In her new book Do It Like A Woman…And Change the World, the journalist and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez tells the stories of women around the world who are fighting injustice and pushing against the limits their societies impose on them. In this extract from her book she talks to Meltem Avcil, a Kurdish woman she met at a demonstration protesting against the detention of women who claim asylum in the UK.
It all started for Meltem Avcil when she was four years old. She fled with her family from the village they lived in in Turkey. ‘I remember bits and pieces of village life,’ she says. ‘Women doing their chores; girls bringing tea.’ Her family were Kurds, and they faced persecution as a result. Like many refugees, Meltem and her family first fled to Germany – but they were refused asylum. They arrived in the UK when Meltem was about eight years old, finally being settled in Doncaster as the Home Office reviewed their case. Meltem attended school and dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Officials first arrived to take Meltem and her family from her home when she was eleven. ‘I knew what was happening,’ she tells me. ‘Because I was the only English speaker, so I was always on the phone to the solicitor. I knew what was happening. But, I wasn’t really aware… I was in between.’
By the time of their second detention when Meltem was 13, she wasn’t in between any more. She was fully aware and knew enough about the system to want to act as her mother’s translator. ‘The translators are… for some reason, I didn’t trust them. And I could translate properly, because I was sharing my mum’s pain.’ The pain of being blindfolded by Turkish police and being beaten until her ear bled and her eardrum burst, of being taken away from her home by soldiers at six in the morning and driven to a forest, of the ‘unsuitable stuff ’, the ‘ugly things’ that were done to her in this forest. I ask her about taking on this role when she herself was still so young. Meltem hesitates. ‘What else would I do in Yarl’s Wood? Go and play badminton? And pretend like everything’s OK when I’m locked up? I chose to be in it.’ She’s fiery now. ‘I chose to take my psychology and my mum’s psychology on me, so that I could be sure that something good would happen in the end.’
But despite Meltem’s translation of their story, they were not believed. They were collected at three in the morning from their cells. ‘That’s when they pushed my mum onto the ground,’ she continues. ‘They hit her face with the handcuff, they forced her up the aeroplane steps. They kicked her, they punched her. They kicked me, they punched me, they pinched me, and all the time, the immigration officer was saying to me and, keep in mind I was thirteen, “If you resist, if you shout, if you scream, we will tie your hands and legs, and no one will know.” He said this to me five times.’ Meltem pauses. ‘They handcuffed my mum and they put a towel over the handcuffs, because it’s not right to handcuff anyone who hasn’t done anything, right? And they kept on blackmailing me all the way [to the airport]. And a female officer said to me, “Oh you have your GCSEs this year, don’t you?” And then she started laughing.’
I ask her how she felt. Her answer sounds like calm panic. ‘I just had one thing on my mind: what can I do about this? I let them speak, I let them speak into my ear, so many mean things on the way, and I didn’t say anything. Because I was busy thinking of what to do, how not to go back to a country I’ve not grown up in and don’t know. I had so many questions going round my head: tomorrow, where am I going to be? What’s going to happen?’
As Meltem screamed for help, saying the guards were twisting her hands, her fellow passengers began to record the incident. The pilot stopped the plane and ordered the guards to remove Meltem and her mother, who were taken to the hospital. They were visited by the Children’s Commissioner and moved to Newcastle. A new home, a new school. More waiting, more whirling questions.
For six years Meltem was moved unceremoniously around the country, taken in and out of detention. She had to register with the police every week and each time was made to wait. ‘For them, it might be that they’re short on staff and they need someone to just bring out the paper and say, “OK, sign.” But for you, it’s a different thing. All the time you’re thinking, what’s going on, are they going to take me, are they going to deport me…’
Eventually, Meltem and her mother were granted indefinite leave to stay, but she is still haunted by her experience. ‘You know, I’m still in fear,’ she says. ‘When someone bangs on the door very hard, I will just shake.’ Meltem has a British passport but, she says, ‘I still think, can they take it away from me? Can they lock me up again?’ She tells me about a morning not long after they received leave to remain. ‘The door knocked really hard, really really hard and I jumped up, and I said, “Mum, is it them.”’ I can’t help noticing it’s not a question.
A culture of disbelief
Disbelief is not only a common theme in these women’s stories – it’s a common theme in the statistics too. Report after report finds a virulent strain of cynicism within the UK Border Agency (UKBA) that manifests as a ‘culture of disbelief ’. Things are so bad that an investigation was carried out by Asylum Aid specifically into the quality of decisions made by the Home Office on women asylum seekers. The report found that, on average, 28% of all initial Home Office decisions that went against asylum seekers were ultimately overturned on appeal; when it came to women asylum seekers, this figure shot up to 50%. Clearly, something isn’t working. Assessments of the credibility of the women whose applications are initially being turned down are repeatedly found to be inaccurate and ill informed. Put baldly, the UKBA officials don’t believe these women – and the ignorance and callousness displayed in the illustrative cases are shocking.
One case worker had never heard of the term ‘female circumcision’. Another decided on the basis of ‘an article from the American gossip website www.gawker.com’ that a lesbian from Uganda did not have any reason to fear the death penalty if she were returned. A woman who was forced into an abusive marriage at the age of fourteen, and who was abused by her father when she tried to return to her family home, was refused on the basis that she had remained in the marriage for thirteen years. This apparently proved that she was not at risk. A victim of sexual assault was asked if she had tried to stop a man from raping her. As if she had asked for it if she couldn’t physically prove that she didn’t want it. An Amnesty report found that photos of scars were not being accepted as evidence of torture. What price evidence in the face of this solid entity, ‘disbelief’?
Some of the decisions seem to move beyond ignorance to outright deceptive manipulation: one woman who feared ‘honour’ killing if she were returned to Iraq was refused asylum on the basis of a report that detailed the support available from local police. The very same report also detailed the danger of sexual assault such women faced from the police themselves if they approached them for help. Somehow, that factor was not considered relevant to the case.
Home Office officials have been told to get rid of 70% of these pesky asylum seekers, and these targets are backed up with the reward of shopping vouchers or the threat of being presented with a ‘grant monkey’, the toy gorilla that is put on the desk of any UKBA official who allows a claim. It is attitudes like these that have led Frances Webber, an immigration barrister, to damningly conclude, ‘UKBA officials sometimes give the impression that their purpose is to catch asylum seekers out – they seem to work from the premise that most asylum seekers are opportunistic liars, an attitude strongly fostered by the media and sometimes by government ministers, although it is very far from the truth.’ As one female asylum seeker explains, ‘They don’t believe you. They ask you five hundred questions and they ask the same question in a slightly different way and if you don’t answer them all exactly the same, they say that you are lying.’
That doesn’t explain why the burden of being disbelieved is falling so disproportionately on the shoulders of women. For the answer to that, we have to look further back, to the wording of another one-size-fits-all solution: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War II by well-meaning men. The intentions were noble, even beautiful. A person had a right to claim asylum if he or she had a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. It’s not enough to be persecuted – it has to be for these specific reasons. And we can already see that there is a glaring omission in this list, because a woman may well be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or indeed any of the reasons for which men are persecuted. But she is most likely to be persecuted for the simple fact that she is a woman.
It is the fact that she is a woman that means her body is most likely to be used as a weapon of war. It is the fact that she is a woman that means that her sexuality is deemed to be dangerous and sinful, and that therefore her genitals, or those of her daughter, must be cut off and sewn up. It is the fact that she is a woman that means she is likely to be raped, beaten, murdered to preserve the ‘honour’ of her family if she commits the crime of behaving in any way that approximates the behaviour of a free man – and it is the fact that she is a woman that means if she reports this to the police, she is as likely to be attacked again as she is to be protected.
A Women for Refugee Women report found that the number one reason female asylum seekers gave for their persecution was ‘because I am a woman’. But only since 1999 has the UK accepted that women can be considered to belong to ‘a particular social group’, or, sometimes, to hold a ‘political opinion’, if they have chosen to defy the social norms that restrict so many women’s lives. Previously, women did not constitute a social group, and nor did rebelling against limiting female social norms reflect a political opinion. Nevertheless, although we’ve taken our time to get there, the precedent has finally been set. But most women who claim asylum don’t realise that this is the case – and staff at the UKBA seem to be in no hurry to inform them.
It is for the women who are still detained, who are still suffering behind barbed wire and eight metal doors, that Meltem continues to fight. This is why she started the petition that had us all gathered outside the Home Office on a February night. At the time of writing, the petition contains 48,000 signatures. I ask her what she thinks her chances are of succeeding. ‘I have no idea. All I’m doing is just hoping for people to understand more about detention centres and what it is like. I just want them to understand that the detention centre is a prison and no one deserves to be locked up in there’.
Caroline Criado-Perez’s Do It Like A Woman: … And Change the World is published by Portobello Books.
Find more information on the ‘Set her free’ campaign (and the online petition Meltem Avcil started) here.