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#SetHerFree: a spectrum of solidarity for refugee women

The campaign against detaining refugee women must be part of the movement against violence against women and girls. Agnes Woolley reports from the National Refugee Women’s Conference in London.

Protest outside Yarl's Wood Protest outside Yarl's WoodEnergy, enthusiasm and anger: the key ingredients at this month’s National Refugee Women’s Conference run by Women for Refugee Women and the London Refugee Women’s Forum. Activist Beatrice Botomani’s rousing words at the end of the day seemed to capture the atmosphere of positive change: ‘We’re on fire!’, she insisted, ‘2015 – we are moving forward.’

It has been a pivotal year for action on immigration detention. Following a legal challenge brought by Detention Action, on 9th July 2014 the High Court found that the Detained Fast Track system was ‘operating unlawfully’. Detained Fast Track places asylum seekers in detention the moment they file a claim and keeps them there for the entirety of the legal process. According to the High Court ruling, the system carries ‘an unacceptably high risk of unfairness’ to vulnerable asylum seekers and, according to Jerome Phelps, Director of Detention Action, ‘change is likely’. In the same month the All-Party Parliamentary Group on migration launched an inquiry into detention, which has heard evidence from civil servants, charities, researchers and, most importantly, detainees themselves. The report is due to be published in February.

Though not yet amounting to policy change on the issue, campaigns against immigration detention in the UK have gained traction both in the media and in political circles. It was notable that MPs Stella Creasy (Labour) and Richard Fuller (Conservative) both spoke against detaining women at the conference (though they stopped short of pledging to put a stop to immigration detention altogether). Women for Refugee Women activists have contributed to this exposure with the launch of the ‘Set Her Free’ campaign against the detention of refugee women in January 2014.

The National Refugee Women’s Conference marked the end of a year of campaigning that began with the publication of Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked up in the UK, which describes the devastating impact of detention on a particularly vulnerable group of asylum seekers: women who have experienced violence and abuse. The report puts women’s experiences of detention front and centre, providing much-needed testimony from women with first-hand experience of the murky world of corporate-run detention. The latest publication, launched at the conference, is called I am Human and focuses on the experiences of 38 women detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre between June 2012 and October 2014. It makes for grim reading. But it also showcases how dynamic this campaign has become thanks to energy and enthusiasm of diverse groups across the country.

So, how can we transform this passion into policy and build on the growing optimism about the possibility of change? Activist and ex-detainee Maimuna Jawo spoke stirringly of the need for refugee women to take a lead on the campaign: ‘we are the leaders’, she asserted to much applause. Jawo, who gave oral evidence to the Parliamentary inquiry into detention in July, advocated speaking out about experiences of asylum and detention on behalf of those detainees who are deprived of a voice. And many do, whether by sharing their personal stories, or through performance and protest. Members of London Refugee Women’s Forum performed ‘Set Her Free’, a poem they had written collaboratively and performed at the opening of the Labour Party Conference fringe in September 2014. The Manchester arm of WAST (Women Asylum Seekers Together) performed several songs and devised sketches which drew on their experiences in detention. The group has even formed a ‘Shut Down Yarl’s Wood’ choir – complete with matching neckerchiefs – which has already intervened in the political debate by grabbing the attention of a local MP in Manchester.

WAST choir WAST choir

Such a mixture of performance and protest resonates with a long tradition of protest songs in the women’s movement, reminding us of the need to stand together with those who experience gender-based violence. As Natasha Walters, the founder of Women for Refugee Women noted, ‘If refugee women are able to speak out after they’ve crossed borders, and after everything they’ve been through, then we ought to too.’ 

These refugee-led campaigns have an effect. We heard from enthusiastic and driven young women who have headed up campaigns from a young age as a result of their own experiences. One of the first speakers of the day was Meltem Avcil who, at the age of 13, was detained with her mother at Yarl’s Wood. Armed only with a mobile phone, and with the help of the NCADC (now Right to Remain), Avcil began her campaign against the detention of children and families from inside Yarl’s Wood. The coalition pledged to end child detention in 2010 (there are some caveats to this pledge in the resulting 2014 Immigration Act,  and recent evidence shows that many children and young people are still wrongly assessed as adults). Avcil’s experiences formed the basis of Motherland a verbatim play, developed by Natasha Walters and Juliet Stevenson in 2008. It was performed by Stevenson and Harriet Walter at the Young Vic theatre and helped to kick start the campaign against the detention of children in the UK. Avcil is now instrumental in the campaign to end the detention of women and her petition has over 50,000 signatures. In 2014, she received the Liberty Human Rights Christine Jackson Young Person Award.     

But the Set Her Free campaign is not confined only to refugee organisations. It is strongly intersectional in the way it positions itself as part of the fight against violence against women. Like many campaigns, it has to cut through a complex landscape of constituencies and interest groups that can appear fragmented and contradictory. For many refugee women, the focus has been on getting diverse groups to relate to the issue and throw their weight behind it. Perhaps surprisingly, the Women’s Institute has played an integral role. Rachel Walker of the Shoreditch Sisters explained that her ‘Knitted Together’ campaign – which gets people to contribute a knitted square to a ‘solidarity quilt’ – made the issue of asylum and detention ‘discussable’ by providing a shared focus not directly related to often painful experiences. The quilt was taken to the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict as part of the campaign’s presence there and was also taken into Yarl’s Wood. ‘Knitted together’ is also an appropriate metaphor for the network approach taken by Women for Refugee Women. This was reflected in the dizzying range of participants in the conference and workshop: representatives from LGBT groups, Music in Detention, Jesuit Refugee Services, Women’s Institute, Muf, Notopage3, Arts Admin, as well as academics, volunteers and refugee women. Even the hashtag #SetHerFree is flexible enough to accommodate gender issues across the spectrum: sex-trafficking, domestic slavery, domestic abuse. This is important because, as activist Nimko Ali put it, the campaign against detaining refugee women runs the risk of turning down a ‘cultural cul-de-sac’ if it is not part of the movement against violence against women and girls.  

There’s clearly a groundswell of activity on this issue. There’s also plenty of optimism that, at the very least, the detention of pregnant women, or women who have been experienced gender-based violence, will cease. But it’s also time to broaden the reach of the campaign even further. This means making as many people in Britain as possible aware of what goes on at the frayed edges of our democracy. The lack of judicial oversight of detention in the UK undermines democracy not only for those directly subject to its suspension in the form of criminalisation and dehumanisation, but for everyone who lives in that democracy. But it also means making connections with those fighting mandatory immigration detention in other contexts, such as the current protests on Manus island in Papua New Guinea. At the time of writing, asylum seekers detained by the Australian government on Manus are entering their seventh day of a hunger strike in protest at their treatment. The ultimate aim must be an end to immigration detention for all asylum seekers, wherever that takes place.

About the author

Agnes Woolley is Lecturer in Contemporary Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of Contemporary Asylum Narratives: Representing Refugees in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and has published extensively on postcolonial literature, theatre and film, with a focus on migration, diaspora and climate change. She is also a trustee at Streatham Drop-In Centre for Asylum Seekers and Refugees.


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