Women for Refugee Women Who We Are Staff And Trustees

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

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

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

Marchu says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stella Creasy MP (Labour) says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women says:

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

Read the report here.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Accountable to: WRW’s Grassroots Co-ordinator

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

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


How to apply:

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

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

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

Inspectorate of Prisons finds that many of the people still locked up in detention during the pandemic are vulnerable

A report released today by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has found that, although the number of people in immigration detention has fallen significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, a high proportion of those who remain in detention are vulnerable adults. It also highlights that many of those still in detention have been locked up for ‘extended periods’, despite the fact that ‘the prospect of removal [from the UK] appeared remote’. As the report explains, ‘if there is no reasonable prospect of removal, immigration detention ceases to be lawful’.

For the report, HMIP undertook day-long inspection visits to four detention centres: Yarl’s Wood, near Bedford; Harmondsworth, near Heathrow; Brook House, near Gatwick; and Morton Hall, in Lincolnshire. The report explains that all four detention centres had ‘dramatically reduced their populations since March 2020’. It goes on to highlight, however, that ‘there was a high level of assessed vulnerability among those who remained in detention’. The report sets out that about 40% of those who are still in detention have been recognised as vulnerable by the Home Office, under its ‘Adults at Risk’ policy.

The report also explains that more than a fifth (22%) of those still locked up in detention had been held for more than six months, and 12 had been held for more than a year. HMIP emphasises that in many cases, removal during the pandemic seemed unlikely’. As they explain, very few removals from detention have actually taken place since the pandemic began, and ‘few were scheduled’. The findings of the report raise serious questions, therefore, about the legality of the Home Office’s use of immigration detention while the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing.

The report also highlights that the Home Office has continued to detain people even when they have coronavirus symptoms. During HMIP’s visit to Yarl’s Wood, ‘one man was placed in protective isolation after arriving with symptoms at the Yarl’s Wood residential short-term holding facility’. Additionally, the report documents how women locked up in Yarl’s Wood have been tasked with cleaning the detention centre during the pandemic. It explains that ‘a small group of detainees at Yarl’s Wood cleaned door handles and surfaces throughout the day’. People held in detention are paid just £1 an hour for the work that they do.

It's time to end the harmful practice of immigration detention.


Read the full report here.

Our year: 2019-2020

Women for Refugee Women has a vision that every woman who comes to the UK in search of safety will get a fair hearing and the chance to rebuild her life with dignity.

The women we work with have fled persecution including rape and torture. Too often, instead of finding safety here in the UK, refugee women struggle to access the protection they need. Many become homeless, hungry and at risk of abuse, and others are locked up in immigration detention.

Against this backdrop of huge challenges, we are continually inspired by the courage and creativity of asylum-seeking women who speak out and advocate for a fairer world for all women. This year, we have seen growing energy and solidarity among asylum-seeking women in the UK.

This brief review of the year shares some of our highlights from April 2019 to March 2020, as well as an update on how we are adapting our work during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are grateful to all of our supporters who made this work possible.

Women for Refugee Women and partners submit evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on people with protected characteristics

Together with Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, Women with Hope in Birmingham and the Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group, we have submitted evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee on the impact of Covid-19 on asylum-seeking women.

In recent weeks we have seen various reports on the gendered impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Women are more likely to be living in poverty, and are bearing the brunt of the economic crisis. Domestic violence cases have increased as survivors are forced to lockdown with their abusers. Meanwhile, emerging data suggests that black and minority ethnic women are at increased risk, compared to white women, of suffering severe outcomes from Covid-19. The intersection of gender, race and immigration status, coupled with the trauma of their past experiences, means that asylum-seeking women are among those women most affected by the consequences of the outbreak

This submission focuses on two key areas of our expertise. Firstly, we summarise the effects of the pandemic and the government’s response to this on women held in immigration detention. Secondly, we look at the impact of the current situation on women who have been refused asylum but are unable to leave the UK, and who have therefore been forced into destitution.

Our key recommendations are:
  • All detention centres should be closed and those who are currently detained should be provided with support and safe accommodation in the community where they would have the means to self-isolate.
  • 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 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.


Women for Refugee Women launches a new appeal to support refugee women during the COVID-19 pandemic

Today we are launching a new appeal to help us to continue supporting isolated and vulnerable refugee and asylum-seeking women during the coronavirus pandemic.

Usually, we welcome over 100 women to our centre in London each week, where they can attend our English or drama lessons, practice yoga, enjoy a warm lunchaccess advice, build friendships and support each other. However, due to the outbreak of coronavirus, on Monday 16 March, we had to make the sad decision to suspend our face-to-face activities.  

The ongoing pandemic is hitting the refugee and asylum-seeking women we work with particularly hard, making it even more difficult for them to find safety in the UK and exacerbating the difficulties they were already facing. Despite the resilience and strength of the women in our network, we are seeing a significant increase in the need for emergency support, as women struggle to survive during this difficult time.  

'G' said:

My cupboard was bare. I felt so panicky, what could I do to eat? With the money, my neighbour went to the shop for me and got everything I need for the week. 

We are rapidly adapting our services to continue to support the women in our network. We are calling over 300 refugee and asylum-seeking women in our London network regularly for a friendly chat, to update them on the latest coronavirus advice and to support them through the challenges they are facing. We are providing high-quality advice, connecting women with other forms of vital support, including counselling, and providing emergency hardship grants to enable women to meet their basic needs, like food. We are also striving to keep women connected, through phone top-ups and group video sessions, to combat the intensified isolation of lockdown and enable them to rebuild their confidence.  

'Hannah' told us:

“I am happy when I receive your call as I know I am not alone. I feel happy. It gives me strength to live and when you call it gives me a good feeling in my spirit"  

We have supported women who have been made homeless during the pandemic, women who do not have the money to feed their children and women who are too afraid to access the healthcare they desperately need. And now we need your help to continue to support refugee women through the ongoing pandemic and beyond. Anything you are able to donate, will make a huge difference during this difficult time. 

Thank you for your solidarity with refugee women!


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."

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.