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Supporting detained women on International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women around the world and a call to action for the work that needs to be done to accelerate gender equality. 

Women
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Stephanie trained at Leigh Day and now works as a solicitor in the human rights team.
As a woman living in the UK, I feel fortunate to enjoy freedoms that have been hard won and are still being fought for around the world. At the same time, I also feel appalled on behalf of my female clients at the treatment they have endured from the Home Office after coming to the UK seeking asylum or simply because they don’t have the correct immigration papers. 
 
This year on International Women’s Day, around 300 to 400 women will be detained in the UK, under administrative powers exercised by Home Office officials with very little independent oversight.
 
Many of these women will be some of the most vulnerable in our society and around half will be seeking asylum. The charity Women for Refugee Women estimates that 85% of asylum seeking women in immigration detention are survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced marriage, FGM and trafficking. 

The vast majority of women detained by the Home Office are held in Yarl’s Wood, an immigration removal centre (IRC) in Bedfordshire, which has been severely criticised throughout the last 10 years due to allegations of ill-treatment including physical and sexual abuse by guards. Women in Yarl’s Wood have repeatedly participated in hunger strikes to protest against their treatment by the Home Office and the private contractors who run the centre, Serco and G4S.
 
It is well established and should come as no surprise that immigration detention has a negative impact on mental health and that the longer someone spends in detention, the more negative the impact. Women who enter detention may already be traumatised by previous life experiences, but in some cases, the trauma they suffer in detention can be even worse. 

There is also overwhelming evidence that policies with the stated aim of protecting adults at risk of harm are regularly failing vulnerable detainees. For example, almost half of all detainees have been assessed to be an adult at risk, yet Home Office officials routinely maintain detention on the basis of broadly defined immigration factors such as the risk of absconding and without properly engaging with medical evidence.
 
These policies particularly fail women at Yarl’s Wood IRC as due to ongoing shortages of female staff, initial screening interviews intended to identify vulnerable detainees can be conducted by male staff. It is alarming that survivors of sexual and gender-based-violence are expected to disclose this extremely sensitive information to male staff. 
 
Although the Home Office has now introduced a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women, these women are still being detained, risking considerable distress to themselves and their unborn children. In the 18 months after the time limit was introduced, over 70 women were detained, with at least 60 released to the community, indicating that their detention was completely unnecessary. 
 
Leigh Day regularly acts for clients, male and female, who have been detained by the Home Office for months and sometimes years before they are released. One of the cruellest aspects of immigration detention is that it is indefinite: not knowing when you will be free again exacerbates its negative effects. 
 
Charities, campaigners, lawyers and detainees themselves are all in agreement that immediate and fundamental reform is required, such as by introducing a 28-day time limit, or abolishing the regime entirely. We look forward celebrating an International Women’s Day when all women in the UK are free from the fear and suffering caused by immigration detention. 
 
What you can do:
  • Follow the #SetHerFree campaign led by the charity Women for Refugee Women 
  • Sign the Liberty petition calling for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention
  • Read ‘We are still here’ a report by Women for Refugee Women and including powerful stories of women’s experiences in Yarl’s Wood 

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