By Esther Raffell, René Cassin’ Campaigns Officer
International Women’s Day is a day of joy, affirmation, and resistance. For women and for people of marginalised genders, it can be tough to move through this world. As globalization has made the world more accessible for some, it has become increasingly confined for migrants and asylum seekers deemed illegal and alien by the UK’s hostile environment. For women in immigration detention, doubly disempowered by misogyny and the hostile environment, the push to be seen as human is twice as hard.
René Cassin makes a human case against indefinite immigration detention. We advocate for humane and effective support within the community, drawing on Jewish stories of flight and migration to say that no one should be retraumatised for seeking a better life. For many of our ancestors arriving in the UK, the persecution they fled in Europe was aggravated by internment, with around 40,000 Austrian and German Jews detained as ‘illegal aliens’ in the Isle of Man, Liverpool and Devon, leading up to both the first and second world war.
Since then, progress has been slow. The UK is one of the only countries in Europe where it is legal to hold migrants in detention without a time limit. 25,000 people a year are held in seven UK immigration removal centres without charge or firm date of release. The psychological toll of this perpetual precarity is well documented in the deteriorating mental health of immigration detainees. Yet at least half of those detained are eventually released into the community with their detention serving no purpose at all.
What is even clearer are the ways these practices entrench and aggravate misogyny and gender inequality. Women for Refugee Women (W4RW) consistently report that most women held in detention are survivors of trafficking, torture or sexual violence. At Yarls Wood immigration removal centre, the traumas women brought with them were at best neglected and at worst intensified. According to a 2015 report, 31 allegations of sexual misconduct were filed, and 10 staff were dismissed, while more than half of women interviewed reported being on suicide watch at some point. A 2017 report also found women survivors more likely to enter abusive relationships upon their release, being mentally, physically and financially vulnerable following detention.
As women and as Jews today, we may not understand what it is to be in immigration detention, but we do know what it is both to have our bodily autonomy questioned, and our ancestors criminalized for seeking a better life. The patriarchy is upheld by the control and containment of women’s agency, a fact that touches all of our lives the world over, whether through the regulation of our sexuality, our reproductive rights, or our economic possibilities. Few realities engender and crystallise this more acutely than the practice of indefinite detention, where women report sexual harassment and ongoing invasion of their personal space and privacy while locked up.
These findings are a sobering reminder that paying lip service to women and gender equality this International Women’s Day is simply not enough. While the Home Office extolls the virtues of gender equality with one hand, it sharpens the tools of misogyny and racism with the other. Despite commitments to reduce the numbers of people in detention, especially the vulnerable, last month it was revealed that a new women’s detention centre is to be built this year in County Durham.
At René Cassin, our work can only truly ‘remake the case for human rights’ if we attend to the ways that women are dehumanised in detention, from racism and sexual violence to medical neglect. For these reasons, we support a 28-day time limit on detention and use our platform to bring faith groups in to support community alternatives to detention. A Jewish voice for human rights must start at the margins and mobilise our community to make women human too.