Survivors Behind Bars: New data on the detention of trafficking survivors

Today, Women for Refugee Women and After Exploitation publish new data revealing that the Home Office is increasingly locking up survivors of trafficking in immigration detention.

The harm that immigration detention causes people is well-documented. Because of this, in 2016, the Home Office introduced a new 'Adults at Risk' policy, with the stated aim of achieving “a reduction in the number of vulnerable people detained”. Survivors of trafficking are included in this definition of 'vulnerable', and are at increased risk of severe mental and physical health problems as a result of the trauma they have experienced. These new figures on the high numbers of survivors still being detained add to existing evidence that policy tweaks, like the Adults at Risk policy, are not enough to protect vulnerable people from detention.

Key findings:

  • Between January 2019 and September 2020, 4,102 people who were referred into the UK’s modern slavery framework (the National Referral Mechanism, or ‘NRM’) were locked up in detention. In 2020 alone, despite a significant overall reduction in the use of detention due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 969 people with trafficking indicators were detained.
  • Between 2017 and 2019, the detention of potential trafficking survivors tripled, from 410 to 1256 people locked up.
  • 658 women with trafficking indicators were detained between January 2019 and September 2020. While this is fewer than men (fewer women are detained overall), it is concerningly high. We are particularly concerned that since August 2020, women are increasingly being detained in places meant for men. A lack of privacy and appropriate support makes it even more difficult for women to disclose trafficking and gender-based violence in these settings.

The Home Office does not make these figures freely available, we were only able to obtain them through a series of Freedom of Information requests.

'Voke' is a member of our network, who we first met while she was detained at Yarl's Wood in 2017. She was locked up there for nearly eight months. While in Yarl’s Wood, she was referred into the National Referral Mechanism and given a negative ‘reasonable grounds’ decision. Three years later, the Home Office reversed this decision and recognised her as a confirmed survivor of trafficking. She says:

"The Home Office didn’t ask me what had happened to me before they detained me. Then, when I told them in detention, they dismissed what I said. They treat you as a number, not a human being. They just want to send you back to your country, to meet their deportation targets. When I finally received my positive decision I thought: why have you only decided to believe me now? My story is the same as it was when I told you years ago.“

In order to safeguard people like 'Voke' from detention, we recommend that the government:

  • Introduce an absolute ban on the detention of suspected trafficking victims, with immediate effect.
  • Commit to moving away from the use of immigration detention completely, and to implement community-based alternatives to detention.
  • Issue a guaranteed minimum of 12 months’ immigration security, and safe house provision of at least the same duration, for both UK and non-UK victims.


Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women, said:

“The ‘Adults at Risk’ policy, introduced in 2016 to supposedly reduce the number of vulnerable people in detention, has consistently been found not to have achieved this. During the coronavirus pandemic, the situation for vulnerable people in detention has become even worse. The detention of thousands of people who are potentially trafficking victims cannot be understood as the result of unresolved ‘problems’ or ‘deficiencies’ within an overall well-intentioned system. Rather, it is the inevitable outcome of the hostile and neglectful system that has been put in place.”

“The consequences of 'Adults at Risk' demonstrates that ‘reform’ of the detention system and minor policy changes will not stop people who are vulnerable from being detained. The only way to achieve this is to dismantle the UK’s institutionally racist and cruel immigration detention system.”

Maya Esslemont, Director of After Exploitation, said:

“We are deeply concerned by the wide-spread immigration detention of vulnerable people, including nearly 3,000 potential trafficking victims with a legal right to "assistance and support" under the Modern Slavery Act 2015."

“In press statements, the Government routinely acknowledges that modern slavery is a 'heinous crime' capable of inflicting physical, psychological and interpersonal devastation on survivors. Yet, in 2021, the Government has refused to introduce immigration protection for survivors. An absolute ban on the detention of survivors has also be ruled out."

"The Government must urgently reverse its position, which is leading to unthinkable numbers of trafficking victims being held in prison-like settings when they should be recieving support."

Rudy Schulkind, Research and Policy Co-ordinator at Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) said:

“These numbers show the staggering extent of the government’s failure to protect victims of trafficking from detention. Immigration detainees are deprived of their liberty in prison-like conditions, with no idea of when or where they will be released to. This is difficult enough for anybody. For survivors of trafficking, the experience is frequently re-traumatising and we encounter people whose mental health has deteriorated significantly as a result of detention. There is a lack of quality independent immigration advice which is essential for people entering the NRM.”

“Furthermore the only first responder in Immigration Removal Centres is the same authority responsible for maintaining detention and executing enforced removal from the UK. Clearly immigration detention is not a conducive environment to the disclosure of trafficking or other traumatic experiences. There may be many others who go through the detention system and are released or deported from the UK without ever having been identified as a victim of trafficking.

Sarah Teather, UK Director of Jesuit Refugee Service, said:

“These statistics are further compelling evidence of the reality JRS UK's detention outreach team see time and again: victims of trafficking are routinely held in immigration detention. This incarceration brings back memories of abuse at the hands of traffickers. This happens because, too often, immigration control is prioritised over identifying and protecting victims. This needs to change. If we are serious about combatting trafficking, we need to stop incarcerating those victim to it.”

Kate Roberts, UK & Europe Programme Manager at Anti-Slavery International, said:

"The UK needs to prioritise a human response to trafficking, which treats people as individuals and which focuses on their needs and priorities. There needs to be a support system which is independent of immigration control from start to finish, and which gives people choices and options, supporting them to put their exploitation behind them and to begin to rebuild their lives. To go from exploitation to immigration detention is the opposite of this. From initial identification and support to the provision of security, immigration controls remove people’s options, playing into the hands of traffickers."

Maria Thomas, Solicitor at Duncan Lewis' Public Law team, said:

"We believe that the Secretary of State’s practice of truncating asylum screening interviews, pursuant to an unpublished policy, has contributed to the detention of hundreds of vulnerable trafficking survivors. By failing to ask asylum seekers about their route of travel, those who had suffered horrific abuse and exploitation in Libya were detained and processed for removal when they should have been identified for support. This practice has undoubtedly added to the traumatisation and anguish already suffered by these individuals whilst exploited and enslaved."

Theresa Schleicher, Casework Manager at Medical Justice, said:

“We are greatly concerned by the high numbers of people with trafficking indicators who have been detained. Immigration detention which is known to cause lasting harm to mental health, especially for those with previous histories of trauma, such as trafficking. These numbers, although high, are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. We frequently encounter survivors of trafficking in detention who have not been recognised as such by anyone before, despite having gone through the Home Office processes that should have identified them and safeguarded them from detention: the screening interview, consideration by the Gatekeeper team, the detention healthcare screening.”

“We are concerned that the Home Office is currently considering introducing changes to its policy of detaining survivors of trafficking which we fear could further undermine safeguards and lead to more survivors languishing in detention for longer. We urge the Home Office to reconsider: rather than weakening existing safeguards, there is an urgent need for strengthening them and ensuring they are properly effective. Survivors of trafficking should never be subjected to immigration detention.”

Rachel Witkin, Head of Counter-Trafficking at The Helen Bamber Foundation, said:

“It is shameful to see that so many victims of the serious crime of human trafficking have been detained. We know that traffickers routinely keep control over their victims with the threat that if they ever dare to escape they will be detained by the UK authorities:  it is an effective threat because it frequently proves to be true.”

“Once survivors have been detained they feel betrayed, frightened, isolated and alone. The trauma of their trafficking is increased by the experience of further confinement, and many survivors will struggle to ever find the courage after detention to speak out about the criminals who have trafficked them.”

“In many cases we know of, clear indicators of trafficking were not picked up or acted upon, or survivors' accounts were wrongly disbelieved. As with other serious crime, trafficking is most likely to be disclosed when a relationship of trust is built and survivors have time to absorb information and speak freely about all that has happened to them. The Recovery & Reflection period was specifically designed for this purpose and it should never be spent in detention. Survivors need to be identified, protected and supported to rebuild their lives.”

Women for Refugee Women is delighted to announce the appointment of our new director, Alphonsine Kabagabo

Women for Refugee Women is delighted to announce the appointment of Alphonsine Kabagabo as our new Director. From January 2021, Alphonsine will be leading the charity and all our work to support and empower refugee women to tell their own stories and advocate for a fairer asylum process.

Alphonsine brings over 20 years of professional experience dedicated to empowering women and girls, as well as personal experience as a refugee woman. Alphonsine is an inspiring leader who will take our work forward into the future so that we can continue to build the confidence and skills of refugee women and create transformative change.

Alphonsine says:

“I am delighted to have been appointed as Women for Refugee Women’s next Director from January 2021.

My own journey as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi and a refugee woman has taught me the importance of having the voice and the skills to change my life. I am extremely excited to be joining an organisation that gives women who are seeking asylum the chance to live a fulfilling life through empowering them with skills to be confident, to tell their stories, and to advocate for a fairer asylum process that treats women with respect and dignity.

I am bringing to WRW my deep passion for empowering girls and women, and over 20 years of experience in leading and managing programmes for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). I led the development of transformative programmes that have given hundreds of young women the confidence to speak out and influence changes to policies on issues that are important to them, such as child marriage, HIV/AIDS prevention, fighting violence against girls and young women, and providing reproductive health services to women in refugee camps. I am also bringing my experience of being a past trustee of Womankind, an international feminist organisation supporting women’s rights and a trustee of SURF, a non-profit organisation supporting survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

I am excited to be joining a team of dedicated trustees, staff and volunteers and to work with them to ensure that Women for Refugee Women continue to grow and achieve its ambition. I am delighted that Natasha Walter, the founder of WRW, will remain in the organisation and I am looking forward to building on the amazing work she has started.

I look forward to ensuring that we continue to amplify the voices of the refugee women, that we strengthen and build new partnerships, and that we can achieve systematic changes for a fair asylum system.”

Rachel Krys, chair of Women for Refugee Women’s board of trustees, says:

"I and all the trustees at Women for Refugee Women are absolutely delighted that Alphonsine Kabagabo will be joining the charity as our new director. We were clear from the start of the recruitment process that we needed to find a leader who would build on the legacy of the last 14 years and take us forward into the next stage. Alphonsine will bring so much experience and so much understanding to the role, as well as her commitment to social justice and her lived experience as a refugee woman. I personally look forward to supporting her over the coming years to ensure that the voices of refugee women continue to be heard and to build a fairer asylum process."

Women for Refugee Women joins commitment to end racism within our sector

Women for Refugee Women are proud to sign up to the end Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector call to action to end racism within our movement. Systemic racism causes harm to the women in our network and shapes how many refugee and asylum-seeking women experience violence, and their access to safety, support and justice.

Over the next six months we will:

  • Establish a working group of trustees, team members and women from our network to develop a framework to ensure our all work meets the values and pledges set out in the anti-racism call to action.
  • Develop and share an action plan for WRW to meet the commitments to which we’ve signed up.
  • Work with colleagues on the VAWG sector anti-racism group to develop an anti-racism charter and support the work to tackle racism in the VAWG sector.

Women for Refugee Women is an organisation committed to challenging the injustices experienced by women who have sought asylum in the UK. We empower refugee and asylum-seeking women to speak out, become leaders and advocate for change. The values of anti-racism are at the centre of this work and we will continue to do everything in our power to tackle racism through care and collaboration.

The call to action is available at:

Priscilla Dudhia, Policy and Research Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women and member of the anti-racism working group that developed this call to action, says:

As a daughter of migrants, this work is very personal to me. A world in which refugee women are treated with dignity will never be possible unless we tackle deep-rooted injustices, such as the racism within the Home Office’s treatment of people who are seeking asylum. But in order to be legitimate in that fight, to make meaningful long-term change, we must first get our own houses into order. I am pleased that Women for Refugee Women have committed to the call to action, a journey that will involve difficult questions, openness and honesty, and of course practical changes - not just statements. I hope that others will join us too, so that we can all live in a kinder, more equal world.  

Venus Abduallah, Office Manager at Women for Refugee Women, says:

"I am in awe of Priscilla and the amazing Black and minoritised women who worked so hard to bring about this call to action to end racism within our movement. As a Black African woman I have faced discrimination and racism while working in the charity sector in the UK. I do this work with love and solidarity to fight for social justice and create genuine change, but instead I have often felt disempowered, hindered and invisible. That is why this call to action is of special importance to me; it not only sets a framework and minimum standards for organisations to ensure their work is anti-racist, but it also paves the way for more accountability, meaningful reflection and radical change in the VAWG sector and eventually other sectors. I look forward to continue being part of developing Women for Refugee Women's own anti-racist practice."

Tuka Almaleh, Digital Inclusion Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women, says:

"When I first came to the UK, I thought that it would be a free country where all people are treated equally regardless of their background, appearance or skin colour. Apparently, I was wrong, and I have since been labelled and categorised in many ways. I struggle to free myself from the accusations and stereotypes that are only present in others' minds. I really believe it is time to reinforce solidarity and stand together as human beings to fight racism. My thanks go to Priscilla and the Black and minoritised women who developed this call to action, for working to end racisms in our movement and for seeking a better world."

Women for Refugee Women is recruiting a Director (closed)

Director - Women for Refugee Women
£60,000 - £70,000
Full-time, permanent (flexible, part time and job share considered)

Women for Refugee Women is an organisation committed to challenging the injustices experienced by women and children who have sought asylum in the UK. Our overarching vision is that women who seek asylum should be able to live in safety, dignity and liberty.

We currently work in three main ways: to empower refugee women to tell their own stories; to communicate the experiences of refugee women to wide audiences, and to advocate for policy change and a fairer asylum process.

In what has been an extremely challenging year, we have continued to support asylum-seeking and refugee women, in London and in partnership with groups across England and Wales, and campaign against unlawful detention, the impact of destitution, and for a fairer asylum system. In part because of a generous legacy left to us by a committed volunteer, and the support from our funders, we have been able to keep going through the COVID crisis and support other grassroots organisations to continue their vital work.

The Director we are looking for will share our values of human rights, anti-racism and intersectional feminism and bring a commitment to empowering women to communicate their own experiences. Your remit will be to lead an organisation in a controversial policy area with confidence and calmness while holding a vision of radical change. You will lead and support a team of experienced and passionate professionals, all of whom bring unquestionable commitment to this cause.

Who you are, your values, your experience and your commitment to our mission is what we are interested in first and foremost and we look forward to hearing from you. Whatever your professional and life experience background, you will be the emotionally intelligent leader who is able to influence and engage with stakeholders, government, media, funding bodies and existing and future partners.

We believe passionately in women telling their own stories to achieve social change. If you do too then we would be delighted to hear from you.

How to apply

You can download the candidate information pack here.

For an informal conversation about the role, please contact our recruitment partner, Carroll Lloyd, Director, NFP Consulting on 07765 001 033 or email

Applications can be made online at

We are happy to accept written applications in whatever format works best for you. Please contact us and tell us how you would prefer to apply for the role.

Closing date: 10.00 a.m. Monday 26th October

Women for Refugee Women is committed to diversity and inclusion in its workforce. We seek to attract applications from the widest possible talent pool and to appoint on ability irrespective of race, religion, age, disability (including hidden disabilities), marital/civil partnership status, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. We particularly welcome applications from women with a refugee background with lived experience of the issues we are tackling who can lead and influence change for the women we serve.

You can read our founder Natasha Walter's blog about the story of Women for Refugee Women so far and why now is the time for new leadership here.

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.


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.