Saturday, 13 February 2010

Lesbian asylum seeker amongst Yarl's Wood hunger strikers

By Paul Canning

The Black Women's Rape Action Project today released information about the large group of hunger strikers at the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire saying that it includes a Jamaican lesbian.

'Ms N', they say, won her case at Tribunal in October for asylum in the UK but the Home Office appealed and she has been kept in detention since.

Yarl's Wood is supposed to house refugees prior to deportation who have exhausted their legal rights. Their removal should be imminent or there should be a risk of them absconding. Other alternatives to detention must have been considered and the person must have no particular health needs or vulnerabilities.

The group says that many of the detained women are survivors of rape or other torture. Home Office rules say they should only be detained "under very exceptional circumstances." Others are in detention having been convicted of the crimes of destitution or for travelling on false papers (which is often unavoidable when you are fleeing persecution); those thus imprisoned are transferred straight to detention pending removal.

'Ms N' a single mum with two children, has been in the UK for twelve years. She fled to the UK from Jamaica after she witnessed a murder, was falsely accused of being a police informer and beaten and stabbed.

The group say that, like many other asylum seekers, she fled not knowing that she had a legal right to be able to claim asylum in the UK.

For years she was unable to speak about the rape she suffered from her stepfather as a child. She eventually disclosed it to Women Against Rape describing how when she told her real father about the abuse, her stepfather killed her mum.

While she's been detained, her son in Jamaica has been attacked by a gang and threatened with guns.

Home Office policy as stated in their country-specific guidance is that there is "no evidence that lesbians generally face serious ill-treatment in Jamaica and in the absence of evidence to the contrary [an asylum claim] may be certified as clearly unfounded".

Diva magazine has reported the first-hand experience for Jamaican lesbians:
Verbal abuse takes place on a daily basis, and I regularly see and hear about lesbians who’ve been raped and beaten. We can’t hold hands safely.

So-called 'corrective rape' is an epidemic in a number of countries - most documented in South Africa but in its annual report glbtqja said:
The [Jamaican] lesbian community specifically saw a continued onslaught of homophobic incidents with the so described and disturbing “Corrective Rape” cases continuing from 2008. We saw allegedly 5 cases in 2008 and a further 4 for 2009.
Citing the supposed lack of persecution of lesbians the Home Office suggests 'internal relocation' to "other parts of Jamaica where homophobic violence is less prevalent and where they would not face treatment that would amount to persecution." It also suggests 'internal relocation' for "a gay or bisexual man who is habitually ‘discreet’ about his sexuality but who has a well-founded fear of mistreatment because it has been ‘discovered’ locally."
Key factors will include the extent to which an individual would be perceived to be gay, for example through dress, behaviour or demeanour, the extent to which he associates with other gay men, whether he is a prostitute, and the extent to which he is perceived to flout what many people in Jamaica regard as the norm of acceptable heterosexual behaviour. The important point here is whether the applicant is perceived to be gay. The [Asylum Immigration Tribunal] AIT also found that wealthy gay men may be tolerated in the social circles in which they move so long as they are not ‘openly gay’, although men in these circumstances may be susceptible to blackmail.
Speaking to the notion of 'safe areas' on the small island, glbtqja reported on a 2009 case of 'corrective rape' of a lesbian couple who had relocated to restart their lives due to a previous homophobic attack.

Diva quotes Amnesty International's spokesperson Sarah Green (my highlight):
Amnesty, too, has received a litany of grim reports ranging from anti-gay vigilante action by members of the community to ill treatment or abuse by the police, medical authorities and employers. Lesbians and gay men have been beaten, burned, raped and murdered because of their sexuality – but Amnesty believes that the number of reports it hears is the tip of the iceberg.

‘We’re only a voluntary organisation, and have built up a picture via limited investigation, but we believe our finding holds true for the national picture. The very nature of these crimes is likely to make people mistrust figures of authority, so reporting levels are going to be lower because of the fear of being identified. There’s shame about sexuality, so people might not want to talk about themselves,’ says Green.

Amnesty has received reports of specific acts of violence against lesbians, namely rape and other forms of sexual violence. There are reports of lesbians being attacked on the grounds of ‘mannish’ physical appearance or other visible ‘signs’ of sexuality. Some reports of abduction and rape emanate from inner-city communities, where local NGOs have already expressed concerns about high incidences of violence against women.

One of the reasons for the widespread disdain for lesbians, reckons Karlene, is that the public thinks lesbianism is illegal. That’s true of male homosexuality, but there are no specific legal penalties against lesbians. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jamaicans are largely unaware of this, a perception reinforced by comments made by politicians, the media, religious leaders and dancehall musicians. ‘It’s a popular subject that’s often used to stir up support,’ confirms Green. ‘If you’re a politician and are criticised for not being firm on crime, at least you can give yourself a platform on this subject.’

The Guardian reported Tuesday on the Yarl's Wood hunger strike:
An immigration removal centre was reported to be in a state of chaos yesterday, as at least 50 women entered the fourth day of a hunger strike in protest against their detention and conditions, with several reportedly fainting in corridors and almost 20 locked outdoors wearing few clothes. Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, which houses 405 women and children, was in lockdown, leaving women in communal spaces without food, water or toilet facilities.
UPDATE: The Guardian reports extensively today, including calls for an enquiry into the 'riot' from the local Tory MP and audio: 'One girl tied a rope around her neck and tried to hang herself'.

UPDATE: Amnesty International: Statement from a woman currently being detained in Yarl's Wood: 'I have been traumatised and victimised because of this experience. I can never believe this can happen in the UK and I am still in  shock.'

On Wednesday the Parliamentary Ombudsman issued a scathing report saying that it had upheld 97% of the complaints made to it about treatment by the UK Border Agency.

On Thursday the BBC reported that Immigration minister Phil Woolas has admitted millions of pounds is being paid in compensation to migrants who have been detained in removal centres. Around half of those detained are not deported and, despite the best efforts of the UK Border Agency, secure UK asylum.

Women supporters of the hunger strikers from the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC) have described the events during the 'riot' as "hell".
The courageous women behind the wire on hunger strike, with out cause or reason, were yesterday subjected to *'heavy manners' [a situation where all civilized norms are abrogated and government forces or in this case government agents, use unwarranted force; a steamroller to crack open a peanut].

For about eight hours, the detainees were harried by staff at the centre. Many of the women sustained light injuries but were refused treatment for several hours. People phoning into detainees, could not hear what was being said as the cries of distress in the background, were drowning out any attempt to converse. Four of the women were removed from Yarl's Wood, yesterday evening at 20:00 hrs to Bedford police station, where they are now; they have not been arrested/charged, so why are they in police cells?

The Home Office were reporting this morning that the Hunger Strike is over, women speaking from Yarl's Wood today, say it is definitely not.
Updates on the Yarl's Wood situation, including actions you can take, can be found on the NCADC website.

All African Women's Group - Speech by former detainee at Yarls Wood Demo

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