The Home Office Does Not Champion Female Empowerment: International Women’s Day Must Remember Its Socialist Roots

Rachel Trafford calls for an acknowledgement of the roots of International Women's Day in socialist workers protest in the face of ongoing corporatisation and abuse of migrant women placed in detention by the Home Office.

WORDS Rachel Trafford
ILLUSTRATIONS Ella Devi Dabysing

Content Warning: Suicide, rape and abuse mentions

Rechel had already written her suicide note when a judge decided to finally release her from detention at the infamous Yarls Wood detention centre. The site was highlighted as a place of ‘national concern’ some six years ago, after long-standing risks of sexist and racist abuse, and a lack of healthcare provision.

“I suffered with people invading my space,” Rechel says. “Male officers would enter your room behind your back and go through your bed, your underwear. I felt raped all over again.”

A survivor of rape and abuse as a teenager, Rechel, originally from St Vincent, was living undocumented alone in Coventry when she was arrested. After her sentence she was transferred to Yarls Wood. She didn’t leave for eight months.

I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and rape trauma syndrome but doctors ignored it. It leaves you scarred for life. It was only my faith that kept me going.

Rechel

Rechel’s story is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of others along similar lines detailing the toll that the injustice of detention takes on the mental health of migrant women. Women for Refugee Women collected 38 testimonies as part of its research report, ‘I am Human’. In a further study in 2019, over half of women surveyed in detention were on suicide watch; 40% had turned to self-harm to cope. Moreover, multiple allegations have been made of sexual harassment and abuse of detainees by staff. As far back as 2015, a Channel 4 documentary exposed disgusting verbal abuse, with staff calling women held at Yarls Wood “beasties” and “animals”.

International Women’s Day was founded on a call for socialist female solidarity over a century ago, driving for equality across society. Originating in the US in 1908, it inspired collective demonstrations across Europe, with strikes on March 8th by Russian women even sparking the 1917 revolution. However, championing by the UN over the last 45 years has enabled a deviation from its radical history.

Far from promoting female equality, the Home Office plan to pursue the detentions of hundreds more migrant women in the week leading up to International Women’s Day, betraying past promises to mothball parts of the estate. The Home Office has revealed plans to expand the immigration detention estate by opening a new centre with a capacity of 85 in County Durham. This will be part of a new network of detention sites built specifically to hold women.

Despite the inhumanity of Home Office policies that lead to such abuse, the marketing company responsible for our understanding of International Women’s Day in the Global West rewrites the narrative for corporate interests, separating us from our sisterhood.

Illustration by Ella Devi Dabysing

Aurora Ventures, a private consultancy firm, has maintained the International Women’s Day website and provided the annual themes used across the West to commemorate the day since 2009. The firm’s mission states that it “works with engaged companies, agencies and groups worldwide to support their female-focused missions” and “shines a light on women’s equality.” On its own website, Aurora Ventures lists around 200 of their client organisations it states “champion female advancement” and are “committed to women’s equality”.

Of course, spotlighting progressive employers and celebrating female achievements is something to be encouraged, especially with women bearing a disproportionately high financial burden of the pandemic’s economic fallout. However, amongst the large corporate firms listed by Aurora Ventures sits the Home Office, the government department responsible for the UK’s immigration policy.

Maintaining a “robust” system with detention at its heart has been the government’s justification for the new centres; but punitive and inhumane measures within the immigration system need  not be inevitable. Hearing the voices of women affected by the detention system and the activism of migrant women draws on the roots of protest over a century old. However, in order to enact effective change, we need something bigger than individual obligation to call out bias.

Detention intertwines imprisonment and punishment with nationality. Although geography of birth is just a lottery, the hostile environment of the immigration system is perpetuated disproportionately upon racialised groups. According to the Home Office, 83% of immigration detainees held between June 2019 and June 2020 were non-EU nationals.  People seeking asylum in the UK are not allowed to work and must survive on a measly £5 daily stipend. Moreover, almost 1.4 million migrants are cut off from any state support due to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition on visas, and their access to women’s centres and refuges, in case of abuse or crisis, is denied. Without adequate legal aid and support for migrants, the immigration system continues to feed this structural cycle of marginalisation and vulnerability, thus preventing women from healing from trauma and rebuilding their lives.

Despite gross inaction by the government, the number of women in immigration detention was at a historic low for much of 2020. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and pressure from campaigners proved the obvious; it is absolutely possible not to detain women as part of a functional immigration process. In fact, to do so seems to be completely pointless.  Women for Refugee Women, a charity that challenges the injustices experienced by women seeking asylum in the United Kingdom, has been pursuing it’s Set Her Free’ campaign since 2014 – then, there were around 300 women in detention; by last September, there were less than 30.

83%

of immigration detainees held between June 2019 and June 2020 were non-EU nationals.

£5

People seeking asylum in the UK are not allowed to work and must survive on a £5 daily stipend.

1.4 million

migrants are cut off from any state support due to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition on visas.

The UK has one of the largest detention estates in the world, detaining tens of thousands of people a year before the pandemic. All those currently in immigration detention have not necessarily committed a crime; anyone who is subject to immigration control can be detained, including people trying to seek asylum. In fact, detention is often used for people who have valid claims to remain in the UK – a woman could be detained for overstaying her Spouse Visa and therefore becoming undocumented. It can also be used to hold foreign-born prisoners from the country before deportation, even when sentences have already been served, and for petty crime such as theft.

However, the vast majority of women held are never removed from the country. Over the last couple of years, at least 70-80% of immigration detainees have been released into the community while their immigration claim is worked out. The loss of their liberty and dignity served absolutely no purpose. On top of the inhumanity, the process is expensive. Holding one person in detention costs up to £40,000. Clearly, the system does not achieve what it sets out to do.

The human costs are even higher. Prior to the pandemic, up to 2000 women who were seeking asylum in the UK were detained each year. Detention centres retraumatise those within their walls, the majority of whom are survivors of rape and violence. In direct contrast to the Home Secretary’s vocal commitment to identifying those who have been trafficked, statistics show that the detention of trafficking survivors over the last three years has tripled. In a recent high court case against the Home Office, multiple asylum seekers said they had not been asked any questions about the nature of their journeys to the UK. A ‘dont ask dont tell’ approach knowingly leaves people at risk of being refused asylum and, therefore, fast-tracked to detention – their voices and experiences omitted from the record.

For women who have been through traumatic experiences, being forced into environments that mirror those that they have fled has a devastating impact on their mental wellbeing. Many detained women describe PTSD, anxiety and depression as a result of their detention.

But the women of Yarls Wood and other detention centres refuse to back down. They have made phone calls to campaigners protesting at the centres’ walls so their voices could be heard. They went on hunger strike to protest conditions and even physically bonded together to prevent women from being removed. Although the majority of their stories come to us through charity reports, they are survivors.

Now in 2021, in spite of – rather than alongside – the Home Office, the fight continues. The values of radical protest and solidarity, that the now-corporatised International Women’s Day tries to whitewash and erase, shine through. Agnes Tanoh, alongside Women for Refugee Women, is organising against the planning expansion of the immigration estate.

“I am a woman. I am a refugee. I am a human being. The new detention centre planned in County Durham is designed to lock up women like me,” she says.

Agnes claimed asylum in the UK after being persecuted in her country, where her life was at risk, but was instead detained in Yarls Wood for three months in 2012. Just like so many others who are pushed through the system, her asylum claim was upheld and she now has refugee status.

Agnes is currently campaigning to support other women seeking safety in the UK and for the closure of detention centres. She has started a petition against the expansion plans, which has already gained almost 5000 signatures at the time of writing.

I know how detention destroys a woman. I don’t want to see this happen to any of my sisters.

Agnes

Continued pressure on the Home Office to reverse course is vital. The number of women in detention is rising once again despite coronavirus outbreaks in multiple centres. While just 10 women entered detention from July to September, intake rose sharply to 240 between October and December.

In a superficial nod to the global protest against racial discrimination and police brutality over the past year, the International Women’s Day 2021 theme is #ChoosetoChallenge. The official website, run by Aurora Ventures, tells us that “a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. So let’s all choose to challenge.” 

Collective consciousness raising was how the feminist movement drew strength; it encouraged women to realise that their experiences of discrimination were structural, not personal. However, the IWD 2021 theme focuses on an individual obligation to call out bias, separating us from the structural discriminations that by silencing some, disempower us all – discriminations that are baked into the very fabric of the immigration system.

Illustration by Ella Devi Dabysing

Of the ten immigration detention centres in the UK, nine are currently outsourced to private companies. Serco, GEO Group, G4S and others receive Home Office contracts that run in the hundreds of millions each year. A Guardian investigation in 2018 also found that profits made on centres were running well above those stated in contracts; just one detention centre, Brook House was running at 20.7%. High levels of privatisation allows the state system to appear strong and to succeed in locking away women who ‘deserve it’.

The Conservative government narrative says that no matter your individual characteristics, those who can succeed are able to do so. This completely fails to take into account the world that the Home Office has constructed for women in detention – a privatised black hole where they are dehumanised by design.

Women’s rights and migrant activists, both belonging to diaspora communities and not, have been campaigning to highlight these issues for years, if not decades. If International Women’s Day and the huge corporate conglomerates behind it are not ‘choosing to challenge’ these systemic injustices, but actively pursuing them, the day serves no one but Aurora Ventures and the marketing campaigns it produces. When our liberation is sold, all women are the product. We must ‘choose to challenge’ for our sisterhood’s worth.

Rachel Trafford is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, a national network of immigration lawyers.

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