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Hannah Pool

Meltem Avcil was 13 years old, living in Doncaster, when they came for her and her mother: "I can remember everything - it was 6.30 in the morning, there was a loud knock on the door, the kind of knock that makes you jump, full of power. The immigration officers decided not only to take away our lives but also to scare us," says Meltem, now 20, studying Engineering at Kingston University.

"It was summer, so life was great, I was just a normal child, having fun with my friends, until the 27th August 2007. It's still with me today, they came in and from that moment we had no rights, whatever we did, or said, our lives were in their hands," says Meltem.

Meltem and her mother had come to the UK 7 years previously fleeing intense persecution in Turkey: "We are Turkish Kurds, we were forced to leave Turkey because my family were in constant danger, some really horrible things happened to us," says Meltem who, along with her mother was taken to a local police station, and then, in a caged van to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

After 7 years of waiting, tentatively creating a life, working towards a future, playing by the rules, Meltem and her mother were treated like criminals. "They had a flight booked for us to Turkey. That was how they decided to let us know our case had been declined," says Meltem, who has started an online campaign, to end the detention of women who come to this country seeking safety from persecution (https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/theresa-may-british-home-secretary-end-the-detention-of-women-who-seek-asylum).

Due to social, political and economic factors - put simply, it's harder for women to flee - fewer women than men claim asylum, and yet studies show women are less likely to be believed: "A third of the 18,000 people who claimed asylum in 2010 were women, yet 74% of these women were turned down," says Refused, a recent report by campaigning organisation Women for Refugee Women, which explores the experiences of over 70 women who sought asylum in the UK.

The report highlights why women flee and what happens to them when they do: 66% of women have experienced gender related persecution, 48% have experienced rape, 52% have experienced violence from soldiers and 49% have experienced arrest or imprisonment, with others fleeing forced marriage, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation.

Depression (97%), destitution (67%) and suicidal thoughts  (63%) are some of the most common effects of asylum refusal.

You can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members. What does it say about us that we criminalise women who come to the UK fleeing political persecution, rape, torture and imprisonment?

Make no mistake removal centre's like Yarl's Wood are prisons. What else do you call a place no one is allowed to leave and where newcomers arrive in a caged van?

"Everyone in there is living in fear. They have already gone through things like rape and torture, and now they are locked up, even though they've done nothing wrong. Many of them were living in the community, they weren't absconding, so why can't their claims be assessed while they live in the community, instead of in prison?" says Meltem, who, along with her mother was granted asylum and released, after three long months in Yarl's Wood, and with the help of immigration campaigner John O and Women for Refugee Women.

"After I got out I tried to forget about it. I was ashamed of having been in Yarl's Wood. But I couldn't, there are some things you should not forget, I need to bring change I can't sit back and relax just because I'm no longer in that situation," says Meltem, of her campaign, which is also calling on Home Secretary Theresa May to properly investigate allegations of abuse against staff at Yarl's Wood and to ensure that no male staff are employed in roles where they come into contact with women.

"I saw what detention did to strong women like my mother. I believe women are strong and can bring about change. These women are just like me and you, they have the same desires and dream, they deserve the same chances," says Meltem. Freedom from persecution and fear is the most basic of human rights. Is an asylum process that treats those who come here seeking safety with dignity and humanity too much to ask?

 

For more information on Meltem's campaign please go to: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/theresa-may-british-home-secretary-end-the-detention-of-women-who-seek-asylum

Hannah Pool is an Eritrean born journalist, author and curator

'My Fathers' Daughter' by Hannah Pool is out now

@hannahpool

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