Guest post by Women for Refugee Women

When women come to the UK fleeing persecution, instead of being given safety, they are often met with disbelief from the Home Office. When a woman plucks up the courage to tell an official about her experiences of abuse, persecution and gender-based violence, she is often accused of making it all up. The impact of this alone on women’s mental health cannot be understated, but the Home Office also goes further by locking up many vulnerable women who have sought asylum in detention centres.

Over 1,500 asylum-seeking women are locked up indefinitely each year in Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford. 85% of women detained in Yarl’s Wood who spoke to Women for Refugee Women for their latest research were survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence, such as rape, female genital mutilation and domestic violence. The Home Office has a policy that survivors of such violence should not be detained because of the harm it causes them, yet even when women disclose their experiences of abuse and their health is clearly deteriorating in detention they are disbelieved and remain locked up.

Elizabeth (whose name has been changed) was trafficked to the UK into domestic servitude. As a survivor of trafficking, she should never have been detained, yet she was locked up in Yarl’s Wood for 3 months. A pre-existing knee problem limited her mobility and meant that she experienced constant, intense pain. While she was detained, the healthcare service regularly disbelieved or dismissed her pain, denying her essential medication and physiotherapy. Because of this, her condition rapidly deteriorated, and she had thoughts about killing herself. Here is her story, in her own words:

“I was brought to the UK to do domestic work for a family. I was told I would make money to send back to my children, but when I got here, I never got any pay. They treated me very badly and made me work all day and into the night. Then, after a few years, I started to get problems with my knees and was in a lot of pain. When the family realised that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore that was it. They threw me out onto the street, and all of my things.

After that, I was in hospital, for an operation to have both knees replaced. While I was in there I met someone from a women’s charity, and I told her how I had got to the UK and what happened to me when I arrived. She explained that I had been trafficked: she helped me to find a solicitor, and I made an asylum claim. I was moved into Home Office accommodation in Birmingham. But after a while my claim was refused, and I had to leave that accommodation.

I had nowhere to go, and I was desperate. After a few days of being homeless, I collapsed on the street and was taken to hospital. They told me to go to the local police station to ask for help, but the police held me in the station for a night and then took me to Yarl’s Wood.

Before I was detained, my mobility was very limited, and I had always had to walk with crutches. Inside Yarl’s Wood it got much worse. I did not get the physiotherapy that I had been having before and so I became very stiff. My knees swelled up and I couldn’t move around without a wheelchair.

The officers at Yarl’s Wood would not let me keep the wheelchair in my room and sometimes would not let me use it at all. They often refused to help me in the wheelchair, and I had to ask other women who were detained there to push me. Sometimes I would be stuck somewhere for hours, waiting for help to come.

Some days, when I was in a lot of pain, I would get up early to go to healthcare to get
medication. Healthcare is far away and it would take me a long time to arrange for the
wheelchair and someone to take me. Often I would arrive and be told that they were too busy and I would have to wait. I would sit there for a long time, often until they closed for the day without seeing me, meaning I’d have to go another day without pain medication.

This was not the only way they took away my medication. One doctor in healthcare prescribed me something that helped my knees but when I went to pharmacy to collect it again they said that I was not allowed it. The officers ransacked my room looking for medicines. A man searched everywhere, even through my knickers. When I asked him to stop he said he would report me for shouting. They took away a cream that I needed for my knee.

I became very depressed in detention. I didn’t really sleep while I was there. Before I had been taking anti-depressants, but I didn’t have these in Yarl’s Wood. Sometimes I thought about killing myself. I tried to be strong, but I can’t recall a day I didn’t cry. The frustration gets to your brain and the worries are too much.

After I had been in detention for just over two months, they tried to remove me. When they took me to the airport, they said I wasn’t allowed to use a wheelchair. And long before we got to the airport, they put a waist restraint belt on me and two people pulled me along. It was so painful, and so humiliating. I was crying, and telling them they were hurting me, but they just carried on. It was so dark and I was so scared. There were five of them, two men and three women, restraining only me – as if I’d have the strength to fight, I can barely walk.

At the last minute, my solicitor managed to stop the removal. Then they took me to Colnbrook, I think because they wanted to try to remove me again that week. But Colnbrook said they didn’t have the facilities to look after me, and they refused to take me. When I was back in Yarl’s Wood, my knees had swollen up so badly, and I was in so much pain. It was 3am and I had not eaten since breakfast the previous day.

After about three months, my solicitor found a care home for me to go to, and they released me from detention. But even now, I am scared they will detain me again. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It doesn’t feel like I am free.”

Elizabeth was supported by the charity Women for Refugee Women, who empower asylum-seeking women to speak out and become advocates for a fairer asylum process. Their #SetHerFree campaign has led to real policy changes, such as a 72 hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women and a Detention Service Order which means that male staff no longer watch women on suicide watch.

There is still a long way to go to ensure that women who seek safety in the UK are treated with dignity and not subjected to harmful policies of disbelief. Join the #SetHerFree campaign against the detention of asylum-seeking women here.