecting the initial detention decision to a review by a judge within 72 hours. This would be in line with other areas of UK law, for example in the UK criminal justice system, where an upper limit for detention without charge exists.
  • Urging the Government to undertake a consultation on how immigration detention time limit maximums could be applied to different types of detainees, such as vulnerable individuals. The Home Office should also consult on the application of the time limit to Foreign National Offenders (FNOs), including assessment of specific public protection issues.

More humane decision making

  • Requiring caseworkers involved in the decision to detain an individual in all cases to meet that individual at least once, in person, prior to finalising the detention decision or/and within one week of their detention.
  • Introducing a thorough, face-to-face pre-detention screening process to facilitate the effective disclosure of any vulnerability.

Improved safeguarding

  • Abolishing the three levels of risk in the Adults at Risk policy and reverting to the previous policy of a presumption not to detain individuals except in very exceptional circumstances. The Home Office should consult with a wide range of stakeholders who are affected by immigration detention including people with lived experience, to develop an agreed grouping of categories of vulnerability.

Robust whistleblowing procedures

  • Ensuring all Immigration Removal Centres have robust and effective whistleblowing procedures which staff and detainees can use with complete confidence, knowing they will be fully protected.