Published on February 21, 2014 | by Catherine Van de Stouwe & Francis Wilmer0
Women asylum seekers in UK forced into detention centres
It is hard to believe that in this day and age those seeking asylum in the UK are forced into detention centres and locked up like criminals, when their only crime is to flee the horrors of their home country.
According to the Home Office, at the last count made between April and June 2013 there were 23,499 applications made for asylum.
Out of these applications, only 7,106 were accepted. By the end of June 2013, 3,142 people were kept in detention centres.
From this, it is estimated that 2,000 refugee women a year are taken to Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire, the largest immigration removal centre in Britain.
The process for gaining asylum is a long and complicated one and life in Yarl’s Wood is not easy.
Many women in the centre fled their home countries as they were victims of rape and torture; shockingly, these women who came to the UK to feel safe are left surrounded by intimidating male guards.
Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, explained the startling finds in her charity’s latest research: “Among the women we talked to who had been detained, one in five said they tried to kill themselves in detention in the UK.”
An article in The Independent reports the suffering of a 33-year-old Ethiopian woman, who describes her time at the detention centre as a place “where human rights don’t exist.”
The male guards, who do not allow them any privacy in their day-to-day routines, watch these women day and night, forcing them to undress and even go to the toilet in front of them.
One young girl, Meltem Avcil, originally from Turkey, came to Yarl’s Wood after an immigration raid with her mother in 2007, when she was just 13 years old.
Avcil and her family fled the country after being targeted as Kurds; she told The Mirror: “They searched us, checked us [and] locked the doors behind us. [They then] gave us a Yarl’s Wood membership card. Every single day was the worst. Bad food, poor health care [and the] fear [of] not knowing. Even now I hear the banging of those doors.”
She spent 91 days in the detention centre. Now aged 20, Avcil is studying mechanical engineering at Kingston University and is also campaigning to end the detention of women who seek asylum.
She currently has an online petition collecting signatures to give to the British Home Secretary, Theresa May.
Women for Refugee Women is amongst those who have already signed the petition, with Walter adding: “We would like the government to stop detaining women who come to this country to seek asylum. Their cases can be heard just as efficiently while living in the community. These women deserve a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives.”
Unfortunately, for women who are not granted asylum, life in the UK becomes almost impossible as any support from the government is withdrawn.
They are not given the right to work and they face life on the streets if not immediately deported.
However, if asylum is granted, the rocky road does not stop there.
In most cases, only one or two members of the family cross borders; when asylum is granted to these few, an application for reunification with their families is put forward.
“We would like the government to stop detaining women who come to this country to seek asylum…these women deserve a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives.” Natasha Walter
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) placed Iran as the second highest country of origin of asylum seekers, with Pakistan placed ahead and Sri Lanka behind.
Farzaneh Majidi is a refugee from Tehran, Iran. As a member of the exiled political party, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), Majidi and thousands of others were forced out of the country after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
It was a long journey for her; first to Afghanistan and then to the UK, where she and fellow members of the MEK are fighting to get their families to safety.
In a makeshift camp outside the US embassy, a small group from MEK went on a hunger strike to protest the abandonment of the Iranian refugee camp in Afghanistan by the US.
On December 6, 96 days into the strike, Francis Wilmer, a BA Photojournalism student at LCC, spoke to Majidi: “All of my family are in Tehran, I am just living here with my husband and my son. We have to do something to protect these innocent people who have not got anything to defend themselves.”
The strike finished on December 18, 108 days after the start, to no avail.
Nevertheless, alongside Women for Refugee Women there are other charities turning their hands to providing help to those seeking asylum.
STAR (Student Action for Refugees) was set up by a group of Nottingham university students nearly ten years ago.
Working with the National Union of Students (NUS), STAR has set up societies in over 30 universities across the UK, including King’s College London, University of East London and Queen Mary’s.
“STAR is mainly organised by students, who not only fundraise, but provide practical English clubs, homework clubs, activity days [to name a few] to help these people get a good start to their new lives,” explains Emily Crowley, Volunteering Project Co-ordinator for STAR.
Students are also involved in the three campaigns run by STAR; Equal Access, Detention and Still Human Still Here. Crowley said: “By campaigning within the university, the students have access to their Deans and Vice-Chancellors.”
“For our Equal Access [to education] campaign, this is important as it differs from university to university as to who they let in. We have had a great success with Queen Mary’s who have introduced two new bursaries. How else can people living below the poverty line get the chance?” Crowley added.
With success in the Equal Access and Detention campaigns, attention this year is on Still Human, Still Here. This campaign is part of a collaboration with other charities calling on the government to change their laws on asylum seekers.
Crowley stated: “The majority of the public have this strange idea of what asylum seekers get. As they are not allowed to work, they have to rely on the state. Some people are trying to live on less than £5 a day, which is impossible.”
From March 10 – 16, STAR is having their Still Human Still Here campaign week to promote change. According to Crowley, “students are going to be doing sleep outs – where they sleep on the streets – flash mobs, petitions to their local MPs and public quizzes to raise awareness of the unfair treatment of asylum seekers in this country.”
Seeking asylum is not an issue that is going to disappear overnight from tougher government laws and, with the ongoing fighting in Syria, the UK’s boarders are likely to become a beacon of hope to those who have lost everything.
Nothing can or should stop people fleeing to save their own lives and the lives of their families when they no longer feel safe in their home country.
If you would like to sign Meltem Avcil’s petition, click here.