“We are helpless, we are broken, please let us out! We want to go to our children” The screams from inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre are followed by silence, before shouts of “Shame! Shame on you Serco!” ring out in a deafening roar from 2,000 protesters. A fence separates the protesters from the 410 female inmates held inside the privately run immigration centre in Bedfordshire, one of 13 in the UK. As the drums and chants of “Shut down Yarl’s Wood” resume, a lonely strip of black cloth waves from inside the centre in solidarity: the only visible sign of life from the where women refugees and asylum seekers held there indefinitely.
Set up in 2001, the Yarl’s Wood detention centre, run by Serco, describes itself as ‘a fully contained residential centre housing adult women and adult family groups awaiting immigration clearance’ on the website. The voice of an inmate on the phone, amplified by a megaphone, contradicts it: “They locked me in the airless passageway for ten minutes until I demanded to come back to room. They don’t want anyone to go to the windows and see the protest through the window.” At best, this sounds like a dystopian nightmare, at worst, a prison. And yet, these women are not criminals: they have escaped persecution, rape and torture in their own countries, to come to the UK. “We didn’t come to this country to cause a problem. In this country criminals have more freedom. Britain proclaims to be a democracy but they can’t even treat us with dignity”, the voice chokes full of emotion.
The British government has had an enduring relationship with anti-immigration detention centres: it boasts of the largest immigration centre in Europe, Harmondsworth. However, Yarl’s Wood has been in the headlines most often, due to the stories of horror and abuse that inmates are subjected to.
Earlier this year, an inmate accused three detention officers of rape. The officers have, however, denied the charges. An FOI request also found Serco took action against 28 members of the staff who were charged with sexual violence against inmates. In 2003, when Yarl’s Wood caught fire, a custody officer was reportedly ordered to lock inmates in a room while the fire swept through while in 2010, a hunger strike by inmates, escalated when 70 protesting women were locked in a narrow airless corridor and refused water or toilet facilities. The National Audit Office in its July 2016 report on Yarl’s Wood noted that 11% of the women were handcuffed on hospital visits, a humiliating practice which made many inmates refuse medical care. UN Special rapporteur Rashida Manjoo, investigating violence against women, was denied access to the detention centre by the UK government.
The UK government spends £8.8 million annually on the Serco contract to run the centre. According to Refugee Rights Data Project, the cost of detaining an asylum-seeker is 4-5 times the cost of allowing them to live in the community. One of the main chants of the protest was “Money for higher education, no more illegal deportations!” as the government axed maintenance grants for students this year, replacing them with loans.
Kumuthiny T, a refugee who arrived in the UK in 2009, breaks down while recounting her ordeal. Suspected of being an LTT militant in Sri Lanka, her native country, she was arrested twice and subjected to severe torture and rape. “Very cruel torture. I can’t tell you in words”, she sobs. Her first application to the Home Office for asylum was rejected when she was nine months pregnant. Now, with her four year old son and six month old baby, she awaits the final descision on her visa after re-appeal.
On December 3rd, 22 coaches of protesters from around the country (Birmingham, Nottingham, Coventry, Liverpool, Bristol, York, Bath, London, Brighton, Glasgow, Leeds and more), descended on Yarl’s Wood with banners, flags, flares, drums to join with the women incarcerated in a collective action to demand freedom.
Karen, one of the organisers of the protest from Movement for Justice says, “We have been organising inside and outside Yarls Wood for six years now. It started when one of our members, a lesbian from Uganda was detained. It quickly became clear that the women inside wanted to protest, wanted to expose what was happening and demand freedom, they circulated petitions, supported each other to resist deportation and spoke out to the press.”
The group has had several victories in the past few years. They managed to successfully abolish fast track detention for asylum seekers, shut down Haslar, Dover and Dungavel detention centres. “For the first time in over a decade the numbers in detention are falling, a time limit was introduced for the detention of pregnant women and the parliamentary inquiry into detention made sweeping recommendations to limit the use of detention”, she adds
Chants of “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”, “No Human is Illegal” and “Yarl’s Wood- shut it down, shut it down” rang through the air as protesters kicked the walls of the detention centre and beat on the fence to make enough noise to reach the women trapped inside. “Critical to shutting down Yarl’s Wood is the continued resistance and organisation of the women inside Yarl’s Wood – it is that resistance that proves the injustice and unviability of detention.” The group has also given evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention and held public tribunals where ex-detainees speak out.
Shahd Abu Salama (pictured left), from Set Her Free, a group campaigning for refugee women’s rights in detention centres, was part of the protest. “They come here traumatised after being treated violently in their own countries. But then they are subjected to further trauma in detention centres where a lot of money is invested in cheap labour, xenophobic policies”, she says.
In an interview with OpenDemocracy in the aftermath of an inmate’s death, a detainee described Yarl’s Wood being “like looking out of a window in the middle of nowhere. You’re brought here in the middle of the night so you’ve no idea where you are: no idea what the gates look like or what’s outside.”
“We speak with the detainees regularly and visit when we can, detainees are allowed basic mobile phones and access to email so most of our communication is using those methods,” Karen continues. This underscores the fact that detention is not for punishing a crime but an administrative function of the state, she explains. The indefinite incarceration, she says, is simply because of where they come from.
A 2015 unannounced inspection by Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, noted that Yarl’s Wood was “failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held.” It noted that health care needs to improve, and there were not enough female staff members.
Anatonia, from Movement for Justice, says the fight against detention is part of the larger movement for community-building. “The onus is on us to build a movement: organise in schools, colleges, communities and reverse the hostilities and attacks.”
They continue the demonstrations in the face of intimidation: Serco have previously cancelled visits on demonstration days and after one of the demonstrations called women into a managers office to say how people could be arrested. “The most important aim of the demonstrations is making a connection with the women inside, strengthening and empowering them to continue their daily fight for freedom”, says Karen.
The group has planned two weeks of action in Jan against mass deportations to end the UK government’s mass deportation charter flights to Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Pakistan and war-torn Afghanistan. Following that, a conference on January 28 will be held to discuss further actions and strategise.