When the Set Her Free campaign launched at Parliament in January 2014, the energy was palpable. Feminists and human rights activists crowded the room – there was Leyla Hussein, Shami Chakrabarti, Helena Kennedy, Laura Bates, Caroline Criado-Perez, Philippe Sands – and some of our inspirational supporters including singer Skin and actress Romola Garai, alongside Parliamentarians Stella Creasy and Richard Fuller. But centre stage were the asylum seeking women who had been through detention, including Lydia Besong, Meltem Avcil and dozens of others. Their stories and voices commanded the room in Westminster where we gathered and pledged to end the detention of women seeking asylum in the UK.
Over the last five years we at Women for Refugee Women have tried to honour that commitment. We have worked with the media, with politicians, with activists, with other organisations, with doctors, with lawyers, with artists and actors, but above all we have worked with women who know about detention because they lived it. Nothing on this timeline could have happened without their courage and their voices. If we can’t name them all individually for their own protection, they know that we honour them all individually.
As we move into the fifth year of the campaign our commitment to them is undimmed. The arguments have been made. The evidence has been marshalled. The momentum is there. It is time to close down Yarl’s Wood and Set Her Free.
Women for Refugee Women launches the Set Her Free campaign with an event at Parliament and a ground breaking report, Detained: women asylum seekers locked up in the UK, which puts forward the evidence that the majority of women locked up in Yarl’s Wood have survived human rights abuses including rape and torture, and that detention is both unnecessary and traumatic.
Zadie Smith, novelist, visits Yarl’s Wood with us and releases this statement in support of the campaign: “We need urgently to address the outrage of Yarl’s Wood. Its continued existence is an offence to liberty, a shame to any civilised nation, and a personal tragedy for the women caught in its illogical grip.’
On 13 February hundreds of campaigners gather outside the Home Office. The crowd is addressed by many inspirational women, and covered throughout the media, including in the Daily Telegraph, where Allison Pearson wrote: ‘This evening, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, can look out of her Westminster office and see a group from Women for Refugee Women shining torches. They are calling for refugee women to be released from detention and allowed to live with dignity in the community while their cases are heard.’
For International Women’s Day 2014 we fill the Royal Festival Hall with the stories of detained women, as Cush Jumbo, Bryony Hannah and Juliet Stevenson perform our testimony play A Day in Detention arranged by Nell Leyshon and Jessica Swale. After the performance we are joined by women who have been in Yarl’s Wood who stun the audience with their courage.
On 31 March, following the tragic death of Christine Case in Yarl’s Wood, Parliamentarians stand up to denounce the government’s detention policy and Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper states that: ‘Research by Women for Refugee Women raises concerns about physical and mental health support in detention.’
Women for Refugee Women joins up with the Women’s Institute Shoreditch Sisters, who have knitted a huge quilt with refugee women in solidarity with women in detention, stitched all over with messages of support from the public. In April 2014 we take it to Yarl’s Wood to show the women there that they are not forgotten.
On 10-12 June, William Hague and Angelina Jolie host a massive summit in London to tackle sexual violence in conflict. We go too, with our quilt, to raise awareness of what happens to women seeking asylum from sexual violence. On the first day of the summit, Angelina Jolie visits our stand and states her support for refugee women. She writes a message to be stitched on to the solidarity quilt saying: ‘We love and support you. We admire your strength.’ Her support is covered by CNN, ITN the Guardian and the Telegraph. WRW also hosts a sold-out event at the summit with Juliet Stevenson and Shami Chakrabarti speaking alongside refugee women.
On 7 July 2014, Sarah Teather MP announces a Parliamentary inquiry into detention. Women for Refugee Women bring two women to give oral evidence to the first session. Maimuna Jawo speaks eloquently of her experiences of being locked up after coming to this country to seek asylum, alongside ‘Alice’, a woman who had been persecuted because of her sexuality in her home country and came close to despair when detained in the UK.
In November, Women for Refugee Women gives evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on why women who have survived sexual violence should not be detained, and to the Bedford Council Healthcare Committee on healthcare in Yarl’s Wood.
At a packed event in the Queen Elizabeth Hall London, Doreen Lawrence presents Meltem Avcil with the Young Campaigner award in the Liberty Human Rights awards
Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, announces that a Labour government would end the detention of survivors of torture and sexual violence, and pregnant women. She also announces that Labour would hold an independent inquiry into the allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
Our new report, I Am Human, is published and shows that women are routinely watched in intimate situations such as in bed or in the shower by men in Yarl’s Wood. It also shows that women are frequently searched by men and that this behaviour by male staff makes women feel ashamed, scared and angry. The report is covered throughout the media, including the Guardian, the Independent, Channel 4 News and the World at One and is launched at a huge conference for the campaign in London, where more than 100 women who have sought asylum come together with over 100 supporters, including politicians, activists, journalists and artists.
In response to Women for Refugee Women exposure of the treatment of vulnerable women and the work of other organisations in exposing conditions in detention, Home Secretary Theresa May announces a review of the detention of vulnerable people, to be carried out by Stephen Shaw, former prisons ombudsman.
We work with Channel 4 News on their searing investigation into conditions in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. They expose the racist and dehumanising attitudes of staff at the centre and we support a woman who has been in detention to speak about the trauma she suffered, including her suicide attempt.
The report of the Parliamentary Detention inquiry is published, including evidence from Women for Refugee Women and the following recommendations: ‘Women who are victims of rape and sexual violence should not be detained. Serco and the Home Office must ensure that women are treated with respect and dignity. Gender specific rules should be introduced in IRCs. Pregnant women should never be detained for immigration purposes.’
The Solidarity Quilt made by Women for Refugee Women and the Women’s Institute Shoreditch Sisters continues its journey. It goes to the Women of the World festival in March and in April to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the All of This Belongs to You exhibition.
On 6 June Women for Refugee Women organises a demonstration at Yarl’s Wood detention centre itself to demand liberty for women locked up in the centre. It is an amazing day, full of energy, hope and solidarity with those who are detained; the first mass demonstration at the detention centre. Hundreds of people come from all over the country; buses are organised from Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester and London. Among the speakers are Maimuna Jawo, Lydia Besong and Nimko Ali.
A report by the UK prison inspector, HMIP, calls Yarl’s Wood ‘a national concern’, highlighting issues such as the detention of pregnant women, standards of healthcare provision, and an increase in rates of self-harm.
On 10 September, members of Parliament hold a debate on the use of immigration detention and support the demand to Set Her Free. Women who have been detained watch from the gallery as MP after MP call the government to account for the injustice and cruelty of immigration detention.
Meltem Avcil is named Cosmopolitan magazine’s Ultimate Campaigner 2015 award, at their annual Ultimate Women awards, for her work on our Set Her Free campaign.
Stephen Shaw publishes his review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. In preparing it he has met with us and a number of women in our network and he recommends an end to the detention of survivors of sexual and gender based violence and an end to the detention of pregnant women, as well as a move away from detention overall.
Kate Osamor MP secures a Westminster Hall debate on healthcare at Yarl’s Wood. Women for Refugee Women attends with three former detainees, who hear positive contributions from MPs across three political parties.
On International Women’s Day, 99 inspiring women join us to stand in solidarity with refugee women, by writing a message of support. We asked 99 women to reflect the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014. We mark International Women’s Day with a gathering outside the Home Office, featuring female singers, dancers, musicians, poets, comedians, and speakers and deliver postcards from the 99 women to the Home Office.
Later in March Caroline Spelman MP hosts an event with us, Bhatt Murphy Solicitors and Medical Justice to call for the end to the detention of pregnant women. We are joined by speakers Stephen Shaw (author of the Home Office commissioned review into the welfare of vulnerable detainees), Louise Silverton (Royal College of Midwives), Stephanie Harrison QC (Garden Court Chambers), and women who were detained while pregnant who speak eloquently of the harm they have suffered.
Peers in the House of Lords vote in favour of the amendment supported by Women for Refugee Women, tabled by Baroness Ruth Lister, that would end the detention of pregnant women. In the end the government blocks this amendment but introduces a 72-hour time limit on detaining pregnant women instead: a small but significant step forward.
Women for Refugee Women’s short animated film ‘Set Her Free: Margaret’s Story’ premieres at London Feminist Film Festival 2016. This film, directed by Priya Sundram, tells the story of one woman detained in Yarl’s Wood. Watch it online here.
Women for Refugee Women and Care International UK organise Listen to the Women, an inspiring public event showcasing the stories and voices of refugee women alongside actors Tanya Moodie and Juliet Stevenson and politicians Heidi Allen and Yvette Cooper.
Women for Refugee Women members perform their Set Her Free poem and call for an end to the detention of women in Trafalgar Square, to a crowd of 100,000 people, at the Women’s March on London.
We launch our report, The Way Ahead, which explores women’s experiences of the asylum system, and how to build an asylum process without detention. We launch the report at our second national refugee women’s conference opened by Noma Dumezweni, and Labour MP Kate Osamor.
We launch our new report: We are still here: The continued detention of women seeking asylum in Yarl’s Wood, which finds that vulnerable asylum-seeking women, including those who have experienced rape, are still being locked up in immigration detention. The Home Office introduced a new policy in September 2016 to prevent this, however the report shows that the policy is not working and vulnerable women are still experiencing harm from detention.The report is covered by BBC News, Sky News, The Guardian, The Independent and more.
We hold a third refugee women’s conference, with Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, at which over 200 women come together to discuss their experiences of detention and destitution, and develop actions to create change.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott visits Yarl’s Wood detention centre and meets with us and women in our network who have been detained after the visit. She says: ‘These women were clearly desperate. Indefinite detention, with no release date, is just wrong.”
We organise the All Women Count mass lobby of Parliament, where over 200 women went to Parliament on International Women’s Day to call for safety, dignity and liberty for all women, together with over 40 other organisations from grassroots groups all around the country to large organisations like UNHCR, Amnesty International UK and Liberty. The event features an all refugee and migrant women line-up of speakers. MPs and Peers attend the lobby and pledge their support. Stella Creasy MP and Jess Phillips MP mention the lobby in the International Women’s Day debate and Baroness Healy speak about it in the House of Lords.
At this time women are on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood; we speak on BBC Woman’s Hour alongside one of the women involved in the hunger strike. We also bring evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into detention, alongside two women with experience of detention.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott pledges that if Labour were in power it would shut down Yarl’s Wood and put the resources saved into supporting women fleeing gender based violence and trafficking.
Stephen Shaw releases his follow up report on the treatment of vulnerable people in detention. He has met with us and women from our network in preparing it, and states in it that vulnerable people are still being locked up for ‘deeply troubling’ amounts of time. On its launch the Home Secretary Sajid Javid pledges to set up a pilot alternative to detention for women who would be locked up in Yarl’s Wood.
We work with the Guardian in order to expose the detention of vulnerable trafficked Chinese women in Yarl’s Wood. The exclusive story tells how there has been a rise in the detention of Chinese women, many of whom are clearly trafficked into exploitation.
Women who have been in detention are continuing to speak out and organise in order to ensure their voices are heard.
Parliamentarians and other organisations are working on an amendment to the Immigration Bill which would put a 28-day time limit on immigration detention.
Let’s work together to build on the energy: it’s time to close down Yarl’s Wood and Set Her Free.