We’re publicising women’s experiences of so-called “voluntary returns”. The infamous Home Office “Go Home” van makes clear that voluntary return is part and parcel of its Hostile Environment policy. How can making life so unbearable that someone has no alternative but comply be called “voluntary”? As someone recently said to us, “If it’s voluntary why don’t they give people their status and then let them choose?”
Despite the facts, “voluntary returns” are being promoted now with the help of some church, community, refugee and women’s organisations, as if an alternative to forced deportations – when in reality that’s exactly what they are.
This is what we found out when we asked the All African Women’s about their experiences. We found out that many women had been taken into back rooms, in detention or when they went to sign on, kept for hours, refused access to a lawyer and sometimes even to something to drink and bullied, harassed, threatened, lied to and abused to try to make them sign to return “voluntarily”. And we know how women were determined, brave and creative in the ways they resisted.
Primrose: I was forced to sign. When I refused they kept me for so many hours. And I wasn’t well. I asked them to call my lawyer, but they said I’m not allowed. It was really depressing. After two hours of arguing the guy realised that I wasn’t well and he called his manager. They then allowed me to call my lawyer. The lawyer told them that she wanted to see the paper before I signed anything but the manager said “no it’s against the law”. They were arguing on the phone for so long. The guy was saying something different to the lawyer, and I was arguing in the background saying “that’s not what you told me, you were telling me that this is your Voluntary Return letter, but now you are explaining something else.” He said that I’m very rude and don’t want to cooperate, and just changed the whole story. Eventually the lawyer said “I’m putting it on record that you forced her to sign Voluntary Return”. The guy said “I don’t care, I’m just carrying out the rules.” I was forced to sign it. I got the lawyer through a charity organisation and the lawyer said that they shouldn’t have allowed me to go there. I feel bullied and the Home Office threatened me a lot. And then denied it.
Eliza: I applied for asylum and after four months, they sent me a letter for an interview. I went there and they said they just wanted to know if I’ve made up my mind to go. I said no! They detained me for six hours. The funniest thing was the guy who held me was an immigrant himself. He said, “so why do you want to tie yourself to a country that is not your origin”. And I’m like, “is this your country of origin as well?” Then he said “you’re very rude, you need to cooperate.”
I said “I don’t understand, I’ve got an appeal here and you’re asking me to return.” He said “but that’s what the country is saying”. And I said “well I’m telling the country I’m not going nowhere.”
I was really stressed out. When they released me, I was just walking on the main road and I was confused. I wrote to the Home Office about what they did to me, but they denied everything. They said that they were just asking me questions and I wasn’t co-operating.
Hope: I went to sign and I was pregnant then. I went in and sat down and a lady came and was asking how long have I lived there. She told me that I have to sign this. And I said can I speak to my lawyer. And she said “no you are not allowed”. I said “wow, but I’m not going to sign anything I don’t know about. I don’t have my glasses I can’t even see, so I’m not going to sign it.” She said “okay that means I will be here today. I’m not ready to go home.” I said “Even in my condition?” She said “yes I don’t care, you are being stubborn.” So she left me. She came back with one man. The man was talking to me saying I know you are from Nigeria.” After more hours I fell on the floor, sick. I said I am pregnant and they got scared. They brought in a nurse and brought me some water. In the end they let me go.
Marie: I was locked in too. Not once, but twice. They were trying to force me to sign travel documents. You have to think what to do. They say to me “you need to sign this, you need to sign this”. I said “why would I sign travel documents when I have a passport?” They did it to me in the detention centre and they also did it to me when I went to sign on at London Bridge.
When I was in the detention centre, I said to the strict man “listen boss, I want to sign this for you, but I really can’t because I need to take it with me.” So I took it to my room and I said “I need a couple of days to think about it.” So you’re showing them that you’re cooperating, but you’re not signing. You ain’t going anywhere.
In London Bridge, one officer was kind enough to say to me “do you have anything in with the Home Office? You need to put something in, because they’re serious about this. They’re going to try and deport you.” He was nice; he was trying to warn me.
Chair’s summary: There are times when you’ve cried, when you’ve shouted, and there are six people against you, and you are in a place where nothing can happen. I think it’s horrible. That’s what I went through. I was in a police cell for three days without any reason. It’s very sad, that the system can gang up against you. You feel like a block of bees are after you. Afterwards, I took time to really feel back. I don’t want anybody to go through it again.
That’s what we do in the All African Women’s Group. We have to document this. I always wanted to have the opportunity to do that, for everybody’s experience to be out there. Because it’s all hidden. Nobody would report this except us.
Now, we’ve got a statement against forced voluntary returns. We know it is a problem because they won’t tell you it’s forced, they will try to pretend that it’s one of the options. But it’s not. We heard how women were forced to sign to agree to go back. Remember, they have started closing detention centres, which could mean that there will be faster deportations. It means that the government is always finding an alternative, a different way to deport us. So we have a job to do, to ask people to sign this statement to help us, help my sisters, help my brothers to stop forced voluntary returns. Are we going to do that?
Observation from Women of Colour, Global Women’s Strike:
This is non-violent, direct action for self-defence. People talk about taking direct action, lying down in the road, stopping vans… and this is part of that. This is how we save ourselves. And these are good tips for all of us because when we’re poor they’re always after us for something. So we can use these tactics everywhere