Source: Guardian | Kira Cochrane
Loud noises still make her shake, says Meltem Avcil – a legacy of the day, almost seven years ago, when immigration officers arrived at her house at 6am, banged on the door, and ordered her and her mother into detention. She was 13, and had been in the UK since she was eight, a Doncaster schoolgirl with dreams of becoming a doctor.
Mother and daughter packed up a few of their belongings before being driven in a caged van to Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain's largest immigration removal centre for women.
On arrival, a series of metal doors slammed behind them and Avcil found herself in a world of guards, roll calls and barbed wire, where the windows only opened a few inches.
"I witnessed children under the age of six trying to breathe out of those windows.
They wanted freedom, they wanted to run around, they wanted air.
There was a small courtyard, I can't deny that, but how much comfort can you get from a courtyard surrounded by barbed wire?"
The children of asylum seekers are no longer supposed to be held in detention – the coalition government made this pledge in 2010, partly as a result of Avcil and others speaking out about their experiences.
Now aged 20, and a mechanical engineering student, she has just started a new campaign, supported by organisations including Women for Refugee Women, calling for an end to the detention of all women seeking asylum in the UK. "I saw what my mother went through when she was in detention," she writes, "and I worry that many women like her are still being locked up. If a woman has already experienced rape, torture, imprisonment in her home country, then it is really hard for her to be locked up here. Women become depressed and suicidal in detention."
Her hope is that Yarl's Wood will be closed down. Since opening in 2001, the centre has been mired in controversy, the most recent being allegations of sexual misconduct by employees. Avcil's Change.org petition has attracted almost 30,000 signatures so far – she'd like to double that.
She and her mother spent three harrowing months in Yarl's Wood in 2007, before they were allowed out – and granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
Recently, she returned to the centre, to speak to detainees, and says the expression on one woman's face was "so dull and lifeless" that it transported her straight back to the despair of detention. Avcil would like the detention of all asylum seekers, male and female, to end, but is campaigning specifically around women and Yarl's Wood, because of the personal experience she has of the specific problems women face there.
Avcil's family is Kurdish, and she was born in a mountainous area of Turkey where her family was persecuted; she says her mother is deaf in one ear after a soldier hit her so hard with his gun that her ear drum popped. Avcil's parents left Turkey when she was four, and travelled to Germany, where they were refused asylum; they then travelled to the UK, where her parents split up, and she remained with her mother. The pair started, in earnest, to build a life.
In detention, all seemed lost. They went through five bail hearings, at the last of which the judge apparently told Avcil's mother, "You can't prove Meltem doesn't like being here," which just made Avcil despair all the more. At one point she was watched 24 hours a day by male guards.
"I couldn't get changed," she says, "because he always had his eyes on me." One day, when she was putting in her nose ring, the guard asked: "Do you have piercings anywhere else?" "I ignored him," she says, "because I sensed the tension he was giving out."
We are in a cafe, and Avcil gestures at the people walking past: "Imagine any person on the street just being snatched and put into prison." Of course, the situation for asylum seekers is arguably even worse than that. Having been persecuted or tortured in their home country, they are then traumatised again by incarceration, with no sense of when they might be let out or deported.
The Women for Refugee Women report, Detained, published last month, makes strong reading. The organisation spoke to 46 women who had been detained, most in Yarl's Wood, and found over 85% had been either raped or tortured before arriving in the UK; all said detention made them unhappy; 93% felt depressed; more than half thought about killing themselves; and more than one in five women had tried to kill themselves. Forty of the 46 women had been guarded by male staff, and 70% of those said this had made them uncomfortable. One woman, who had fled Uganda, where she had been imprisoned and repeatedly raped by guards, described being under suicide watch, with a male guard who watched her even when she was on the toilet.
The report also describes how the detention of asylum seekers has grown – since 1993, the capacity to hold people in immigration detention at any one time in the UK has risen from 250 spaces to 3,275. This is despite the fact that the number of people applying for asylum fell from 80,315 in 2000 to 21,785 in 2012.
Detention is estimated by campaigners to cost four or five times as much as it would to process someone's application in the community. And while it is supposed to be a way to facilitate deportation, Women for Refugee Women found only 36% of women who sought asylum and were detained were then removed from the UK. The others were either granted leave to remain here, or continued with their cases while living in the community.
During Avcil's stay in Yarl's Wood, there was an attempt at deportation that left her mother "so devastated she wouldn't talk, eat, sleep, walk, nothing". It was experiences such as this that led Avcil to start the campaign. "I thought, I have two options: I either carry on with my life, and just create an illusion of happiness, or I do something about this."