Thirteen former hunger strikers have now been released of the 25 or so we were in touch with on a daily basis.
All had spent months in detention and one woman had been there for a year and a half. Some had won their case but were being kept inside by a vindictive Home Office which was appealing the judgement. Women described feeling like forgotten people. One of the key demands of the hunger strike was for an end to indefinite detention.
The collective power generated by the hunger strike has had a huge impact helped greatly by the widespread publicity. Judges who were previously hostile and discriminatory are suddenly more willing to consider granting bail. Women, previously disparaged as “bogus asylum seekers” who“prolong their own detention” are being seen for who they are: rape survivors who have suffered terrible violence and trauma and mothers who have lived and raised families in the UK for years and who are distraught at being separated from their children.
Ms D was released in April. She has lived in the UK for 23 years. She had been detained for just under eighteen months at the time of the hunger strike. She was sent to Yarl’s Wood from prison, having been convicted and imprisoned for benefit fraud, despite the judge acknowledging that she had been forced to act as she did by her violent husband. He fled when the fraud was discovered, leaving her to face charges. She is still waiting for a Home Office decision!
Ms D said: “I cannot believe how our protest and the support we got has changed my life around. I was facing deportation and permanent separation from my family. Now I’m back home with my children in my arms looking forward to the birth of my grandchild. The support me and other women got while we were on hunger strike was critical to our survival and all that we have been able to achieve”.
Ms L was released four weeks ago. However, almost immediately she was forced to leave her accommodation when her surety demanded she have sex with him. We helped her find somewhere to stay temporarily while she waits to hear if her court bail hearing will accept her new address. She is terrified of being sent back to Yarl’s Wood.
Ms A was released in May but with a tag. She had been detained for six months at the time of the hunger strike. She refused food for the full six weeks and lost over six kg. She ended up in Yarl’s Wood after serving six months in prison for working without papers. Her applications for bail fell on deaf ears until the hunger strike brought the situation of women detained there to national attention.
On being released Ms A said: “When they gave me bail they restricted my movements . . . I can only be out of the house to take my kid to school, in the morning and to collect her in the afternoon . . . but at least I’m with all my family now”.
Ms J a single mother from St Lucia was released on bail. She was in detention for seven months. She had been kidnapped by a criminal gang, was raped and suffered other torture at their hands, and in fear of her life was forced to carry drugs to the UK. Ms J won her case but the Home Office appealed and she was kept in detention pending a decision. She was released after the hunger strike and is waiting for a decision on whether her status will be revoked. If it is, she faces being returned to St Lucia where, a fortnight ago, her sister was murdered by a gang looking for Ms J. Several members of her immediate family were also shot in the attack.
Ms K won her release from Holloway prison in April. Press release with details here (http://www.womenagainstrape.net/content/press-release-hunger-striker-released-holloway).
But Ms O, a lesbian woman from Jamaica, remains inside because the Home Office won their appeal against the court’s original decision to grant her leave to remain. Her legal team have submitted a further appeal based on evidence of the violence she would suffer if returned, which is overwhelming and widely documented.
Seven other former hunger strikers are in regular contact but still detained. Four are still in prison even though they have not been charged with any crimes. All are battling against the refusal of the courts to grant them bail.
Two key hunger strikers were returned to their home country. Both had pending civil claims against the Yarl’s Wood authorities.
Using Legal Action for Women’s Self Help Guide (http://www.allwomencount.net/) both were instrumental in stopping other women being removed.
Ms P was sent back to Nigeria two weeks ago. She initially fled to the UK following years of extreme domestic violence which culminated in her being hospitalised for three months. We visited Ms P in Yarl’s Wood two days before she was deported. Whilst inside she helped other women, many of who had no legal representation and struggled to speak, read and write in English. She learned how to make legal submissions from another woman, and when that woman was released, Ms P stepped into her shoes. Word got around quickly and before long many women were knocking at her door with their papers. Ms P would spend several hours reading them before asking the woman to join her while she drafted the submissions they needed. When removals were imminent she would work late into the night. Her efforts were often sabotaged by the authorities: “If women had removals for a Friday and I asked the High Court to fax a JR form, nothing would arrive till Thursday, and usually at the last minute.
This brave, charming, determined woman helped countless others and will be sorely missed. One woman whose case she took on commented “they took a good woman away from us”.
Ms S was removed three weeks ago. She was one of the few Chinese women in Yarl’s Wood who could speak good English and crucially brought women together across the barrier of language. Chinese and Vietnamese women said that they joined the hunger strike in particular to protest the length of their detention and because they are systematically denied translation. Some women didn’t even know they had been refused asylum. One woman had been held for over two years without knowing why and had received no help to find out. Ms S translated for women when they wanted to speak to us. She worked tirelessly to get help from outside and press women’s MPs to respond for appeals for help. She was also one of the key witnesses to the violence hunger strikers suffered when they were “kettled”on 8 February.
We are trying to stay in touch with both women to help ensure their safety and help pursue ongoing civil claims. Many believe they were both fast tracked out of the UK as punishment for the crucial legal and co-ordinating work they did. We would like to be able to send both women money to help them remain in touch with their supporters and solicitors while their civil claims are being processed. To donate please visit our website (http://http/womenagainstrape.net/black-womens-rape-action-project)
Black Women’s Rape Action Project: http://www.womenagainstrape.net