This piece was originally published on Left Foot Forward.
Ex-detainees led hundreds of protesters to the fences of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre on Saturday, in the largest action of its kind to date. An estimated 800 people assembled to campaign for the closure of the centre.
Coaches from Birmingham, Oxford, Glasgow, Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds and London ferried activists from across the country to the demonstration.
Yarl’s Wood, a privately-run detention centre on the outskirts of Bedford, holds around 400 women and families awaiting asylum decisions. The centre is administered by Serco, a private security and services firm, who won the £70 million contract in 2007.
Since its establishment in 2001, the centre has rarely been free from criticism.
It has come under fire from women’s groups, human rights organisations and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the use of immigration detention, which deemed the centre ‘expensive, ineffective and unjust’.
From the entrance of Twinwoods Business Park where Yarl’s Wood is located, protesters marched through sodden fields to the detention facility. Lesbians and Gays Support Migrants, Sisters Uncut, Women for Refugee Women and Black Dissidents marched alongside Movement for Justice, the protest organisers.
The non-violent demonstration saw chants and speeches by ex-detainees, mounting placards of support on the border fence and loudspeaker conversations with current detainees.
Women could be seen waving from their rooms, while others hung t-shirts reading ‘freedom’ from behind mirrored windows. Ex-detainees wore t-shirts and hats printed with ‘freedom’ in solidarity with those inside.
At various points, protesters lined the perimeter of the centre, kicking the iron barriers to chants of “No human is illegal”. Police watched on as activists scaled fences to attach balloons and banners to the walls of the complex.
Throughout the day, ex-detainees told stories of their experience in Yarl’s Wood. One woman spoke of the Home Office’s attempts to return her to Nigeria, despite her brother’s death at the hands of Boko Haram and the obvious threat to her family’s safety.
Another spoke of living conditions in the facility, and asked:
“We are not animals, so why are we kept in a cage?”
Recent reports from inside the centre attest to the on-going detention of pregnant women, despite the government’s policy that pregnant women should no longer be held in removal centres.
The government last week refused to publish figures regarding the detention of pregnant women, despite specific parliamentary questions addressing the issue.
Reports of self-harm, forceful restraint and racist taunts by guards have repeatedly surfaced. Rape survivors have further complained of improper sexual conduct.
Mental health provision within the centre has been a particular cause for concern. The APPG report found that detention significantly increased pre-detention levels of trauma, and noted mentally ill patients who were denied access to medication leading to full psychological breakdown.
A Channel 4 documentary shot inside Yarl’s Wood this year showed guards referring to inmates as ‘beasties’ and ‘animals’, and recommending ‘beating’ detainees ‘with sticks’. One guard said, ‘I’d headbutt the bitch’ in reference to one woman detainee.
“Let them slash their wrists,” said another.
The decision process regarding internment at Yarl’s Wood has also been attacked. Jerome Phelps of Detention Action has criticised the process by which a ‘low-level civil servant’ decides on the fate of asylum applications with ‘no automatic judicial scrutiny at all’.
While in France all detainees have the right to be seen before a judge within 48 hours, ‘no such safeguard exists in the UK’, says Phelps. The majority of detainees have committed no criminal offence.
The UK is the only EU nation not to impose a time limit on detention. France operates within a 45-day detention limit, a comparable limit to the rest of western Europe.
The UK and Ireland were the only member states to opt out of the EU Returns Directive which sets a limit of 18-months.
As for the detainees themselves, their access to the outside world is strictly limited. Special locks prevent their windows from opening more than an inch or two, but a banner poking out summed up their position:
“We came here for refuge, why are we locked up?”
Photo Credit: Rosie Polya