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Protests and Hunger Strikes Are Breaking Out at Immigration Detention Centers in the UK

Anger at bad conditions and indefinite periods of detention has boiled over into widespread protest.

Protesters outside Harmondsworth Detention Center. Photo courtesy of Movement for Justice

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Protests are spreading throughout the UK's immigration removal centers, with hunger strikes and yard occupations breaking out across at least six UK detention centers.

Migrants and asylum seekers are protesting the conditions in which they are held, following a damning Parliamentary report last week, which called for limits of the length of time people can be detained, better conditions and an end to incarcerating pregnant and vulnerable people who have committed no crime.

A hunger striker in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow, who has not eaten since Sunday morning told me, "We need our freedom. People have been detained for months here with no end in sight, some over a year. We need to get our story out. You guys need to help us. We will not eat until the Home Office gives us an answer. But they are not responding."

The asylum seeker told me that he fled Nigeria when his parents were killed, and added: "There are between 200 and 300 people on hunger strike here. Yesterday a guy collapsed from not eating and they took him to hospital. We are suffering, we need everybody to know what is going on here and ask the government to release us. We came here because our lives are in danger back home. We are told we need evidence to prove our case. But how can you get that evidence if you are locked up like this?"

Protests started at Yarl's Wood detention center in Bedfordshire, last Tuesday, taking place both inside and outside the women's detention center. Yarl's Wood has been at the center of allegations of sexual abuse and a damning undercover Channel 4 News report showing racist staff showing little regard for the mental and physical health of detainees. Women, including pregnant women, kicked off the protest by writing, "We are not animals" on their t-shirts.

On Friday scuffles broke out at the Verne detention center, a former prison in Dorset, after detainees claim guards started beating up an inmate who attempted to harm himself.

Reports emerged of protests and hunger strikes at nearby Colnbrook, and Morton Hall in Lincolnshire on Monday. Yesterday, 50 people were also on hunger strike in Gatwick's Tinsley House, with protests also at nearby Brook House.

An asylum seeker from Nigeria in Colnbrook told me, "My roommate has been on hunger strike since last Thursday and his health is getting worse. They have put him in segregation rather than in hospital. We are all very worried, but we have told them that if they don't meet our demands by the weekend we all go on hunger strike and won't enter our rooms."

I asked the asylum seeker why the protests were happening. He told me, "We demand that they treat us like human beings instead of locking us up like animals. They lock us in our rooms for 12 hours a day with no ventilation. We are telling them this is not a prison. We are human beings."

Not only are the conditions a cause of protest, but so too is the system that is used to decide people's asylum claims. "We demand that they treat our cases fairly and allow people to get the documents we need to prove our case," he said. "And if they can't decide on our cases quickly, then release us. A lot of people have been here for a year or two. I have been here for six months with no response on my case, and my bail was refused four times now. There is no end in sight for us. It is like Guantanamo Bay."

IRC Morton Hall, one of the affected centers

Antonia Bright of Movement For Justice, a campaign group which is in touch with many detainees, linked the protests back to the recent Parliamentary report. "Anger is growing among all the detainees we are in touch with against the injustice of the Fast Track system," she said, talking about the rushed way in which asylum seekers claims are processed with restricted access to legal representation, witnesses or the ability to gather the evidence they need. "It's something they have all been suffering from. But they now feel vindicated by the Parliamentary report and there's an urgent sense that something should be done about it."

Antonia told me how she was in contact with detainees in Yarl's Wood, Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Tinsley House and the Verne. "It's so hard to get a clear picture about what is happening," she added. "As people who protest or try and get their voices heard are always threatened with being moved to another detention center, or being put in solitary confinement with their phone taken away.

"I am pretty worried as last week I know of two women who collapsed at Yarl's Wood with epileptic fits. Health provision at the detention centers isn't fit for inmates' medical needs at the best of times—with women miscarrying in Yarl's Wood—let alone able to cope with such protests."

When I asked the Home Office to comment, they confirmed that there was a protest happening at Harmondsworth and denied that there had been one at Morton Hall. In their email they didn't mention other centers I asked about.

A spokesman said, "Detention and removal are essential parts of effective immigration controls. It is vital these are carried out with dignity and respect and we take the welfare of our detainees very seriously. That's why the Home Secretary last month commissioned an independent review of detainees' welfare to be conducted by the former prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw. Detention is only ever used as a last resort after all attempts to encourage individuals to leave voluntarily have failed."

In a separate protest over a chartered deportation plane to Afghanistan last night, there were two arrests of protestors who super-glued themselves to a coach full of deportees. Despite the Afghan government announcing that it would not take any more people deported from European countries and last minute legal challenges, a flight full of migrants had been chartered from Gatwick. A few people were taken off the flight at the last minute due to legal challenges, but the it took off with around 30 deportees on board.

Follow Ben Gelblum on Twitter.