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Speaking to the women hunger striking at Yarl’s Wood

It's more important than ever to uplift the voices of refugee and migrant women who are demonised by the state

This International Women's Day, 8 March, a group of migrant and refugee women are staging a mass lobby to demand from parliament the same rights to safety, dignity, and liberty as all women. Their argument? "On the centenary year of women’s suffrage in the UK, let’s not forget those women whose voices are too often not heard.” Their immigration status means that most don’t have the right to vote, but they couldn’t be more directly affected by our government’s actions. “Many refugee women are ready to share their stories and speak their truth,” say Marchu Girmu, one of the founders of the All Women Count campaign. “We now need to give them platforms to speak out and to say, ‘We see you, we hear you, we believe you.’”

Nowhere is that support more necessary than at Yarl’s Wood – a detention centre where women without the correct immigration papers are held until the government deports them – where 120 women are now two weeks into a hunger strike. The protesters are calling for basic human rights, but have faced initial denials from Serco (the private company who run the centre); complete misrepresentation of the facts by the Conservative party chairman and former immigration minister; a suggestion that they might be on a diet from the House of Lords; and now outright threats and repercussions from the Home Office.   

I travelled to the “Immigration Removal Centre”, which sits bizarrely in an industrial park in Bedfordshire, to meet one of the protesters, who wishes to remain anonymous. We sat in a hushed visitors’ centre that hides behind what feels like 17 locked doors, and stinks of institutions. She explained simply that the women in Yarl’s Wood never feel safe. A recent report found that 85% of detainees are the survivors of gender-based violence. Here, male guards can enter their rooms at any time, the mental health team act as “an extension of the Home Office”, and women are whisked away onto charter flights at any moment regardless of what stage they’re at in the asylum application process. “The UK laws don’t really apply here,” she explained.

As a gay woman living in Uganda, she came to the UK to escape an abusive husband and the threat of imprisonment for her sexuality. She saw Britain as a refuge where she could finally find acceptance. Instead, she was met with a legal system that rejected every aspect of her story, right down to her sexuality. She’s now been in Yarl’s Wood for over five months, but her lost eyes reveal a woman still absolutely reeling from her fate. “We’re not criminals,” she cried. “How much do we have to push for our voices to be heard?”   

The women of Yarl’s Wood are at the sharpest end of the struggle, but they represent a culture of disbelief, marginalisation, and silencing that is experienced by migrant women across the country.  Back in 2012 when Theresa May was home secretary, she proudly pledged to create a “really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”, and she’s been repeating her pet phrase ever since. Two days ago, in what felt like the magnum opus of May’s “hostile environment” megaplan, it was revealed that Home Office teams have been working with a homelessness charity to find and arrest rough sleepers who don’t have the correct papers.

Through the charity Women For Refugee Women, I also spoke to Evodie, who fled persecution and torture in Cameroon to come to the UK in 1998. She’s currently housed through a hosting scheme in London. She claimed asylum as soon as she landed in the UK, but was refused on lack of evidence – “how do you expect someone running for their life to be able to bring proof with them?” she asked. For the last 20 years, she’s been living what she describes as a “life of survival.” She relies constantly on the kindness of strangers, and has regularly found herself sleeping on park benches when that generosity runs out. She also once spent three months in Yarl’s Wood before arbitrarily being released.

“I’m sick of the thick walls, I’m sick of the fences, I’m sick of the magnolia paint. I feel completely dehumanised” – Yarl's Wood detainee

A life spent in the cracks of society can leave women particularly vulnerable to violence. The IARS International Institute have recently coined the phrase “Zero Risk Victims” to describe these women – because they have nowhere to go, and their immigration status means they are unlikely to report crimes against them, so “perpetrators face zero risk of being prosecuted.” On top of this, four in five BAME women are currently being turned away from domestic violence refuges.

Evodie told Dazed that she’s dealt with sexual violence at the hands of men who felt they were doing her a favour ever since she arrived in the UK. “People think that they can do anything to you,” she explained. “If I went to report everything, they’d have to make a bed for me at the police station.” Reporting these crimes would likely lead her straight into the arms of the Home Office and back to Yarl’s Wood. In March of last year, a woman who was five months pregnant and had been kidnapped and raped over a period of six months went to an east London police station to report her ordeal. She was taken to a rape crisis centre where, rather than receiving care, she was arrested for immigration offences.

Back at Yarl’s Wood, I spoke on the phone to one of the original masterminds behind the strike. They were two weeks into the action, and morale was low following the deportation of one of the protesters at the weekend. But, she insisted, they would continue to fight. I asked her to explain what it’s like to spend a day behind those high walls. “Other people have nightmares while they’re sleeping and then they wake up. We wake up to the nightmare,” she said, matter of factly. “I’m sick of the thick walls, I’m sick of the fences, I’m sick of the magnolia paint. I feel completely dehumanised. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

There are a plethora of ways in which you can show these women that they aren’t forgotten. Step Up Migrant Women are currently campaigning for the establishment of a firewall separating the reporting of crime and access to support services from immigration control. Xenia provide English language workshops, and are always in need of volunteers, offering the perfect opportunity to get to know refugee and migrant women in your area. And if you're feeling angry, the All Women Count lobby is taking place today, 8 March. Invite your MP, or simply come down with a placard and and show some love.