(c) Felicity Kersting

Women of Yarl’s Wood stand up

United Kingdom

Around 120 women have been on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood detention centre since 21 February to protest the centre’s inhumane conditions. The women escalated their action on Monday, launching a full strike by refusing to participate in detention in any way including work and use of facilities such as the shop and gym, and occupying the Home Office and healthcare departments of the centre.

More than a week into the action, strikers are standing up against what one detainee, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of impacting her case, described as ‘unfair imprisonment and racist abuse’. On Thursday one striker collapsed and was taken for medical attention in a wheelchair. Another was called into a private meeting room, allegedly to talk about her health, however was then deported; she has been sent to India where she fears serious abuse after being disowned by her family.

No longer willing to accept inhuman conditions, strikers’ demands include an end to indefinite detention and a return to the 28-day limit. They demand an end to charter flights where detainees are given very little notice of the flight so cannot notify their family. They also demand for the Home Office to stop deporting those with outstanding asylum applications, and to stop detaining vulnerable people who have been victims of torture, including survivors of rape.

One protester, ‘Janette’* said they were ‘sick of feeling like a helpless institutionalised victim’, and that detainees ‘needed to take back some control and our voices’. The strike comes at a time of increasing pressure on the UK Home Office as questions are raised about its treatment of those in detention. In September, a BBC Panorama exposed the appalling treatment detainees in Brook House, and last Friday Diane Abbott finally managed to visit Yarl’s Wood after trying to gain access for a year. She spoke to some of the women detained and plans to bring up their situation in parliament after listening to their stories.

Shows of solidarity are regularly held outside Yarl's Wood detention centre. Photo by Felicity Kersting.

Yarl’s Wood is one of nine detention centres in the UK, with a capacity of 410 people, most of them women. Around 30,000 people are detained each year, with many of them having outstanding asylum applications or, in some cases, valid visas. The UK is the only country in the EU without a time limit on detention – at any one time, between 210 and 260 detainees will have been in detention for more than a year. This directly contradicts the alleged purpose of these centres – the short term holding of those who are to be deported imminently. More than half of those detained are released, showing that detention centres don’t fulfil the role they supposedly play.

The government uses detention centres to intimidate migrants and fuel an attitude of racism and nationalism to create an atmosphere of distrust, constructing an easy scapegoat for Britain’s problems rather than addressing the actual roots of the problems: austerity, capitalism and institutional oppression. One striker said they felt that ‘we are your captives whom you choose when to detain and when to release and when to deport’. This abuse of power creates a frightening environment where, according to detainees, staff in the centre ‘round people up…at two o’clock in the morning and the next day you don’t see them’. The uncertainty this creates has severe impacts on detainees’ mental health, worsened by completely inadequate support in the centre, where nurses are viewed as ‘an extension of the home office’ by detainees.

Despite the government policy that victims of torture will not be detained, women in Yarl’s Wood often seek asylum to escape abuse and many are survivors of rape. The government requires evidence from a doctor before a woman’s story of previous abuse or health problems is believed, and even once provided, women frequently remain in detention. The government’s refusal to recognize rape and gender-based violence as a form of torture forms the basis of another demand from the hunger strikers: they have said ‘We want the Home Office to stop detaining the vulnerable people, that is victims of rape, that is torture, all forms of torture, trafficking, forced labour, the disabled, the mentally ill and so on.’ During the sit-in at the Home Office department of Yarl’s Wood, immigration officers ‘refused to state that rape is torture’, using this to justify the detention of vulnerable women, despite the detrimental effects on their mental health.

One detainee striker, ‘Jasmine’* said that ‘our voices aren’t heard because we are in here’, with another adding that they want people to ‘talk to those people who are in power. To take action and deal with our situation here’. Detainees feel ‘removed from my friends and family, removed from society, so far removed from every comfort’ so our solidarity is extremely important. Those on the outside can show support for the protesters in several ways, and force the government to recognise that these conditions are not acceptable.

What you can do

To show your support, sign the petition calling for the government to grant the strikers’ demands and send a letter to your MP stating your support for those striking..

Post solidarity photos on Twitter or other social media holding up signs of support, using the hashtag #HungerForFreedom and find out if a solidarity demo is being held near you – one was very successfully held in London on Wednesday, with a turnout of over 500 people.

Get involved with an organization that works to support detainees and challenge their unjust treatment, for example SOAS Detainee Support, Women for Refugee Women, or a local organization.

The treatment of those in detention centres is unacceptable and violates the government’s own policies – we must stand in solidarity with those protesting and demonstrate the ill-treatment of detainees will not go unnoticed, no matter how hard the government tries to deny the situation.

*All names of strikers have been changed to protect their identity for fear of repercussions while in detention and affecting their case by speaking out.


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