It’s not easy to get to Yarl’s Wood. Surrounded on all sides by fences, barbed wire and security cameras, the notorious detention centre is tucked away among cornfields, out of sight and out of mind. Credit, then, to the protestors who came by the busload to show solidarity with the detainees of Yarl’s Wood. Coming from all corners of the UK they gathered early in the afternoon to surround the centre’s walls. Some spray-painted slogans onto the fences – ‘Solidarite avec les sans papiers’ (solidarity with the stateless), ‘Tear down these racist walls’, ‘No one is illegal’. Some carried banners relating to their various groups; People’s Assemblies from different cities, Movement for Justice, Women for Refugee Women and Black Dissidents to name but a few. Most powerfully, however, protestors wore t-shirts with freedom messages in solidarity with the women inside, many of whom have been protesting their incarceration by wearing t-shirts demanding their freedom.
Why were they there? The United Kingdom is the only EU member state that detains asylum seekers indefinitely. Run by the international security firm Serco, Yarl’s Wood is the most controversial of all the 13 British detention centres. It’s meant to be the ‘final port of call’ before failed asylum seekers are deported – a quick and easy way to keep people in the same place before removing them from the country. The reality of indefinite detention, however, is that people end up kept in such centres for weeks, months, even years, with no indication of when they will be set free. Only 5% of detainees end up being deported, which begs the question; why are they there in the first place? Most controversially, Yarl’s Wood is the centre in which pregnant women are kept. A Channel 4 undercover expose into life at Yarl’s Wood found allegations of a culture of disbelief surrounding women who presented themselves to the privately-run ‘Health Suite’, with staff not taking patients’ complaints seriously. In one case, a woman who’d recently miscarried with severe risk of infection arrived at the suite, bleeding and in distress. Serco staff recorded that she was ‘spoken to for hitting the alarm button, and trying to ring the ambulance herself’. It took over three hours for the staff of the Healthcare Suite to call an ambulance.
At the protest I met Mahmoud from Syria. He and his wife had been detained at Yarl’s Wood, and had been released in part thanks to the relentless campaign by friends outside the centre on their behalf. As we walked the perimeter fence to the main protest site he told me stories similar to those shown in the expose; that as a diabetic, his medication had been taken away from him, and that he regularly had to wait for dangerously long periods of time to have his medication administered. He told me of the complete contempt shown by many of the staff towards the detainees, of the feeling of being treated like animals. “This is not Yarl’s Wood”, he told me, “this is Guantanamo II”.
The effect on detainees’ mental health is palpable. Often already traumatised from fleeing violence in their home countries, incarceration at Yarls’ Wood leads to a rapid deterioration in mental health for many. One ex-Serco employee and former mental health nurse at Yarl’s Wood reported witnessing several instances of sexual assault on the women detained there, while Channel 4’s investigation showed numerous instances of self-harm, suicide and attempted suicide.
Indeed, such concerns have been raised by campaigners and human rights groups about the treatment of Yarl’s Wood detainees that the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women Rashida Manjoo was keen to be allowed into the centre to investigate. She was denied access.
Speaking personally, nothing could have prepared me for the gut-wrench at seeing the women’s arms waving out of the few centimeters their windows would open. Some made banners out of scraps of material on which they’d written ‘SOS’, ‘we want freedom’, and ‘we are not animals’. At times the protestors outside the fence would stop kicking the wall, quieten and listen as the women shouted their stories, shouted ‘freedom’. ‘We will be back’, we chanted as we left. The least we owe the brave women inside is to honour our chant; to return time and time again, and to fight until they, and all others like them, are freed.
Written by Iona Hannagan Lewis