Detention centres are secretive places. By going on strike, the women of Yarl's Wood are forcing the world to hear their voicesby Samantha Hudson / March 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
In the same month that we celebrated the centenary of (some) women’s suffrage in the UK, 120 women went on strike in Yarl’s Wood detention centre to protest their lack of human rights. Their protest begs the question: how far have women really come?
Each year over 1500 women who have sought asylum in the UK are detained. At Women for Refugee Women, we regularly visit those locked up in Yarl’s Wood, the infamous detention centre that has been the site of numerous scandals and in 2015 was called a place of ‘national concern’ by the Prisons Inspectorate.
Most of the women detained there are survivors of rape, torture and other abuse. The UK is the only country in Europe with no time limit on detention. Being locked up, with no end in sight, has disastrous consequences on vulnerable women’s wellbeing.
88 per cent of women we spoke to for our latest research said that their mental health had deteriorated in detention; almost half had thought about killing themselves.
The Home Office repeatedly insists that detention is a last resort before a person is deported. This is simply not true, as is evident in the Home Office’s own statistics.
In 2016, just 15 per cent of asylum-seeking women detained at Yarl’s Wood left detention to be removed from the UK. The vast majority of women who are detained are later released to continue with their asylum claims.
For most, these weeks, months or sometimes even years of trauma and shattering uncertainty serve no purpose.
It’s not the only aspect of Yarl’s Wood that the Home Office keep as quiet as possible. Detention centres are secretive places.
It’s telling that it took the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott a year and a half to be granted access to Yarl’s Wood. During her visit last week, she met with women who are currently on strike in the centre, and afterwards with other women in our network who had previously been detained.
‘Voke,’ who was detained for 8 months in 2017 and tried to kill herself there, told Abbott, “When you are locked up in detention, your life is taken away and you feel like you won’t ever get it back.”
Abbott really listened to the women as they told their stories to her. One said: “She managed to hear each and every one’s story. Which is what we want—we want people to hear our cry.”
And hear their cry we must. To improve a system that is deliberately shielded from scrutiny, we need more politicians who are willing to listen to those with direct experience of the inner workings of detention centres and to hear them when they explain its lasting impact on their lives.
A 28-day time limit is one of the demands of the women on strike. This is a pragmatic policy step which would end the indefinite nature of detention and encourage better decision making by the Home Office. And more can and should be done, to move away from detention altogether and create an asylum process without detention.
Like the Suffragettes one hundred years before them, the women detained in Yarl’s Wood will not be silenced. The Government will publish draft law setting out our post-Brexit immigration system this year. Now is the time to act to ensure that the women’s demands for true reform are included.