#SetHerFree – a campaign to end the inhumane detention of women in the UK


As an asylum seeker from Turkey Meltem Avcil arrived in England aged 13. Along with her mother she was detained in Bedfordshire's detention centre, Yarl's Wood, which has gained notoriety for its cruel treatment of asylum seekers. "Being there for three months I saw many women self-harm," she tells the National Refugee Women's Conference at Amnesty International. "That's not what a 13 year-old should see."

When Avcil was released three months later she campaigned to end the detention of children. In 2010 the government announced it would end the detention of children for immigration purposes, a huge accomplishment for such a young campaigner. Avcil was awarded the Liberty Human Rights Award.

Now Avcil is now part of a campaign to end the detention of women seeking asylum. 50,000 people have signed her petition which unites under the slogan, '#SetHerFree.' The campaign has been endorsed by novelist Zadie Smith and actress Romola Garai. The Women's Institute's Shoreditch Sisters knitted a quilt with refugee women as a statement of solidarity which toured the Royal Albert Hall, the Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict before reaching Yarl's Wood itself.

The research driving the campaign is contained in a report published by Women for Refugee Women. The organisation spoke to 38 women detained in Yarl's Wood detention centre between June 2012 and October 2014 with the aim to uncover what women surviving rape, sexual violence and torture in their own countries experience in the UK, specifically in Yarl's Wood detention centre.

2,000 women are locked up in Yarl's Wood every year. The report reveals disturbing incidents of sexual assault. It is also reported that women's privacy is routinely invaded inside the centre, for example male members of staff watching them whilst in the shower or on the toilet. Nineteen said they were on suicide watch, 13 said they had been searched by men and 22 said they were watched by men whilst being searched by a female member of staff.

A previous report published last year by the same organisation received the following comment from the Home Office: "Male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm."

The report suggests otherwise.

Zrinka Bralo, head of the Migrant and Refugee Community Forum, told the conference that nobody believes that what is contained in the report could happen in the UK: "What bothers me is that people are locked up without judicial oversight, because this is supposed to be democracy... it's important to maintain and preserve the dignity of everyone in that democracy."

Then there are the people profiting from locking up these women. In 2013 the government told parliament that to detain one woman for one year costs £37,230. If these women are in the community, it is much cheaper. "Not in our name, not with our money," says Bralo.

Richard Fuller, Conservative MP for Bedford, told the conference said that the Conservative Party have moved to stop the detention of women and pointed out that the current system is "costly, unjust and ineffective." Fuller, whose constituency is just outside of Yarl's Wood, said that at the heart of our asylum process should be compassion.

"Change is coming. I would say to women in parliament, we appreciate your attention to this issue but you're not doing enough. Enough is when we have ended the detention of all women as part of our immigration process."

Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, was credited for taking the issue of Yarl's Wood to the heart of Labour. Creasy criticised the media for painting immigration out to be the source of our problems. Labour, she says, will put an end to Yarl's Wood and conduct an enquiry into the stories and allegations that have been made. "This is a nation that has been proud to support people in the past," she added.

Maimuna Jawo, who shared her experience of being detained in Yarl's Wood for the report, addressed her speech to asylum seekers in the UK:

"We don't even need to wait. We are the leaders of this campaign because we are the victims of detention, the victims of rape, of FGM. We should not keep quiet, sit and listen to them or wait for them. Why are women saying we should sit down and wait for someone? Let's forget about the fear. Let's get up, stand up and stand together to fight against detention."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor