The Blog

Set Her Free

Highlighting the parallels between one woman's experience of being imprisoned and tortured in her home country, and then detained in the UK's female detention centre - Yarls Wood - Margaret's Story depicts a life torn involuntarily apart by the cross-border violence that is systematically perpetrated against women's bodies.

Highlighting the parallels between one woman's experience of being imprisoned and tortured in her home country, and then detained in the UK's female detention centre - Yarls Wood - Margaret's Story depicts a life torn involuntarily apart by the cross-border violence that is systematically perpetrated against women's bodies.

Comprising one of three films on refugee women showcased at the London Feminist Film Festival 2016 this short animation explores the brutality with which refugee women are treated when they seek asylum in the UK, when often it is in escape of rape and violence that they seek refuge.

Directed and illustrated by Priya Sundram and commissioned by the campaign group, Women for Refugee Women, the film highlights the ludicrousness of our current asylum system, whereby women like Margaret are held in what is essentially a prison by another name for simply seeking safety.

Such an approach is clearly at odds with the rhetorical commitment politicians often make to the importance of promoting women's rights. A vote-winning stance that may be, but only if carried through by real action.

Whilst committing to 'standing up for women's rights against horrific sexual crimes' as part of our 'fight for female empowerment and equality' David Cameron presided over the continued detention of women in what the chief prisons inspector, Nick Hardwick, termed 'a place of national concern' and where, as the report he authored suggests, more than half of detainees feel unsafe.

It is not surprising therefore that Yarls Wood is situated in a deserted pocket of Bedfordshire's countryside, without so much as a corner shop nearby. Having joined Women for Refugee Women on their march outside the detention centre last September I felt ashamedly surprised at just how removed was this symbol of the sometime cruelty of the law. In the middle of a field, a two hour coach journey from London Euston, we marched waving banners that we knew the women would struggle to see. Behind an imposing metal wall, obligatory barbed wire and the usual bricks and mortar comprising the final layer of their captivity, the women waved messages, on whatever make-do material they had at their disposal, from the small, 6 inch gap permitted by their locked windows.

Opened in 2001 at a cost of £100m, Yarls Wood is run by Serco, a private company that is paid for by the taxpayer but remains unaccountable to the public. Whilst often refusing to answer questions about the behaviour of its staff and the welfare of detainees, Serco's obfuscation of information regarding its facilities has been greatly aided by the Home Office, who have sought even to dodge Freedom of Information Requests on the grounds that they may compromise 'commercial interests'.

It was for this reason that the Home Office initially refused to release information requested by Women for Refugee Women earlier this year, as to the number of pregnant women being detained in Yarls Wood. Once Women for Refugee Women had pointed out that the information they sought did not fall under such a commercial exemption, the Home Office changed tact and, after much delay, finally responded by suggesting it was actually due to the quality of the data they held that such information could not be released. "The data we hold on pregnant women is management information and is subject to change," it said. "It has not been assured to the standard of official statistics." How odd.

Having taken far longer than the 20 working days the Home Office has to respond to FOI requests, Women for Refugee Women were finally able to issue a formal complaint to the information commissioner, who demanded that it release the numbers. Hence we learnt that 99 pregnant women were detained in Yarls Wood in 2014, meaning the Home Office was failing to comply with its own rules.

According to government guidelines, pregnant women should only be detained in 'exceptional circumstances', when the woman's removal from the U.K. is 'imminent' and 'medical advice doesn't suggests... [she] will go into labour before her removal date.' Given that only 9 of these 99 pregnant women were actually deported, this suggests that these cases were not exceptional.

Women for Refugee Women's ongoing campaign to end the detention of pregnant women thus continues. It hopes that by slowly chipping away at the detention system, it will one day achieve its ultimate goal in securing the final closure of Yarls Wood. But the path ahead looks long and uncertain.

The above highlights just one example of the often flagrant disregard currently being shown to the welfare of vulnerable people seeking asylum in this country. A report published by the National Audit Office in July found that the new Serco contract, intended to cost £42m less than the previous one over its 11-year lifetime, have worsened certain services for detainees. New, stringent guidance from the Home Office, including sanctions for absconds, have initiated the practice of women being handcuffed on external hospital appointments, despite the fact that 'no resident has ever absconded on a hospital visit'. 11% of women are, according to the NAO report, now being handcuffed on hospital trips, compared to 3% before, whilst some women are refusing to go to appointments at all because of the humiliation involved.

The degradation of these lives is a blight on our national conscience. The women being detained at Yarls Wood are often seeing safety from persecution yet can, under current law, be held indefinitely in facilities that fail on so many counts to meet even their most basic needs.

It costs an estimated £40,000 a year to hold someone in detention. And according to Home Office figures, the number of people being detained is rising year on year. Approximately 30,400 migrants entered detention in 2013, compared to 29,000 in 2012 and 27,000 in 2011. That means that in 2013 the UK spent around £12,160,000 on keeping asylum seekers locked up.

Surely this money can be better spent elsewhere? Given that some asylum claims can already, under current legislation, be decided whilst the person in question is living in the community, surely we can universalize this practice and spare individuals like Margaret the trauma and humiliation of being held in detention?

On September 19th the UN General Assembly will host a summit in New York to discuss and strengthen the international response to the large movement of migrants and refugees. This is the first time such a discussion has been organised at the Heads of State and Government level and offers a distinct opportunity to create a more humane and practical response to the ongoing refugee crisis. Let's hope this initiates a new dialogue around our approach to refugees at both an international and domestic level.