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A special case for women

by
12 June 2015

Christine Miles hears about the trauma of indefinite detention

REUTERS

Plea: campaigners approach Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt last year to ask them to meet rape survivors at Yarl's Wood

Plea: campaigners approach Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt last year to ask them to meet rape survivors at Yarl's Wood

FEWER women than men apply for asylum in the UK. The founder and director of the organisation Women for Refugee Women, Natasha Walter, says that this is because "it is hard for women to seek asylum, because of their caring responsibilities, and in terms of their vulnerability to male violence when they cross borders.

"Women make up the majority of displaced people across the world, but in terms of those making the journey through to the West, women have always been in the minority."

In the UK, women detained for immigration purposes are generally sent to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre. "Yarl's Wood is the place where they are detained indefinitely rather than for short periods, like in Tinsley House, Cedars, and Dungavel," Ms Walter says.

UNHCR guidelines state that victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological, or sexual violence should, generally, not be detained. But survivors of rape and sexual violence are not included in the list of people not suitable for detention under Home Office guidelines. The All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Refugees and Migration have called for this to change, and for an end to the detention of pregnant women, which is in contained in policy, but, in practice, is often not followed.

 

RESEARCH by Women for Refugee Women suggests that an estimated 50-72 per cent of women in detention have been raped as part of the persecution they are fleeing. The charity is campaigning for an end to the detention of women who seek asylum. But Ms Walter concedes that seeing a time limit on detention would be a good stepping stone.

Besides the mental-health problems inflicted by detention - in particular by indefinite detention - there are specific vulnerabilities for women who are detained, Ms Walters says.

A former chaplain of Yarl's Wood, the Revd Larry Wright, agrees. "For women who have come from cultures where sexual molestation is widespread, they suffer more in detention because many have already experienced some sort of sexual exploitation.

"Then, of course, a number of them have been trafficked, or have had to give sexual favours to survive. Therefore, they are already damaged, or their bodies misused, before they go into detention. And my experience was that for many women there was a sense that [in detention] they were constantly under threat of some further molestation of some sort."

The trauma that detention inflicts on women is not acknowledged, he says. "What was regularly overlooked was the preconception that detainees carried with them about prisons from their own culture.

"They've not experienced the prison regime in this country; so they bring with them some assumptions about what will happen to them from their own culture, particularly if they've not been in this country very long, or if they're on the Fast Track system.

"Staff don't understand that, because the sort of people that become guards at Yarl's Wood are not likely to be widely read and aware of prison regimes in other parts of the world. The whole system generates mental anxiety for all sorts of reasons."

Even if women are not going to be given asylum in the long run, they need to be given a dignified process, Ms Walter says. "Detention has a very negative impact on their mental health, and their ability to heal; it really sets them back. . .

"When women start telling us about their experiences in Yarl's Wood, they often get confused and start reliving what they've been through in their home countries. Doctors from the Helen Bamber Foundation have put forward good evidence about that: [there are] such reminders in the detention setting of the original trauma [so] that it's very difficult for women not to relive the experiences that led them to seek asylum in the first place."

 

WOMEN's fears of further sexual abuse have been shown not to be without foundation at Yarl's Wood, but no prosecutions have followed.

"There's evidence that there's been sexual contact, sexual abuse, in Yarl's Wood, and yet the crimes haven't properly been investigated. Men have been dismissed from their jobs, but nothing has really been properly investigated; they've never really been held to account," Ms Walter says.

In April, The Guardian quoted the case of a former detainee, Celia, from South Africa, who experienced an unwanted sexual advance from a guard in 2009, who told her that he could help her out with her case if she complied.

"I think some of the women think that if they do this, it may help them to be released sooner," another detainee, Emily says.

"We were asking women about what it was like in Yarl's Wood," Ms Walter says. "They kept talking about men watching them, bursting into their rooms. I'm not saying that the prisons in this country are great, but that kind of thing wouldn't happen in prison to female prisoners."

 

CHARITIES have been raising allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl's Wood for many years. Mr Wright says that when he was senior chaplain, from 2004 to 2007, "we were aware that men would make inappropriate remarks in front of women, or barely disguised whispers about women's looks and physical features.

"We intervened when we heard that sort of attitude, because we could see the canteen culture of swapping stories about the sexual attraction of detainees may well develop into a culture of expectation of sexual activity."

Nevertheless, he has been surprised at the level of sexual engagement reported by the press. He blames the unacceptably high levels of male staff at Yarl's Wood, and the nature of detention itself as catalysts for abuse. "Wherever you've got a lot of young men in power over women, in situations where the women have very little recourse to complaint, there is bound to be abuse of that power, and that is bound to take some sort of sexual form," he says.

The policy and research co-ordinator at the charity Women for Refugee Women, Gemma Lousley, says that: "Because the majority of detention centres are run by private companies, there is this disconnect between the Home Office and detention centres and that lack of accountability."

This means, she says, that there are "numerous instances of where Home Office policy says one thing - for instance on how women are supposed to be treated in detention in relation to searching procedures, or all sorts of other things - but that what happens in practice is another." This adds to the vulnerability of detainees.

 

A REPORT from Women for Refugee Women, I Am Human, recommended that gender-specific policies, such as those in prisons, should be introduced in detention. "This would minimise the problems; but it's not a solution. The answer is not to have these places in the first place: we don't need them," Ms Lousley says.

Heather Jones, a befriender at Yarl's Wood, says that there are other humiliations for women in detention, too, such as having to ask staff for sanitary towels and tampons every month.

And, Mr Wright says, for some women, the fact that they have been in detention is enough to shame them. "For women from the Muslim faith, if they were deported they [would] have to try and make absolutely certain that no one back in their home country found out they had been detained, because if a Muslim woman is thought to have been tainted in any way, she and her family will be stigmatised."

He continues: "That's also true of Christians from very conservative cultures, or Asian Hindus, or Sikhs from conservative cultures. If their family or anyone back home finds out they've been in a detention centre in England, they will assume they will have been raped, because they will not have been chaperoned.

"How does a government take that into account? Shouldn't that be a reason for not detaining women?"

 

'I never thought they would imprison me'

 

Emily was jailed in Iran for taking part in demonstrations after the 2009 elections. After claiming asylum in the UK, she was detained in Yarl's Wood

 

AFTER the 2009 elections in Iran, many people were stunned at the result; we felt it had been rigged in favour of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Soon after, a silent demonstration took place in Tehran. Gunshots were fired to disperse the crowd, and many people were injured. The following day, there was another big demonstration; this time, the security forces had pepper gas and batons.

During Friday prayers, it was said if any one demonstrated they would be treated violently. That day, my friend's sister was killed while getting out of a car - she wasn't even demonstrating.

When her funeral took place, there was another protest. In the scuffle, as security forces moved in, I fell, and was arrested. I was taken to Evin prison, in Tehran, with other protesters. We were squashed into a tiny room with not enough space to sit; we were not allowed to speak, or go to the toilet. For two days I was interrogated, beaten, insulted, and sexually assaulted.

We all thought we were going to die. Then, I was blindfolded, taken out of the room, and made to sign a piece of paper. To this day, I have no idea what I signed. I was released, and after that my parents pleaded with me not to get involved. But secretly, at university, I did.

 

IN DECEMBER 2010, I was invited to the UK by my older brother, a British citizen. I, too, was born in Britain, in 1985, the year that citizenship laws changed (my family returned to Iran when I was nine months old, after ten years in Britain). I arrived on a visitor's visa, with no intention of staying: I had a return ticket, and bought souvenirs to take back home.

But, then, events took a different turn. Having seen some footage on YouTube (banned in Iran) of the Green Wave Voice, a Free Iran group, I joined them at a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in London. Authorities in Iran identified me from footage taken at that demo, and interrogated my father for hours, confiscating my parents' documents and computer. A friend warned me that I had been put on a blacklist, and must not come back to the country.

I went to the Home Office with my passport and return ticket, and claimed asylum, but was refused. I made another appointment with the Home Office; this time, I would take a copy of an arrest warrant for me obtained by my friend.

As an asylum-seeker, I was required to sign in regularly at a police station. In August 2011, I did so, only to be arrested. After 12 hours in the police station, I was told that they were going to drive me five hours away to Yarl's Wood detention centre, and then after that I would be told properly where I was going to be sent.

 

IT WAS the worst experience of my life, being put in detention. All the flashbacks of being in Evin came back to me. I was thinking that I was going to be sentenced to death; but also that I hadn't done anything wrong - I'd just gone to the police station to sign.

On my third day there, they said a flight had been booked for me back to Iran. That time it was OK: I didn't go; but on another occasion, I was taken to Heathrow. One of the officers showed me a passport and made fun of me. I said to them if I went back to Iran I would die or be raped and tortured, and they joked that if anything happened to me I should just rebook a plane and come back. But then their phone rang, and they told me my flight had been cancelled. An injunction had been served at the last minute, and I was taken back to Yarl's Wood.

Even though Yarl's Wood is a women's detention centre, most of the officers are men. And if you share a room with someone who has an orange profile (who self-harms, or wants to kill themselves), the officers enter the room without knocking to check. And every time we had roll count, morning and afternoon, they would come in again, most often without knocking.

They don't really care if you are dressing or undressing. And after they came in once when I was undressed, I would sleep with a dressing gown or nightie on. Still, some of the officers were pervs, the way they looked at you. And I heard about the sexual relationship between one of the officers and a detainee: the women told me that these things happen over here.

They also told me about the place near the gym: I think there is no camera over there; so it's their "date place" to go there and kiss, or do whatever. I think women think that if they do this, it may help them to be released sooner.

 

WHEN I arrived, they searched me everywhere, everywhere. They took all my belongings. In Iran, we filmed so we could show the world what they were doing. In Yarl's Wood, they take cameras away.

Some of us tried to support each other, and I would pray all night for the women we heard had got a ticket to be sent home, but others were very aggressive. Once there was even a big fight between officers and a Chinese girl. It was like the authorities in Iran, when they attack people: they just came and hit that girl, because she threw an apple to the officers.

They gave us slippers in Yarl's Wood, and one time a lady slipped and fell down from the very top stairs. I never saw that girl again.

Because of all these things, every day was stressful. You would hear about, or see, someone cutting themselves, or wanting to hang themselves with their [phone] charger. There was a black lady who just broke her mug and cut her forehead because she wanted to refuse to go to the airport. It was horrible, hearing all these things all the time.

 

I COULDN'T sleep for nine nights when I first arrived. I couldn't even close my eyes. My heart started beating funny. I had pain in my arms, but they just give you paracetamol for everything.

I needed to have blood tests and a scan while I was there. I never received the results of that test.

After I was released, my GP did the blood tests again, and I had the scan. I found out I had a very rare cancer: a tumour removed from an ovary has seriously affected my chances of ever having a baby.

Being in Yarl's Wood is like being in prison: you can't open the window properly; it's in the middle of nowhere; and you have no idea where you are. You count the days.

I thought the UK was the best for women's rights. I never thought they would imprison me; but when I was sent to Yarl's Wood, that image of this being a place of fairness and rights was shattered.

 

Emily (not her real name) was released after 31 days. She was accommodated at the Catholic Worker Farm, Hertfordshire, until moving to the north of England. In April 2015, Emily was granted five years' leave to remain in the UK. Her father lost his job in Iran, and contact is scant for fear of further reprisals.

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