Ending detention: the vision of our Set Her Free campaign
Women for Refugee Women has a vision of a world in which women who cross borders are not only surviving, but are able to live full, peaceful and happy lives. We work in solidarity with women who have sought asylum or who have refugee status to try to ensure that their voices are heard and that their rights to safety, dignity and liberty are upheld.
As part of this vision we want to see an end to immigration detention. We have seen the harms that incarceration does firsthand and we find it shocking that women, particularly those who have already survived human rights abuses, are locked up in the UK for administrative convenience. This needs to end.
Women for Refugee Women worked with other organisations to try to end the detention of children from 2008 to 2010, because at that time the government was locking up around 1000 children a year for indefinite periods. We remember sitting in the visitors’ room at Yarl’s Wood detention centre with mums who were locked up for months on end with the babies they were breastfeeding and with kids who should have been in school. We met 13 year olds who were self-harming in Yarl’s Wood and we met toddlers who would bang on the doors of the visitors room in efforts to escape.
In 2010 this practice was changed, and now the detention of children has fallen by around 96% – fewer than 100 kids are now locked up every year, and all for very short periods. This is still too many, but we are glad that when we go to Yarl’s Wood we do not any more find children suffering by being locked up for long periods. The process that has ensured that detention for children has fallen by 96% is called the Family Returns process, and we recognise that one positive aspect of its introduction has been this massive reduction in the detention of children. It is not, however, a good system in other areas, because it has been bolted on to an asylum system that fails people in so many other ways.
From 2014 Women for Refugee Women has focused on a campaign to end the immigration detention of women: Set Her Free. This campaign is led by women with experience of detention who work alongside us to help us to frame our proposals and our messages.
Since we launched the Set Her Free campaign, Women for Refugee Women has put forward a number of proposals for immediate reforms, including an end to the detention of pregnant women, an end to the detention of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and an introduction of a 28-day time limit on all immigration detention. This alongside the work of others has led to some small changes such as the introduction of a new time limit on the detention of pregnant women in 2016, which has led to the numbers of pregnant women in detention falling by about half and their time in detention being greatly reduced.
We believe that there needs to be a more radical overhaul of the system, as such small reforms cannot get to grips with the magnitude of the problem. In our report The Way Ahead, published in March 2017, we set out a picture of an entirely community-based asylum system. This would involve ensuring that people’s cases are resolved while they are living in the community, with no need for detention.
In this report we looked at the Family Returns process and noted the positive aspect of its introduction, which is that it had massively reduced the incarceration of children. But we were clear that we were proposing an even more thoroughgoing overhaul of the system.
We discussed how this overhaul could include engagement with those seeking asylum from the start of their case, with support from a case worker who was independent from the immigration authorities. Such a system would also need to include access to good legal representation, proper welfare support and housing. In the report we looked at good practice elsewhere and the proposals of others such as the 2015 Parliamentary inquiry into detention, which called for a “wholesale change” in the current system, as well as the work of other NGOs including Detention Action, whose 2017 report Without Detention sets out ways that community-based approaches could be introduced in the UK context to end detention.
We would love to take part in robust discussion of such proposals with anyone who is also interested in changing the current asylum system. We recognise that the overhaul that we discuss in The Way Ahead may sound too radical for some and too timid for others. That’s why discussion is so important. We are just one set of voices among many who want to see change. We are shocked that instead of engaging in such discussion some individuals have instead decided to smear us and accuse us of collaborating with the Home Office. This is simply nonsense. We have never worked with or been funded by the Home Office.
We know that the current asylum system is cruel and chaotic. We know change is urgently overdue. We spend so much of our limited capacity as an organisation trying to support and work in solidarity with women who have experienced terrible decisions, destitution, detention and threats of deportation. We want to see a completely different world, one in which women’s rights to safety, dignity and liberty are respected and they can rebuild their lives as equals alongside those of us who are settled in the UK. We believe that many others also share this vision and that by listening to one another and working together, we can move closer to such a world.