By Gemma Lousley
Grace had known she was a lesbian since she was a teenager but growing up in Uganda, which has strict laws against same-sex relationships, she struggled with her sexuality. Then, while at university at Kampala, she met her partner Rachel and, for the first time, Grace felt comfortable in a relationship.
The couple participated in a peaceful protest at the university in support of another student, who was being bullied for being gay. But they were brutally attacked by other students, the police were called, and Grace and Rachel were arrested.
Grace was held in prison for months, where the guards subjected her to serious abuse. Eventually, a friend managed to bail her out of prison. Knowing that she would not be safe in Uganda, Grace fled to the UK.
When she claimed asylum here, her lawyer didn't tell her what evidence she needed to help make her claim. He didn't tell her that she had to show proof of her imprisonment, or that she needed a medical report on the torture she had suffered in prison, and to show that she was a victim of rape. So Grace was refused asylum, and taken to Yarl's Wood detention centre. She was held there for five months.
Being locked up again was traumatic for Grace, and she was put on suicide watch, where she was monitored by male guards. Eventually she was released and, once she got decent legal advice, she was granted refugee status. But she says that a year later, she thinks about being detained every day.
"I still think about it every day. It has such a big effect on your life… When I hear footsteps in the corridors of my hostel, it is as if I am back there again," she says.
Every year, around 2,000 women seeking asylum are locked up in the UK. This detention is indefinite, it can be for weeks, months, and even years. As Grace's story shows, being detained is distressing. It also often serves no purpose at all: around 80% of asylum-seeking women are released back into the community, to continue with their cases.
And detention is unnecessary. As a new report by Women for Refugee Women shows, it is possible to have a fair and supportive asylum system that doesn't rely on detention. We launched the Set Her Free campaign against the detention of women seeking asylum, in 2014. Our previous reports, Detained and I Am Human, exposed some shocking truths about the practice of immigration detention. We showed that the majority of women who are locked up after seeking asylum had experienced sexual violence or torture in their home countries, and we exposed women's loss of dignity and privacy in Yarl's Wood.
Since the start of the campaign, the government has introduced some reforms. It has published guidance which sets out that male guards should never be watching women on constant supervision. It has introduced a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women. It has issued a policy stating that survivors of sexual and other gender-based violence should not be detained.
These reforms are important first steps. But the Home Office now needs to ensure they are now implemented effectively and transparently. Since the introduction of the new time limit, for instance, the Home Office has resisted repeated calls to publish statistics on the detention of pregnant women, and has made it very difficult to access this information through Freedom of Information requests.
And alongside these reforms, a more ambitious vision is needed, to move away from detention as routine part of asylum policy. As our new report explains, by supporting people as they go through the asylum process and engaging constructively with them, asylum cases – including those where claims have been refused – can be resolved in the community.
In Sweden, for instance, there is a focus on engagement with asylum seekers. They are supported to understand the process they are going through, and to participate actively in their case. If their claim is finally refused, they are then supported to think through the options available to them.
This type of approach has a number of benefits. Many asylum seekers, like Grace, have little knowledge of the asylum system, and what is needed to make a proper claim. Supporting them to understand the process and ensure all necessary evidence is submitted can help immigration officials to get decisions right first time. Supporting people through the process also means that, if they are granted refugee status, they are in a better position to get on with their lives, so it can help the social inclusion of refugees.
And because those who are ultimately refused asylum are supported to think through their options, this type of approach also uses detention on a much more sparing basis. In Sweden for instance, they have capacity to detain 255 people at any one time, this contrasts with 3,000 in the UK. In 2015, Sweden detained 3,500 people across the whole year. In the UK, the comparable figure was almost ten times this amount at 32,400.
During the research for our report, we asked women with experience of the asylum process what they thought a better system would look like. Strikingly, many spoke about the lack of support in the current process, and the need to address this. One woman said:
"Here, I don't know anything. It's like you don't know your way, and you don't know the system. You don't know where the signpost is. You feel stranded, and you feel stuck. You are covered in darkness, and there is no one to direct you. When you are in the system you feel like everything is scary."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, when we spoke to women about engagement-based asylum systems, they were unanimously positive about the idea of support as you go through the process. But some women also felt that, in cases where asylum claims are refused, supporting people to think through their options is better than the UK's policy of enforcement and detention. One woman explained:
"I know you can seek asylum and then you will be refused, but if you have someone to help you or hear what you are saying, even if you are refused, I think the process you are talking about will help us and the minds of people will be more relaxed. It’s a good idea, I like it."
There is already some experience of using more support and engagement for asylum seekers in the UK. In 2010, the Home Office part-funded 'key worker' pilots, run by Refugee Action, which tested the use of support and engagement in the asylum process. The evaluations showed promising results. And since the Coalition government's pledge to end the detention of children in 2010, the Family Returns Process has showed how a more engagement-focused approach can drastically reduce detention. In 2009, before the process was introduced, 1,119 children were held in detention; in the year ending September 2016, by contrast, 93 children were detained. There has also been no rise in absconding among families under the new approach.
Our report explains that it is possible to do things differently. Yarl's Wood didn't exist before 2001, and it doesn't need to exist now. It is possible to have an asylum system that is protective and supportive, which doesn't use detention, and which gives women who are seeking safety a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives.
Gemma Lousley policy & research co-ordinator of Women for Refugee Women