Seeking liberation, seeking comfort: women migrants in the UK

The UK Home Office continues to indefinitely detain people who have committed no crime, including pregnant women. Asylum seekers and refugees lead solidarity groups in the movement to end detention.

Che Ramsden
24 March 2016

This International Women’s Day, I spent my lunch break outside the Home Office with about 100 other women. We were chanting, singing, and listening. We were there in solidarity with asylum seekers detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, demanding an end to the arbitrary but systematic detention of people who have committed no crime.


Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Photo: Indymedia

One of the former Yarl’s Wood detainees who spoke outside the Home Office summed up the impact of the UK’s anti-asylum policies: “we ran from our own countries to seek refuge, but when we got here we had to keep running.” Yarl’s Wood is a disturbing and desperate place; despite evidence that already vulnerable women face violence and abuse at the hands of Serco guards, and that indefinite detention is unjust and unviable, asylum seekers continue to be locked up.

The UK’s policies for those seeking asylum turns survival into a crime. It is baffling that humans should be criminalised for being; ‘no human is illegal’ is one of the repeated cries of those who protest the nonsensical existence of institutions like Yarl’s Wood.

At the same time as it criminalises asylum seekers, the UK government aims to turn its citizens into quasi-border control. The Immigration Act 2014 requires landlords, bank tellers, administrators, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers to monitor, report and enforce immigration activity. Standing in solidarity with migrants rejects the divisive narrative of the Immigration Act which assumes that those of us with papers will turn on those without.


‘Set Her Free’ is the banner under which we gathered at the Home Office, organised by Women for Refugee Women. The #SetHerFree campaign was launched in January 2014 to end the detention of women asylum seekers. Women for Refugee Women has undertaken research, released reports, lobbied for Parliamentary debates and raised awareness about the arbitrary and traumatic imprisonment of Yarl’s Wood detainees.

Women for Refugee Women, #SetHerFree Campaign

On International Women’s Day, the campaign was highlighting in particular the plight of pregnant women who are detained: 99 in 2014 and 69 in 2015. In March 2015, the Parliamentary Detention Inquiry said that ‘pregnant women should never be detained for immigration purposes,’ yet the detention of pregnant women has not ceased.

Since its launch, #SetHerFree has drawn attention to Yarl’s Wood and supported movements inside and outside the centre to campaign for its closure. The latest action outside Yarl’s Wood, the third of its kind in under a year, saw 2,000 people demonstrate. Organised by Movement for Justice, with leaders who have experienced detention, the demonstration was, like the previous two, co-ordinated with women currently detained in Yarl’s Wood.

The number of protesters has increased five-fold over the course of three demonstrations, with the first protest in June 2015 drawing a crowd of 400. My experience of the first two protests was of a lively, hopeful atmosphere intent on making our solidarity felt by the women inside, who interacted with us with their own chants and banners. The saddest part was leaving the women behind Yarl’s Wood’s tinted windows at the end of the afternoon. They told us what was going on behind the walls, we told them they had our support, and yet we had to leave alone.

At the same time as the latest protest at Yarl’s Wood began, I was in the audience of a panel at Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival (WOW) titled ‘Women Crossing Borders’. Two of the panellists had experienced detention at Yarl’s Wood. Mariam Yusuf of the Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) choir reiterated the experience “when you run from your home country with nothing, to seek refuge” and find yourself locked up in detention, then struggling to survive when you are denied both the opportunity to work and benefits that would keep you off the streets.

WOW March 2016. Photo: Ché Ramsden

Talented women, contributing to society

Mariam Yusuf campaigns with WAST to stop asylum seekers from falling into the destitution she faced as a result of the immigration system. She gives talks in schools to educate children about asylum seekers and to bust some of the widespread myths that pervade and divide society. While fighting her ongoing asylum claim (she has been seeking asylum since 2008), Yusuf supports other women who are in the same position.

At this year’s Women on the Move Awards Ceremony, held as part of WOW on 11th March, Yusuf was presented with a Woman of the Year award to recognise her contribution to Britain. The WAST choir sang ‘We want Mariam to stay (not just today, not just tomorrow, but forever)’. The following day at the ‘Women Crossing Borders’ panel, Yusuf explained WAST choir’s musical activity: “We sing songs of liberation and songs of comfort.”

Liberation and comfort are essential for women who have been systematically denied freedom first in their ‘home’ countries and now in the UK, where their immigration status can leave them permanently insecure and sometimes detained indefinitely. Yusuf described how she encourages women in this position: “you may be broken, but you have a heart and mind.” The songs reinforce this message of strength and hope.

WAST choir

Aderonke Apata similarly spends her time supporting fellow asylum seekers in Manchester, having founded Manchester Migrant Solidarity and African Rainbow Family. She also campaigns for LGBTI rights in the UK and Nigeria. Apata has been seeking asylum in the UK since arriving her 12 years ago, but last year two judges refused to believe that she is a lesbian, in a case that proved how out of touch the judiciary is with both asylum claims and with what it means to be LGBT+, despite clear national and international legislation for both.

Based on her own experiences and others’ whom she has supported, Apata has campaigned to change the intrusive questioning faced by LGBTI asylum seekers. She told the ‘Women Crossing Borders’ audience that she expects there will be new, more sensitive guidance on assessing LGBTI asylum claims. She was also hopeful that the situation in Nigeria might change for LGBT+ people so that she can return; aside from wanting to be in her home country, it is incredibly difficult for asylum seekers to work legally in the UK. As well as missing out on her skills, she pointed out, the UK is missing out on the income tax she would willingly pay.

Like Apata, Dr Sarah Ogbay hopes to return to her country of origin one day. She worked for 26 years as a university professor in Eritrea before political persecution forced her to flee the country on foot with her children. A founding member of the Network of Eritrean Women, she also works as an interpreter for social services and the NHS.

It is impossible to say that these women are not contributing to society. They support desperate individuals, stand up for communities, and positively impact our education, health and social care systems. However, they all displayed a degree of frustration; we still have more to give was the message.

Women of the World (WOW) March 2016. Photo: Ché Ramsden

Left out of the equation

A Syrian refugee pointed out the disparity between women’s roles at a local level and women’s representation at a national level. “Women are the peacemakers” in community disputes and civil wars, yet women are not invited to participate in international peace talks. “We are capable, but […] we are left out of the equation.” Women in general, and women migrants in particular, have more to give than they are allowed to offer; and, in this instance, by ignoring our most skilled peacemakers, the world continues to suffer.

At the end of the WOW ‘Women Crossing Borders’ panel, the four panellists were asked what their message to the Prime Minister would be. Their messages focussed both on what they face here, and why they are here: Let us use our skills; let us contribute. Stop sponsoring dictators. Know we exist. Stop detaining people.

On International Women’s Day, it was not the Prime Minister but the Home Secretary, Theresa May, at whom the messages were directed. It was an appeal by women to a woman as much as it was to the Home Secretary whose office has responsibility for immigration. One woman started and ended her bilingual speech (“je vais parler en anglais pour que Theresa May comprenne!”) by leading us in song: We shall overcome, we shall overcome, / We shall overcome some day; / Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, / We shall overcome some day.

Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50's platforms People on the Move: Migrant Lives Beyond Borders,
and Unlocking Detention.

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