This article was first published on 28 April 2014.
The Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre visitors’ room is a room that fulfils many purposes. It is normally where inmates of the detention centre, which holds up to 405 migrant and refugee women, can meet their visitors under strict observation. There is a children’s play area in one corner. There is a security observation point with personnel in uniform sat behind desks in the other. On Sundays it becomes a church, when a wooden cross is placed behind the chaplain. And right now it is also an exhibition space for a piece of craft. The Knitted Together blanket is a vast quilt made of over 400 brightly coloured knitted patches.
#SetHerFree at WOW festival. Photo: Aliya Mirza
Asylum seekers can be held in immigration detention at any point in the asylum process: while their claims are being considered, for instance, or if they are refused asylum before they are deported from the UK. Although many people in the UK are not even aware of the existence of detention centres, they hold thousands of migrants and refugees.
Nearly 2000 women who came to the UK to seek asylum were detained in 2012, almost all of them in Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire. Immigration detention is indefinite, so these women can be held for days, weeks or months.
The Knitted Together blanket was created in solidarity with all the women seeking refuge who are detained inside the centre’s walls, and was knitted and sewn together by women from Women for Refugee Women and the Shoreditch Sisters Women’s Institute, with many patches contributed by other London Women’s Institutes (WIs). Dotted all over the blanket are messages of solidarity which were written by visitors at last month’s Women of the World (WOW)festival at the Royal Festival Hall.
Women for Refugee Women is a small charity that is currently campaigning against the indefinite detention of women who seek asylum in the UK. The Women’s Institute or WI has active communities of women around the country and has a long history of campaigning on diverse issues from equal pay and equal work to HIV and AIDS.
Traditionally refugees are thought of as a distinctive community of people fleeing a conflict, or as a singular male political activist fleeing his government after being persecuted for taking a public stance. Women too flee conflicts and political persecution, and they are also often fleeing persecution which is particular to women, such as forced marriage, domestic abuse or female genital mutilation. Recent research carried out by Women for Refugee Women showed that the majority of women they talked to in Yarl’s Wood had experienced rape or other torture in their home countries and that detention was extremely distressing for them. One in five of the women whom they spoke to said that they had attempted suicide while detained.
Messages of solidarity. Photo: Aliya Mirza
The blanket is a beautiful object in itself, but the real beauty of the project has been the way in which the process of knitting and the gigantic blanket together lies in contrast to the discrimination experienced by refugee women and women in detention in the UK. An increasingly xenophobic rhetoric is dominating political discussions on immigration with the rise of nationalist parties. Asylum seekers are treated with mistrust and the burden of proof lies heavy on their shoulders throughout the severely bureaucratic asylum seeking process. Even once a refugee is recognised, racism, discrimination and Islamophobia can prevent them from feeling at home in their country of refuge. We have chosen to confront segregation through female solidarity. This is a global agenda.
A global agenda
My personal involvement with this project started a few months ago through the Shoreditch Sisters WI and through meeting Lauren Fuzi who works on their campaigns. I have previously campaigned against detention centres in the Netherlands and the Middle East. In the Middle East we campaigned together with refugees from Darfur and Eritrea against the Israeli Anti-Infiltration law, a law which allows for the indefinite detention of all asylum seekers unless they agree to return. In the Netherlands our activism took the form of legally advising inhabitants of the ‘Vluchtkerk’ (Church of Refuge) where rejected asylum seekers had formed a squat protest camp and refused to go back into detention. In every corner of the world, from Australia to Egypt and from Canada to Italy, there are campaigns against the incarceration of refugees and migrants in detention.
Each of these detention centres forms a part of a worldwide discussion about international immigration and how we treat the most vulnerable groups of migrants. Migration is an integral part of human history, but now in an increasingly globalised world the focus is on nationality, state sovereignty, and the state’s right to protect borders and safeguard security. It is bizarre to me that the UK, which could have such a positive influence in this international debate, has chosen not to recognise women who seek asylum as individuals who could have their claims processed while living in UK communities. Instead the UK treats them as criminals and imprisons them with predominantly male guards, which reminds them of the actual threat that in most cases they were attempting to escape.
This paradox is also the thing that made the biggest impression on me when we brought the quilt into Yarl’s Wood’s detention centre visitors’ room last Sunday. The chaplain had allowed us to bring the quilt in so it could stay in the centre over Easter. I experienced a feeling of doom when I first saw the high gates with barbed wire surrounding the sides of the centre and went through the rigorous security check upon entering. But a complete shift came when at the end of the church service a few ladies walked over to me and started asking questions about craft and the Women’s Institute: “Is it hard to learn to knit?”; “Can anyone join a WI?”; “Do you have a flyer?”. And another: “I really like the crocheted flowers in the middle”, “Which patch did you make?”. A high five for attending the church service was not the reaction I would associate with a group of women who the media paint as ‘dangerous individuals’ who need to be kept separate from society.
#SetHerFree at WOW fesitval. Photo: Aliya Mirza.
Craft as a method for change
I have really enjoyed meeting all these women from all around the world and seeing the blanket take shape, representative as it is of another way of treating migrant women, one based on trust and solidarity. The great thing about knitting is that chatting while you work is very easy; craft as a method for change is a strong form of slow activism because people have made a commitment to the issue they wish to change and put their time and energy into working towards it. Both the crafting process and the finished product are ways of engaging an audience through the inclusive nature of art. Moreover, art is a powerful vehicle for solidarity as it is visual and therefore not threatening or aggressive, nor restricted by language or culture. This ensures that an issue cannot be silenced or ignored.
When it comes to indefinite detention, this is our imperative. In the future, I look forward to continuing the campaign against the indefinite detention of women at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre through exhibiting and talking about the Knitted Together blanket and the vision of solidarity it represents.
After the quilt leaves Yarl’s Wood, it will be shown at the Foreign Office’s summit on tackling sexual violence in conflict from 10-12 June at the ExCel Centre in London.
Refugee Week: Women's Voices: To mark Refugee Week, from 16-22 June openDemocracy 50.50 presents a range of articles written by refugee women authors and refugee rights' activists around the world. All articles are taken fromPeople on the Move, 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.