Yearly Archives: 2013

Christmas Appeal for women and children seeking asylum


Dear Friends,

As Christmas approaches, once again we are asking you to contribute financially to help women and children seeking asylum.

Each year Legal Action for Women’s Christmas Appeal helps approximately 25 women.  Every penny we raise goes to women in the All African Women’s Group (AAWG), the self-help group of women asylum seekers based with us at the Crossroads Women’s Centre.  We work together to distribute the money raised.  We have seen from previous years that it makes a massive difference to women’s lives.

AAWGmeet As we all know, times are increasingly hard and asylum seekers are faring worse than most.  A show of hands at a recent AAWG meeting of 55 women showed that over 60% had supplemented their weekly food from local food banks. Nearly 50% are destitute having no income and nowhere settled to live.  Drastic cuts this past year to legal aid have left even more women unable to find lawyers to pursue their cases, and with no current asylum claim they and not entitled to any support.

Despite hugely difficult personal circumstances, women have stayed determined to keep speaking out about the challenges they face.  In October, at a Speak Out on Rape & Sexual Assault in Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre, a packed crowd heard compelling testimonies from women who experienced and/or witnessed sexual abuse while held in detention.  The courage of women who at great risk exposed this outrage has forced Serco to dismiss three guards, while the government has tried unsuccessfully to deport two of the key witnesses.  A number of women who have been released have joined the AAWG.

This year, with grateful thanks to filmmaker Lucy Lyon, you can find out more about the AAWG from these three short films.  See here.

We understand that many people will be feeling hard pressed financially but we ask you to dig deep and contribute as much as you can.  We will give out the money on 20 December.

Many thanks and best wishes for the holiday season,

Niki Adams

December 2013

How to donate

Click here to donate to the asylum appeal administered on our behalf by the charity Women in Dialogue.  All donations are gift-aided.

Money transfer to our account: Legal Action for Women, Unity Trust Bank, account number – 50728361, sort code – 086001.  If donating online or direct into our account, we would appreciate an email to let us know.

By cheque, payable to Legal Action for Women – please let us know by email and specify that you are donating in response to the Christmas Appeal.

If you would like to donate non-perishable food, toiletries or other essential items, these would also be very much appreciated.  They can be delivered any day before 19 December to the Women’s Centre in Kentish Town (25 Wolsey Mews, NW5 2DX).

Legal Action for Women  020 7482 2496

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19 November 2013 · 10:43 am

Key statement by prisoners in the US on unity.

Agreement to end hostilities

Dated Aug. 12, 2012

To whom it may concern and all California Prisoners:

Greetings from the entire PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Hunger Strike Representatives. We are hereby presenting this mutual agreement on behalf of all racial groups here in the PBSP-SHU Corridor. Wherein, we have arrived at a mutual agreement concerning the following points:

1. If we really want to bring about substantive meaningful changes to the CDCR system in a manner beneficial to all solid individuals who have never been broken by CDCR’s torture tactics intended to coerce one to become a state informant via debriefing, that now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups.

2. Therefore, beginning on Oct. 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups in SHU, ad-seg, general population and county jails will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end. And if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues!

Like the Attica rebellion, the Lucasville prisoners who took over their prison in April 1993 deliberately united across the racial lines that prison authorities use to divide and conquer prisoners. The multi-racial leadership has remained united to this day throughout their isolation on death row. This photo of a sign made during the rebellion was used as an exhibit during their trial in 1996. – Photo: Courtesy Staughton Lynd

3. We also want to warn those in the general population that IGI [Institutional Gang Investigators] will continue to plant undercover Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) debriefer “inmates” amongst the solid GP prisoners with orders from IGI to be informers, snitches, rats and obstructionists, in order to attempt to disrupt and undermine our collective groups’ mutual understanding on issues intended for our mutual causes (i.e., forcing CDCR to open up all GP main lines and return to a rehabilitative-type system of meaningful programs and privileges, including lifer conjugal visits etc. via peaceful protest activity and noncooperation, e.g., hunger strike, no labor etc.). People need to be aware and vigilant to such tactics and refuse to allow such IGI inmate snitches to create chaos and reignite hostilities amongst our racial groups. We can no longer play into IGI, ISU (Investigative Service Unit), OCS (Office of Correctional Safety) and SSU’s (Service Security Unit’s) old manipulative divide and conquer tactics!

In conclusion, we must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us [i.e., prisoners] and our best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!

Because the reality is that collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force that can positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that actually benefits prisoners and thereby the public as a whole, and we simply cannot allow CDCR and CCPOA, the prison guards’ union, IGI, ISU, OCS and SSU to continue to get away with their constant form of progressive oppression and warehousing of tens of thousands of prisoners, including the 14,000-plus prisoners held in solitary confinement torture chambers – SHU and ad-seg units – for decades!

We send our love and respect to all those of like mind and heart. Onward in struggle and solidarity!

Presented by the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective:

  • Todd Ashker, C-58191, D1-119
  • Arturo Castellanos, C-17275, D1-121
  • Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C-35671, D1-117
  • Antonio Guillen, P-81948, D2-106

And the Representatives Body:

  • Danny Troxell, B-76578, D1-120
  • George Franco, D-46556, D4-217
  • Ronnie Yandell, V-27927, D4-215
  • Paul Redd, B-72683, D2-117
  • James Baridi Williamson, D-34288. D4-107
  • Alfred Sandoval, D-61000, D4-214
  • Louis Powell, B-59864, D1-104
  • Alex Yrigollen, H-32421, D2-204
  • Gabriel Huerta, C-80766, D3-222
  • Frank Clement, D-07919, D3-116
  • Raymond Chavo Perez, K-12922, D1-219
  • James Mario Perez, B-48186, D3-124

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Community care: a social entitlement or an individual expense?

Over 30 women and men attended the workshop including people with disabilities in different situations and from different boroughs in London.  After an introduction by Nina Lopez-Jones, Claire Glasman from WinVisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities) gave an overview of legal rights to community care services and the impact of recent Department of Health guidelines on charging for community care.  Mary Hynes, from Visually Impaired in Camden, reported on the new eligibility criteria, whereby all users of homecare are being re-assessed, their needs graded as low, medium, substantial or critical, and services provided or withdrawn accordingly.  David Roberts from solicitors firm Tyrer Roxburgh reported on a precedent case where they represented the first woman wheelchair user to win compensation under the Human Rights Act for humiliation while she was left in inaccessible housing. A woman with Sickle Cell Anemia spoke about how common it is for people’s needs to be under-assessed.  Prisca Allen from the Greater London Pensioners Association spoke about free personal care available in Scotland since July 2002.  

Didi Rossi gave an account of the problems people with disabilities had faced during the “consultation” process on community care charges, in Camden and elsewhere.  People in Tower Hamlets had pressed the Council not to charge, and were campaigning against the rationing of services which could result in people being forced into residential care.  A number of councils, including Derbyshire, do not charge, and individuals are successfully refusing to pay. 

The lively discussion which followed initially focused on a point raised by a woman wheelchair user who asked about the responsibility of voluntary sector organizations to represent the interests and needs of people with disabilities on issues such as this.  People in the workshop felt that these organisations should vigorously oppose charges and rationing, and other threats to services.

Participants then spoke in detail of the discrimination and difficulties they faced getting adequate community care, the double injustice of being asked to pay out of disability benefits for these services, and needs which are no longer met or which are ignored, for example, provision for women laryngectomees, the closure of mental health day centres and the lack of social workers who can communicate with deaf people.  In some cases the brutality of service providers was horrifying.  It was proposed that participants in the workshop prepare a list of what has been lost, and neglected needs which could be circulated for people to add to, and publicised.  This would break down the isolation that people feel when facing this kind of discrimination and bring home how widespread it is.  It was also proposed that people find out what organizations had said during the consultation.  It is likely that the views of organisations have been misrepresented in the official reports used to justify policy decisions.

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Defending breastfeeding – our human right to the best

Over thirty mothers, breastfeeding advocates and others shared their expertise at the workshop and explored how to defend women’s right to breastfeed and babies’ right to this most nutritious, suitable and life-sustaining food. 

Selma James from LAW chaired.  Her introduction highlighted the invisible social and economic contribution made by women’s breastfeeding to the world’s health and that this is not acknowledged to be an integral part of women’s caring and biological work. 

Solveig Francis (International Women Count Network – IWCN and co-author of a new book The Milk of Human Kindness) described the forces against breastfeeding and the struggle to defend paid breastfeeding breaks in the revised ILO Maternity Protection Convention (1999 and 2000).  She reported on a conference of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action and UNICEF in Tanzania in September 2002. 

Magda Sachs (The Breastfeeding Network) outlined the provisions of the WHO code and how it is broken all the time.  A video of a speech by Grace Loumo (Kaabong Women’s Organisation and IWCN in Uganda) at the Tanzania conference described the work of rural breastfeeding mothers in Africa.  

Gillian Samuels (Birth Companions, a group founded by natural childbirth author and advocate Sheila Kitzinger for mothers and babies in Holloway prison) described women’s struggles to breastfeed their children in prison and during lengthy court hearings.  Sylvia Salley (Black Women for Wages for Housework) and Sally Harper and Adele Phemister (Fire Brigades Union National Women’s Committee) spoke about their struggle to combine breastfeeding with full-time waged work.  Legislation can protect the rights of breastfeeding mothers and their babies in the waged workplace, but these are little known.  It was noted that women could use UK health and safety laws to defend their babies’ right to breast milk.  The women from the Fire Brigades Union said they wanted to work more closely with LAW and other organisations at the workshop to improve their maternity policies, remove obstacles to breastfeeding and strengthen the situation of women fire service workers who want to breastfeed.  

Representatives of La Leche League and the Breastfeeding Mothers Association also contributed to the discussions.  Participants were shocked at the information which came out at the workshop that only 1/3 of babies worldwide are exclusively breastfed, resulting in the death of 1.5 million infants a year overwhelmingly in the South who are fed formula.  In the UK, 70% of women start breastfeeding; but this drops to 42% by the time babies are six weeks old and only 21% of mothers breastfeed fully for at least six months.  Mothers who are labeled HIV+ are told not to breastfeed and threatened with loss of child custody if they do.

It was generally agreed that by bringing together a range of women from different backgrounds to discuss a subject which is often confined to breastfeeding circles and in the context of how to defend women’s and children’s right to breastfeed, broadened the discussion and brought in new forces and a fresher perspective.  Women left encouraged and strengthened to continue their work.

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Anti-trafficking legislation: protection or deportation? The truth behind the headlines 21 November 2002

About 40 women and men attended.  Special guests included Abhijit Dasgupta and Sunitha Rangaswamy of Action Aid, India.  Other participants included: representatives from Bail for Immigration Detainees, Black Women’s Rape Action Project, the Churches Commission for Racial Justice and other people from the church, No School Apartheid, sex workers from Soho, the Soho Society, detainee visitors, Women Against Rape, several immigration solicitors and other lawyers and a couple of Green Party members.

After an introduction by Nina Lopez-Jones, Niki Adams gave an overview of the implications of a clause on trafficking in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.  She outlined how this legislation and a proposed new Bill would make women even more vulnerable to violence and deportation and could criminalise anyone who attempted to help victims of traffickers.  The proposed removal of the support asylum seekers and their children rely on would force more women into the sex industry. 

Ms Adams also traced how academic research which laid the basis for these measures by advocating “increased surveillance of prostitute women”, “removing the need for victims to give evidence” and pressing for “repatriation and reintergration for trafficked persons” had ignored women’s needs and experiences so that instead of getting protection women were now in a more vulnerable position than before.

Two young Eastern European women described fleeing to the UK to escape poverty and violence.  Both had been raped and forced into prostitution.  They escaped with help from other sex workers and members of the public.  LAW had helped them find housing, legal advice and other support.  A statement was read from a Thai woman who wanted to remain anonymous, describing how in spite of having the right to stay in Britain, she was visited by police who said they were looking for victims of trafficking.  She was threatened with deportation, forced to undress in front of male police officers, taken to the police station, and generally terrorised into leaving her flat.  She had come to LAW for help in complaining about this treatment.

Women from Soho spoke about the impact of the ongoing police and immigration raids carried out in Soho and how illegal deportations have been prevented by the intervention of LAW.  A representative of the Soho Society which represents residents spoke in support of sex workers. 

Abhijit Dasgupta gave a riveting and in-depth account of how he as part of Action Aid (India) is pressing for a different approach to trafficking internationally.  He described how Action Aid had quickly found that anti-trafficking measures were being used internationally to prevent the migration of people, especially women who are driven by poverty and globalisation to move country.  Governments claim that millions of women are being trafficked by a billion dollar sex industry but the UNHCR and others have pointed out that because of tightening immigration controls paying an agent is often the only way to migrate.  Governments and most NGOs only focus on sexual exploitation, ignoring the horrendous exploitation in sweatshops and agricultural labour, including here in the UK.  Mr Dasgupta explained that Action Aid India worked very closely with sex workers organisations as they had found this to be the most effective way to help victims of trafficking.  He welcomed the workshop as an opportunity to come together with others to try to change the focus from trafficking to the urgent question of poverty and women’s right to mobility.

A very full and interesting discussion followed which addressed the issue of what practical changes are needed to ensure protection and safety for women starting with resources for those fleeing violence.

The workshop was stimulating, informative and extremely useful in re-examining trafficking and anti-trafficking policies from women’s point of view.  A church representative described it as a “clear corrective” to many myths and misinformation on the issue.  Two lawyers agreed to help women facing deportation.  It was also agreed to urgently consider how the discussion and practical issues raised could reach a wider audience.  Many of those present expressed an interest in doing ongoing work on this issue.

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Single mothers benefits and disability benefits

The workshop was attended by over 50 people.  We started with a report on what had been happening to benefits for single mothers and a summary of the benefits available.  A number of women spoke about the obstacles they faced when claiming.  A woman from Single Mothers’ Self-Defence described how they had been informing women that they didn’t have to authorise the Child Support Agency (CSA) to claim maintenance from their ex-partner if they “feared harm or undue distress” and how to press for their right to this.  They had also been using the self-help handbook, The Child Support Act: Your Rights and How to Defend Them, published by Legal Action for Women, which also drew on the experience of the Campaign Against the Child Support Act. One of the authors of the handbook described how the book was used by single mothers, new partners as well as “absent” mothers and fathers to defend themselves.  Armed with accurate information, many women were able to resist the harassment of the CSA which had to apologise for their often illegal actions in a number of cases.  Figures showed that over 70% of women were not giving their authorisation. 

Women described how the advice given by other agencies such as the CABs was often inaccurate.  One woman in Hull had set up an impromptu advice-line from home, as a result of her own experience, and had told the CAB to refer people to her because the quality of their advice was so poor. 

A man who had campaigned against the CSA described that one major problem was that the men who were also opposing the CSA refused to support single mothers even though this would have been in their own interest.  Women described that their opposition to the CSA had been hidden.  For example, women who had gone to the press to try and get some publicity for the fact that they didn’t want to comply with the CSA because of threats of violence found the press were only interested in fathers who were refusing to pay. 

The session on disability benefits followed the same format.  A presentation was done on the benefits available.  Two women representing Incapacity Action, a network of incapacity benefit claimants, described problems such as: how disability benefit criteria are too rigid when applied to fluctuating conditions, the notorious “all work” test and the discrimination faced by women with mental health problems.  A number of women said that medical examinations were intrusive, brutal and sometimes violent. One woman with a brittle-bone disability had broken her arm when she was made to get down on all fours and the doctor refused to help her up saying that she was not allowed help during the test.

Disability benefits are focussed on the bodily functions of each individual claimant rather than what they may need to do for others.  Women complained that because caring work is not counted as work and not seen as an essential function, their inability to care for their children or other family members as a result of receiving no help with their disability, did not count towards their entitlement to benefits.  This deprived them of the financial means to get help which might enable them to do this caring work.  A question was raised about whether the interviews with doctors were compulsory.  WinVisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities) described their success in establishing that women can get exemption from these examinations and insisting that a decision be made on the medical evidence already available on paper.  Women complained about doctors charging for medical reports and other women described how they had persuaded their doctors to provide them free of charge.  Women complained about the racism of doctors, nurses, other medical professionals and Department of Social Security workers.  For example, a Black woman who is partially sighted and has a learning disability was refused home adaptations.  One suggestion was to contact people in the Church and describe the brutal and discriminatory treatment that people in their community are facing.  There are some people in the Church who have committed themselves to the service of others and we should ask for their support.

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Defending the Right to Dissent and Protest

Thirty women and men representing a range of justice organisations as well as a number of individuals attended.  Nina Lopez-Jones introduced the workshop.

Brian Haw who started a peace camp in Parliament Square over two years ago in protest at sanctions and now war in Iraq, described Westminster Council’s attempts to evict him.  But the courts have upheld his right to protest in the Square, acknowledging that his protest concerned an issue of national importance and focused appropriately on Parliament where decisions are made.  Michael Schwarz (pictured above left speaking), Mr Haw’s lawyer from Bindman’s Solicitors which has worked with LAW since 1981, explained how they used the Human Rights Act to win this precedent-setting case which overrides other statutes restricting dissent, and protects individuals acting in groups and alone.

Maria Gallastegui and her daughter who help Mr Haw sustain his continuous protest with food, laundry and other vital services, explained why they do this support work for him.  Ms Gallastegui also described her community organising on a very racially mixed “no-go” estate to counter the prejudice estate people faced, which is often used to dismiss what they have to say and to contribute.

The twice-weekly community picket and open mike run by women from the Global Women’s Strike (GWS), also on Parliament Square to protest the war and occupation of Iraq, has also prevented several attempts to close it down. The women have been able to rely on the earlier precedent, and on gathering support from the public and some MPs including with a press conference in the House of Commons.

Maggie Ronayne (pictured above right speaking) from the National University of Ireland reported on the case of a woman peace protestor charged with criminal damage to a war plane.  The jury failed to reached a verdict.  A woman who had lived at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp described how the women had set new legal standards by defending themselves in court, often successfully.

Chris Coverdale from Legal Action Against War compellingly described efforts to prosecute named politicians for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes using the International Criminal Court and the Geneva Convention.  He said that the atrocities in Iraq were clearly grounds for prosecution.  A suggestion to issue a petition was accepted. 

A woman from the Yarlswood asylum seekers support group sought advice from the workshop on what to do about the judge in the case threatening campaigners with contempt of court for demonstrating outside.  Niki Adams (LAW) described a similar experience and stressed the importance of not being intimidated and upholding our right to protest.  What happens in court is often greatly influenced by public opinion and it is crucial that campaigners are not deterred from publicising the case and gathering support.

Protestors who had been at Fairford military base sent information.  Their civil right to dissent had been severely infringed when they attempted to picket the base.  A woman who participated in the 2002 Mayday protests gave an update on their case against false imprisonment.

People described feeling nervous about attending pickets and demonstrations especially since the police had started using the tactic of detaining people for hours.  However, armed with precise information about their rights from the workshop, they felt encouraged to continue to exercise their right to protest.

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Claiming compensation for rape & other sexual violence

The compensation workshop was attended by over 30 people including 15 rape survivors.  Lawyers and other organizations such as the National Association for People Abused in Childhood spoke about their work.  Others came to find out how they could be helpful. 

After an introduction by Nina Lopez-Jones the chair of the workshop, Rachel Burley from LAW outlined the different kinds of compensation and how the experience of rape survivors is common to all claimants.

Lisa Longstaff from Women Against Rape explained the importance of women being able to claim compensation.  Only 7% of reported rapes result in conviction and for any woman, official recognition that a serious crime has been committed against her is a vital first step in the healing process. Where the attacker is not convicted, criminal injuries compensation can provide that vital acknowledgement, although awards from the CICA have been dramatically capped since 1996, when a tariff (fixed sum per injury) was introduced. Currently, women can get £11,000 for rape.  Ms Longstaff described the main problems rape survivors face in claiming compensation, such as not being informed of their right to claim, or who can help, use of their sexual and medical history to humiliate and dismiss them, discriminating on the basis of a woman’s occupation or criminal convictions, including for minor offences such as prostitution, shoplifting or possession of cannabis. 

Women then spoke very movingly about their experience of claiming compensation. 

A woman described being raped at knifepoint while working as a prostitute.  With the support of LAW she had brought the first private prosecution in England and Wales; the serial rapist got 11 years.  She was refused compensation and appealed.  Represented by WAR she was finally given a reduced award of £5000, reduced by 1/3 for her “unlawful activities”.  One CICA Appeal Panelist, stated at the hearing that “the rape of a prostitute was not the same as for an ordinary woman”. 

Another woman attacked and left with severe injuries described how she was misled into signing a no win no fee agreement by her lawyer which would give the lawyer one third of any award despite the fact that she was entitled to legal aid.  The solicitor then contacted the English Collective of Prostitutes, based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre for advice as he had no experience of doing cases such as these!  The ECP referred the case to LAW and we are currently trying to get her released from this dishonest agreement. 

Niki Adams described working with WAR to advise lawyers how to conduct a case and in particular helping women to bring out the full extent of the impact of the rape on them.  Liz Dux from Russell Jones and Walker Solicitors who specializes in this area answered a wide range of questions.  Everyone was very encouraged to hear that legal aid is available for a Mackenzie friend at the hearing if the woman is unable to represent herself.

Participants were shocked at the systematic hostility and discrimination that women face but admiring of women’s persistence and courage.  People commented that they had learned an enormous amount and a number of lawyers came forward, including representatives from a prestigious city firm, to offer pro-bono advice.  Two workers from advice agencies who had been trying to help women claim compensation said they felt much better informed about how to proceed.  We also resolved to continue the pressure on the CICA, including by exposing those who express sexism.

We met afterwards to plan the follow-up work needed on women’s cases.  We wrote to the Home Office and probation service about the release of the man who was convicted as a result of our private prosecution.  Several women who had won their case were interested in helping others.  We are compiling a rights sheet on how to claim compensation based on the information from the workshop.  The workshop was videoed and may be edited and distributed at a later date.

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Self-help workshop on asylum benefits

The second workshop brought a new influx of people and was also very well attended by women who are currently fighting for benefits.  Some of the people from the previous workshop who had planned to leave, decided to stay.

Unlike with single mothers’ and disability benefits, benefits for women and children seeking asylum are not available from or managed by one Department.  Different Council departments, agencies, as well as the Department of Work and Pensions are responsible.  This is further complicated by frequent changes in legislation which for example, affect from what date an asylum seeker can get what.  This makes it much more difficult for women to know what the rules are and what they entitle them to, especially since advisers and lawyers often don’t have the time to keep up with the changes.  It is easy for each authority to refuse responsibility and pass women on elsewhere, misinform and even make up the rules.  So it emerged, for example, that two mothers in the workshops in almost identical circumstances, had very different level of benefits.

Women were furious that they had been refused housing benefit which they were entitled to and would have allowed them to find their own accommodation; instead they had been put in sub-standard hostels where the living conditions were appalling.  They had no privacy, were often one of a few women in a hostel full of men, suffered from abuse from staff, were cold and sometimes hungry as the food was inedible or insufficient.  It emerged how landlords were profiteering from the arrangement with National Asylum Support System as they charge exorbitant rents but are not held accountable for the conditions in which people are housed.  A number of women described how they had managed to get re-housed.  One woman did win housing benefit and was able to get her own flat.  

Women from Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape described how many voluntary agencies were well-funded to provide services to asylum seekers, yet when they tried to get emergency help for women, the agencies refused to help.  These agencies also refused to challenge the introduction of vouchers and other repressive measures and instead were now working very closely with government and implementing policies which were causing widespread hardship.  A man from Notre Dame Refugee Centre said that the staff he often dealt with were young and inexperienced and couldn’t be held responsible for the policies of the agencies they worked for.  Women disagreed, saying that whether they were inexperienced or not there was no excuse for racism and other discrimination or for brutality and a lack of compassion.  We discussed documenting women’s experience of advice agencies with a view to raising these problems with them.

Rights of women asylum seekers I:

Preventing Dispersal, 18 April 2002

Over 50 people attended this workshop including representatives from agencies such as Notre Dame Refugee Centre, Asylum Aid, 10 women asylum seekers, 10 lawyers and a number of psychiatrists and other professionals. 

Nina Lopez-Jones introduced the workshop.  Cristel Amiss from Black Women’s Rape Action Project outlined women’s experiences of dispersal under the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) set up by the Home Office to administer the allocation of vouchers to asylum seekers, the provision of accommodation and dispersal.  She described how hard it is for rape survivors to get the basic legal, medical and other help to which they are entitled.

Several women dispersed out of London described their personal experiences of these difficulties.  Some had successfully fought dispersal, enduring terrible conditions and prolonged battles.  One woman was threatened with homelessness when the hostel she stayed at found her mother had sometimes stayed in her room.  Others described how women, some with children, had lived for months in mixed, dirty, crowded, unsafe accommodation run by private contractors where they were sexually harassed. 

Rights of women asylum seekers II:
Preventing detention and removal, 25 April 2002

Over 50 people also attended this workshop including representatives from agencies such as UNHCR, various law centres and community centres, over 15 women asylum seekers and representatives from seven lawyers firms. 

Emily Burnham from LAW gave an overview of the current system for detaining asylum seekers.  She said that under the government’s new proposals detention will extend to all asylum seekers including children and victims of rape and other torture. 

Women from Women Against Rape said that because of the difficulties rape survivors face speaking about their experience they are disadvantaged since the full facts of their situation aren’t known.  Women may have been raped in detention in the country they have fled from but are then detained when they arrive in the UK, compounding their trauma.  They spoke about the devastating consequences of careless and negligent legal representation.  In some cases it seemed the lawyers would prefer the woman to stay in detention and even be eventually removed.  Niki Adams from LAW described our emergency work defending immigrant prostitute women arrested by police and immigration raids on flats in Soho.  We had to work through the night to find lawyers to get women out of detention and prevent their removal. 

Women from China, Cote D’Ivoire, Eritrea, Kenya, Romania, Uganda among other countries spoke movingly (often through an interpreter) about their experience of detention and being threatened with deportation.  One woman wept as she described trying to kill herself at Oakington “Reception” Centre because she was so frightened about being sent back.  Another described how women held in detention had to hide their distress so that they wouldn’t be sent to the medical wing, where women are held in isolation and heavily sedated.  All had been raped and unable to speak about their trauma to the authorities.  Women described the inventive ways they and other women had resisted deportation.  One woman had prevented her removal several times on one occasion by speaking to people on the plane who persuaded the pilot to refuse to take her.  The point was made that the fight women are making in defence of their rights is most hidden. 

At each workshop one of the solicitors with whom we work closely was asked to do a brief presentation about the legal challenges which have been made and how everyone can use them.  It was very encouraging to find out how much could be done legally to challenge the inhumane treatment people are receiving. Many suggestions were made about how those legal actions could be made more effective when combined with women’s resistance and other campaigning.

Much of the discussions centred on the devastating impact which the new Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, if passed, will have on women, their children and families.  The government plans to introduce more “Reception”, “Accommodation” and “Removal” Centres – imprisonment by another name.  Children, who have been accused by the Home Secretary of “swamping” schools, will no longer be entitled to attend school and will be taught separately in these centres.  Someone commented that while the government claims to condemn Le Pen and the British National Party, their anti-immigrant apartheid policies owe much to the extreme right wing.

There was a very useful exchange on the role of professionals, who often claim that nothing can be done instead of insisting on the highest standard of representation for women asylum seekers as for everyone else.  People agreed on the need for ongoing initiatives in which all those concerned could participate, including making visible widespread opposition to the proposed legislation.  Many felt that the best funded organisations were keeping quiet when they should be speaking out!  Without their acquiescence the government could not implement their plans.  Some people commented that lucrative contracts rather than the best interests of asylum seekers are determining the response of these organisations.

The workshops were a unique opportunity for women who have escaped rape, other torture and even death, often with small children, to discuss what can be done with each other and with legal representatives, health and other professionals, campaigners and concerned individuals generally.  It was striking to see how much women’s own determination and the committed work of grassroots organisation and a few lawyers, can achieve.  The workshops closed with a new resolve to exchange information and work more closely together from now on. 

Follow up to the asylum workshops

We were determined not to let the momentum of these successful workshops fade away so we drafted a letter that organisations could sign opposing the new asylum Bill based on the issues which had emerged from the workshops.  We aimed for it to be published to coincide with the Third Reading of the bill.  Over 80 organisations and prominent individuals had signed by the time the letter was published in The Guardian on 15 June (see enclosed).

A substantial amount of service work followed the workshops.  For example, we worked with WAR to take one woman’s case, who spoke at the workshop and who since then has started volunteering with LAW, to the House of Lords.  She lost and we are now considering going to the European Court.  However, the network which came out of the workshops has provided practical help for this service work.  We were able to find accommodation for two Moldavian women who had been trafficked and came to us for help, having escaped from men who raped and beat them and forced them to work in the sex industry.  They had run away in the night and consequently had no papers.  Notre Dame Refugee Centre was able to recommend short stay accommodation with some nuns.  Also, as a result of the workshop we were invited by solicitor Jerry Clore to intervene in a key case before the House of Lords which would force local authorities to continue to provide help to vulnerable asylum seekers. 

We have also been asked by a group of mothers and other carers to help distribute information about their initiative which has brought together parents, teachers and students to speak out against the government proposal to segregate the children of asylum seekers in detention centres and prevent them attending mainstream schools (see enclosed).   On 8 October, we will be participating in a Briefing in the House of Lords on this issue.

Reports of the two workshops have been published in various publications and a substantial article is due to appear in the journal of the Green Party as a result of its editor and a barrister who is their spokesperson on Home Affairs attending the last workshop.


Self-help workshops on the rights of women asylum seekers:

Preventing dispersal                                Thurs 18 April

Preventing detention and removals          Thurs 25 April

5-8.30pm, Crossroads Women’s Centre, 230a Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2AB (entrance on Caversham Road)

Dear friends,

We are writing to invite you to two forthcoming workshops on preventing the dispersal, detention and removal of women asylum seekers, especially those who have been raped. The workshops will bring together women with organisations and legal representatives who have supported them, or who want to find out how they can be helpful.

We will hear from: rape survivors who have been dispersed, detained and/or threatened with removal – their experiences of these brutal processes and how they fought against them; campaigners who have supported individual women and campaigned against the introduction and use of these procedures; and legal representatives who have helped to fight and win key legal cases.

Whilst women asylum seekers fighting injustice in the asylum process have developed vital expertise, this expertise is not generally recognised nor is it available to others.  An estimated 50% of women asylum seekers are fleeing rape and sexual violence, yet the government does not recognise rape as torture and grounds for asylum.  The stigma of rape often denies women the support of family, friends and community other victims of violence might expect.  Instead of receiving sympathy and support, rape victims are frequently blamed for what happened, or hide their experiences from those around them in fear of an unsympathetic, even brutal response.  Dispersal, detention and the constant threat of being removed increases their vulnerability, denying them the protection, support and services available to other rape survivors.  The government’s new proposals will further institutionalise the sexism and racism women currently face and exacerbate the obstacles to getting protection.

Poor legal representation has often left women undefended and at risk.  Women in detention are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous lawyers who do nothing to press for their release or to present a thorough case to the authorities.  Even conscientious lawyers representing women’s asylum claims may do little or nothing about support and accommodation procedures which impose dire poverty and horrendous living conditions on women and children.  As distinguished immigration solicitor David Burgess has pointed out: ”In the field of asylum work it is a truth known to practitioners that legal representation can kill”.

Working with Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape, we aim for these workshops to bring together asylum seekers, experienced legal representatives with service providers and campaigners focussing on these issues: we aim to increase the resources on which women can draw.  We hope that the workshops will encourage lawyers and others to take on these crucial areas of work, on which women and children’s safety and welfare depend.

Some refugee organisations have not opposed successive government attacks on asylum seekers’ rights.  Instead, they have been instrumental in drawing up and implementing the current brutal regime: the Refugee Council and others are funded by the government to administer and arrange dispersal; the Refugee Legal Centre and the Immigration Advisory Service have contracts to provide legal advice to those held in “reception centres”.  We have seen that where advocacy groups have a financial stake in implementing government policy their advice is often inaccurate and people are misinformed about their rights.  The workshops will hear how this has affected women and how opposition to this collaboration is growing and can be strengthened.

These will be the third and fourth in a series of workshops organised by Legal Action for Women. The workshops are not general advice sessions.  Instead each workshop will begin with women’s experiences of these asylum procedures and address the following

  Women’s experiences of the current regime.  How rape survivors are particularly vulnerable to dispersal, detention and removal.

How women have fought against these procedures and what obstacles stood in their way.

How women’s experiences can be publicised so that any discussion on what changes are needed is based on the reality of women’s lives.

What statutory guidelines, international agreements and legal precedents exist to protect rape survivors.  How internal official documents contradict or undermine safeguards. 

How women can get the best from their legal representatives.

What additional materials need to be gathered or written to increase protection for women.

What can be done to stop voluntary agencies collaborating with these policies and ensure humane and respectful treatment for all asylum seekers.

For those not familiar with our work

Legal Action for Women (LAW) is a grassroots anti-sexist, anti-racist legal service for all women.  Since it began in 1982, it has focussed on providing free legal advice and support to low-income women who are more likely to be denied justice.  LAW combines access to a network of sympathetic lawyers, with experienced lay workers from similar backgrounds to the women using its services.  We have helped prevent many injustices and set important precedents, including with the first private prosecution for rape in England, which resulted in an 11-year conviction.  We enclose some information about our work.

This workshop is open to the public and you are welcome to pass this invite on to anyone you think may be interested.  Light refreshments will be provided.  Please contact us if you need to book a place in the crèche. 

Power to the sisters

Nina Lopez-Jones
Workshop co-ordinator

Please note: these workshops are not advice sessions.

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