While the UK Border Agency and commercial contractors attempt to quash a women’s uprising inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre, an activist reports from a demonstration outside the Home Office.
Movement for Justice campaigners outside the Home Office, Marsham Street
This past Tuesday (23 October), the Westminster lunchtime rush had a different soundtrack. As civil servants and ministers rushed off to pick up their coffees and sandwiches, passionate calls for freedom and justice echoed off the walls of the ominous Home Office building.
“Asylum seekers have the right, here to stay, here to fight!”
"Shut Down Yarl's Wood: Freedom Now!"
These demands came from Movement For Justice campaigners gathered outside the Home Office on Marsham Street in support of women detainees in the Bedfordshire Immigration Removal Centre, Yarl's Wood, run by commercial contractors Serco. The second Movement For Justice demonstration this month was aimed at raising public awareness and support for the movement forming within the detention centre. Movement For Justice contends: “their struggle inside is our struggle everywhere.”
Women inside the detention centre began to self-organise after the shocking treatment of one Ugandan detainee known as C. Fellow detainees say they witnessed C being dragged naked and screaming through the centre, her head and neck forcibly bent down by detention centre staff towards the floor. She was reportedly injected with a sedative prior to her attempted deportation.
Movement for Justice activists protested at the airport on the day of deportation, and C’s removal was stalled.
This incident drew 100 women inside the centre to join together in collective action against the “degrading and inhumane manner that women are being deported back to their countries.” Detainees drew up a set of nine demands, starting with their immediate release: “Many of us have been the victim of rape, abuse and torture,” say the women. “Some of us are pregnant and are due to give birth in detention; some are disabled or critically ill, and some are elderly. Being locked up away from friends, families and the support we have in our communities is a new violation of our humanity.”
A spokeswoman for Black Women’s Rape Action Project, which is in daily contact with the Yarl’s Wood women, said: “The treatment of C which sparked the protest is typical. She is a rape survivor whose asylum claim was dismissed after the Home Office claimed she was lying about having been raped.”
She went on: “Foreign secretary William Hague has pledged £1 million to ‘preventing sexual and gender-based crimes in conflict and post-conflict situations’ and ‘securing justice for survivors’. Yet when women, by their own courageous efforts, escape from rape in war zones they are treated as liars and detained. The only survey of its kind (Bleak House, 2007*) found that 70 per cent of women asylum seekers in Yarl’s Wood were rape survivors.”
Visitors to the detention centre have reported that the recent action taken by the women within the centre has led to three Yarl's Wood detainees being imprisoned without trial, whilst two other participants are now missing.
According to Antonia Bright, of Movement for Justice, the demonstration outside the Home Office was an opportunity to stand in solidarity with detainees who have bravely asserted their claims to equal rights: “Women in Yarl's Wood have been organising a Movement for Justice group, to stand up for themselves, and make demands that express the horrendous treatment that they face and the inherent unfairness and lack of justice that fast track and detention sets up.”
She continued, “This was not the first brutal attempt at deportation, but the women in Yarl's Wood – from many countries and different cases – all understood and shared one demand and one aim when they heard C's physical struggle: that none of them can go back, going back is not an option if you want to live, and no matter who they are, they are all C.”
A "Bleak House" for Our Times: An investigation into Yarl's Wood Removal Centre by Legal Action for Women is available from Crossroads Books.