BULLIED INTO “VOLUNTARY” RETURNS

At a recent All African Women’s Group meeting, the chair asked whether any women in the group had experience of being forced to sign to return to their country of origin or knew of others that had been. What we found out that many women had been taken into back rooms, in detention or when they went to sign on, kept for hours, refused access to a lawyer and sometimes even to something to drink and bullied, harassed, threatened, lied to and abused to try to make them sign to return “voluntarily”. And we how women were determined, brave and creative in the ways they resisted.

Primrose: I was forced to sign. When I refused they kept me for so many hours. And I wasn’t well. I asked them to call my lawyer, but they said I’m not allowed. It was really depressing. After two hours of arguing the guy realised that I wasn’t well and he called his manager. They then allowed me to call my lawyer. The lawyer told them that she wanted to see the paper before I signed anything but the manager said “no it’s against the law”. They were arguing on the phone for so long. The guy was saying something different to the lawyer, and I was arguing in the background saying “that’s not what you told me, you were telling me that this is your “Voluntary” Return letter, but now you are explaining something else.” He said that I’m very rude and don’t want to cooperate, and just changed the whole story. Eventually the lawyer said “I’m putting it on record that you forced her to sign “Voluntary” Return”. The guy said “I don’t care, I’m just carrying out the rules.” I was forced to sign it. I got the lawyer through a charity organisation and the lawyer said that they shouldn’t have allowed me to go there. I feel bullied and the Home Office threatened me a lot. And then denied it.

Eliza: I applied for asylum and after four months, they sent me a letter for an interview. I went there and they said they just wanted to know if I’ve made up my mind to go. I said no! They detained me for six hours. The funniest thing was the guy who held me was an immigrant himself. He said, “so why do you want to tie yourself to a country that is not your origin”. And I’m like, “is this your country of origin as well?” Then he said “you’re very rude, you need to cooperate.”

I said “I don’t understand, I’ve got an appeal here and you’re asking me to return.” He said “but that’s what the country is saying”. And I said “well I’m telling the country I’m not going nowhere.”

I was really stressed out. When they released me, I was just walking on the main road and I was confused. I wrote to the Home Office about what they did to me, but they denied everything. They said that they were just asking me questions and I wasn’t co-operating. 

Hope: I went to sign and I was pregnant then. I went in and sat down and a lady came and was asking how long have I lived there. She told me that I have to sign this. And I said can I speak to my lawyer. And she said “no you are not allowed”. I said “wow, but I’m not going to sign anything I don’t know about. I don’t have my glasses I can’t even see, so I’m not going to sign it.” She said “okay that means I will be here today. I’m not ready to go home.” I said “Even in my condition?” She said “yes I don’t care, you are being stubborn.” So she left me. She came back with one man. The man was talking to me saying I know you are from Nigeria.” After more hours I fell on the floor, sick. I said I am pregnant and they got scared. They brought in a nurse and brought me some water. In the end they let me go.

Marie: I was locked in too. Not once, but twice. They were trying to force me to sign travel documents. You have to think what to do. They say to me “you need to sign this, you need to sign this”. I said “why would I sign travel documents when I have a passport?” They did it to me in the detention centre and they also did it to me when I went to sign on at London Bridge.

When I was in the detention centre, I said to the strict man “listen boss, I want to sign this for you, but I really can’t because I need to take it with me.” So I took it to my room and I said “I need a couple of days to think about it.”  So you’re showing them that you’re cooperating, but you’re not signing. You ain’t going anywhere.

In London Bridge, one officer was kind enough to say to me “do you have anything in with the Home Office? You need to put something in, because they’re serious about this. They’re going to try and deport you.” He was nice; he was trying to warn me.

Chair’s summary: There are times when you’ve cried, when you’ve shouted, and there are six people against you, and you are in a place where nothing can happen. I think it’s horrible. That’s what I went through. I was in a police cell for three days without any reason. It’s very sad, that the system can gang up against you. You feel like a block of bees are after you. Afterwards, I took time to really feel back. I don’t want anybody to go through it again.

That’s what we do in the All African Women’s Group. We have to document this. I always wanted to have the opportunity to do that, for everybody’s experience to be out there. Because it’s all hidden. Nobody would report this except us.

Now, we’ve got a statement against forced voluntary returns. We know it is a problem because they won’t tell you it’s forced, they will try to pretend that it’s one of the options. But it’s not. We heard how women were forced to sign to agree to go back. Remember, they have started closing detention centres, which could mean that there will be faster deportations. It means that the government is always finding an alternative, a different way to deport us. So we have a job to do, to ask people to sign this statement to help us, help my sisters, help my brothers to stop forced voluntary returns. Are we going to do that?

Chorus: YES

Observation from Women of Colour, Global Women’s Strike:

This is non-violent, direct action for self-defence. People talk about taking direct action, lying down in the road, stopping vans… and this is part of that. This is how we save ourselves. And these are good tips for all of us because when we’re poor they’re always after us for something. So we can use these tactics everywhere.

December 2018

STOP PRESS: TWENTY ONE WOMEN RELEASED – HUNGER STRIKE SUSPENDED

The hunger strike of over 40 women in Yarl’s Wood IRC which started on Monday night in protest at eight women being taken from detention and forced onto a charter flight back to Nigeria, has been suspended.

Four women (and one woman’s partner) DID NOT FLY.  But shamefully the Home Office deported two women with severe walking disabilities in wheelchairs

Speaking to Black Women’s Rape Action Project which with the All African Women’s Group has been providing daily support to the hunger strikers, Mercy, one of the women said:

“We are suspending the hunger strike but will continue to protest and speak out. . . the pressure has not stopped –  another charter flight is being planned to remove our Latina sisters from tomorrow . . . the Home Office tell us nothing they just come for us in the night . . . they have many ways to torture us . . . the system is wrecking our health. . . they are trying to break us down and isolate from our support networks and lawyer . . .   We know people are with us and we thank everyone for their tremendous support. Every message helps us to keep our spirits up.”

Since the strike began national and international messages of support have poured in including from Maru Mora Villalpando, North West Detention Center Resistance and the Latino advocacy organisation a grassroots undocumented led movement in Washington State, USA that works to end the detention of immigrants and stop all deportations.

People will have seen the migrant caravan which has arrived at the Mexican/US border. But what is never mentioned is the US responsibility for destabilising countries – for example it backed a coup in Honduras against elected President Manuel Zelaya and the resulting persecution, poverty and violence forced people to flee their homes.

As ever women – the primary carers for children and loved ones — bear the brunt of unjust immigration policies.  Over 70% of women who contact us from Yarl’s Wood are victims of rape and other violence.  We support women’s demands to

  • Close all detention centres and release people so we can pursue our right to remain
  • Stop all charter flights – like the Windrush generation, many people are illegally deported when they still have ongoing cases
  • We demand to know what has happened to our disabled sisters and all who were deported on Tuesday night.  If five came back, maybe none should have been on the flight!

For more information or to interview women please call on 07456 525 227 or email us.

Black Women’s Rape Action Project 020 7482 2496  @bwrap1

1 December 2018

Submission to Home Affairs Committee Immigration Detention Inquiry

Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) was founded in 1991. Women Against Rape (WAR) was founded in 1976. Together the two organisations have worked closely with women in detention, particularly in Yarl’s Wood IRC, over many years documenting the traumatic impact of rape and other violence on women’s asylum and immigration cases and helping women win justice and safety. BWRAP and WAR have been the primary support and vehicle by which women detainees have been able to publicise their complaints about the treatment and conditions inside detention.

In 2005 BWRAP and WAR contributed to “A Bleak House in Our Times: An Investigation into Women’s Rights Violations in Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre”, which found that over 70% of women inside were victims of rape or other sexual violence prior to being detained. In 2015 the two organisations published “Rape and Sexual Abuse in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, documenting incidents of abuse of women detainees by guards over a decade.

CONDITIONS IN DETENTION AND TREATMENT BY GUARDS

•      Conditions in detention are harsh. Survivors or rape and other violence who are traumatised, suffer particularly from the isolation and abuse of detention. We have seen some groups say that detention serves no purpose. We disagree. Based on what women describe to us we have no doubt that a primary aim of detention is to inflict harm onto people with the purpose of instilling fear in them and others; that is a form of domestic terrorism.

•      Women’s complaints include the torment and injustice of indefinite detention, being separated from children and other family and friends, violence from guards, being denied much-needed health care,  inadequate, inedible food and having their asylum claims sabotaged by guards. In some cases, a self-help guide by Legal Action for Women, which we send to every woman that contacts us, has been confiscated and was only returned after protests.

•      Violence during enforced deportations continues. We work closely with the All African Women’s Group, and one of their members was recently deported. She was strapped across her chest into the seat and had two guards, one on each side holding her down. She suffers from extremely high blood pressure and she was trying to call out and signal that she was in terrible distress. Eventually, an air steward intervened. She arrived in her country of origin weak and traumatised and later described to us by phone that nearly died.  The 24 March audio recording of a man in distress during a deportation confirms that violence from guards is common.

HUNGER STRIKE

•      In February 2018, women and men detainees in Yarl’s Wood went on hunger strike raising demands which we list below. We urge the Home Affairs Committee to act on these demands.

•      Bail applications to be speeded up:  Legally they should only take 3-5 days to come to court. Delays of up to a month are common.

•      Amnesty for those who have lived in the UK 10 years and more.

•      End indefinite detention so that no-one stays inside for longer than 28 days.

•      End Charter flights. These are inhumane because women get no prior notifications and no time to make arrangements with family members.

•      No more re-detention. No-one should be re-detained if you are complying with the law.

•      Stop separating families. Some women inside are married or have British partners and children outside.

•      No detention of people who came to the UK as children. They should not be punished for their parents’ immigration histories.

•      The beds need to be changed. Some of us have been here for a year on the same bed and they are the most uncomfortable beds.

•      LGBT+ people’s sexuality to be believed. It should be understood that explaining your sexuality is difficult.

•      Fit emergency alarms in every room in the detention centre. Only some rooms have them, and people have got very ill in places where they can’t call for help.

•      Access to proper healthcare. Women with serious conditions have been left for days without treatment.

•      Nutritious food.

•      Release people with outstanding asylum and immigration applications.

The hunger striker’s statement describes conditions inside as “torture”:

At any point an officer could turn up and take your room mate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next. Those who are suicidal have their privacy taken away because officers come in without warning. You don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later.”

•      None of the serious issues which hunger strikers are raising over and over again have been addressed or investigated with any sense of urgency.

RAPE AND SEXUAL ABUSE.

•      BWRAP and WAR’s 2015 Dossier Rape and Sexual Abuse in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre documented serious abuse by guards that Serco, the company that continues to run Yarl’s Wood, had either ignored or actively covered up. The situation we documented has not changed. Yarl’s Wood remains open and Serco remains in charge. Shamefully in 2014 the government renewed its contract to run Yarl’s Wood.

•      Our Dossier contained complaints from current and former detainees, collected from hundreds received between 2005 and 2015 including:

•      A rape survivor from Uganda reported a male guard entering her room when she was semi-naked, causing her to be re-traumatised.

•      Several women reported that strip searching and suicide watch made them feel humiliated: “Male guards are present when women are strip searched.” “If you are put on suicide watch the guards watch you when you go to the toilet, they come into your room when you are sleeping. I woke up and a guard was standing over me shining a light in my face. I was very scared.”

•      A pregnant woman reported a guard repeatedly propositioning her for sex and witnessed the same happening to other women: “He flirted with me. I was scared, fragile and pregnant. The guards double date the women. Some women believe that a guard has their best interests at heart but they are easily taken in because they have no other option to get help. Guards give the impression that they have the power to get women released.”

•      Some women reported that guards preyed on their vulnerability and desperation to abuse them. “If you have to open your legs you will. You think that is the only way that you are able to speak to your family. You have to give in.”

FALSE CLAIMS THAT CONDITIONS IN DETENTION HAVE IMPROVED

•      In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee (20 March 2018) Serco claimed that conditions inside Yarl’s Wood had improved. The Serco representatives cited evidence given before them from the organisation Women for Refugee Women that women inside Yarl’s Wood were no longer complaining about the conditions but only about the process:

We have got better over the last two to three years and the debate among the NGOs is now less about Serco running a place that is cruel and inhumane to saying that conditions are “good” in the Centre and that the main complaints about are the process that people are in.”

•      We strongly disagree with these claims. The hunger strike and list of demands from women inside cited above confirm that women are still suffering serious injustices and abuse.

“ADULTS AT RISK” POLICY

•      The new “Adults at Risk” policy issued in September 2016 was meant to address the public outcry about victims or rape and other torture suffering further trauma as a result of detention in the UK.  But the policy was almost unanimously criticised as a step backwards.

•      Women for Refugee Women (WFRW) were the only organisation to publicly welcome the policy on the grounds that it appeared to concede to some of their proposals on detention. Other prestigious organisations providing legal and other assistance to people in detention called for “an urgent review before the policy was implemented” on the grounds that the new policy put vulnerable people at more risk of detention. It defined “torture” in a more limited way (excluding victims of domestic violence and violence by “non state agents”).

•      This change was clearly sexist in that women are more likely to have suffered domestic violence and/or have the torture and other violence they suffered assessed as “non political”. It also gave the Home Office the power to prioritise ‘any immigration control factors’ over a person’s vulnerability. We immediately saw a change in that more rape and domestic violence victims were detained or found it harder to get released.

•      One women who contacted Women Against Rape from Yarl’s Wood was refused bail even though she reported to medical staff that she was suffering nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD because Yarl’s Wood reminded her of being held in detention in Uganda (where she suffered multiple gang rape by soldiers).  Women Against Rape’s independent expert evidence about her experiences was dismissed and instead assertions made by medical staff that detention wasn’t having a negative impact were relied on to keep her in detention.

•      As the Committee will know the “Adults at Risk” policy was in October 2017 ruled unlawful.  We are calling for it to be scrapped altogether.

DEPORTATION IS NO ALTERNATIVE TO DETENTION

•      We note that there is a push in some quarters for the alternative to detention to be an increase in so-called voluntary returns. The Home Office is spending over £30 million, including on funding voluntary organisations and charities, to manipulate and force asylum seekers and refugees to ‘volunteer’ to be deported. There is widespread and growing opposition to this.  Whatever recommendations the Committee makes it cannot be acceptable for detention to be reduced by fast tracking people out of the UK regardless of the risks they may face on return.

DEMANDS

·         We support the demands of the hunger strikers listed above and we urge the Home Affairs Committee to press for their implementation.

·         We take our lead from women asylum seekers who are demanding an end to detention and deportation.

We work closely with the All African Women’s Group, a 100 strong group of women asylum seekers. In a recent statement they commented:

“We all have the right to be here in the UK. African and other Third World people have contributed over centuries to the wealth in the UK. We have suffered enough through imperial conquest, slave trades, proxy wars, Western backed dictatorships, rape and other torture…and through long treacherous journeys getting to the UK. We demand the right to asylum, safety and protection.”

Black Women’s Rape Action Project & Women Against Rape
26 April 2018