MPs and legal experts have criticised the Home Office, telling VICE there is "no lawful basis to make this kind of threat".
Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo
"We are detained indefinitely and we are refusing food because we are desperate at the treatment we endure by the Home Office," said one of the hunger-striking detainees at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre last Thursday. "We feel voiceless, forgotten and ignored. This is a desperate measure due to desperate circumstances."
The next day, the Home Office told hunger strikers they might be deported sooner than expected if they continued to starve themselves.
"The fact that you are currently refusing food and/or fluid: may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner," reads a letter detainees received from the Home Office, which later confirmed to VICE that detainees were made aware of the potential impact their hunger strike could have on their case.
More than 100 refugees and asylum seekers at the controversial, privately-run detention centre – where foreign nationals are held while they await deportation – have been refusing food for over ten days. They are protesting their unfair imprisonment and the human rights violations that have brought many to the point of mental breakdown. There have been prior allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by guards, and women say they are treated "worse than animals".
The detention centre, located near an industrial estate in Bedfordshire, can house detainees indefinitely before deporting them. However, around 70 percent of Yarl's Wood detainees are eventually released into the community – not deported – because they have done nothing wrong.
MPs cast doubt on the legality of the threat to accelerate the deportations of the hunger-striking detainees, and questioned whether Britain can continue to consider itself a civilised society.
"This is plain wrong. It is draconian, it is inhumane and it is totally unacceptable in a civilised society that respects human rights and upholds due legal process," David Lammy, a Labour MP and former Justice minister, tells VICE. "I fail to see how these threats have [any] basis in immigration or human rights law, and the Home Secretary has serious questions to answer about what is happening under her watch.
"The Home Office has serious questions to answer about the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees at Yarl's Wood. The underlying issues that have led us to this position where detainees are on hunger strike are long-standing, and I am also deeply concerned about the wrongful detention of innocent people and potential breaches of human rights within our immigration system."
"For the Home Office to now threaten hunger strikers with accelerated deportation isn't just morally wrong, it's legally questionable too," Caroline Lucas MP, co-leader of the Green Party, tells VICE. "Ministers should retract these threats and begin treating people with dignity. The shameful treatment of detainees at Yarl's Wood is a stain on our nation's conscience. It's time to dismantle the repressive detention regime and replace it with a humane and effective system that treats people with the dignity they deserve."
Legal experts also joined the chorus of condemnation and described how UK immigration detention is used by the Home Office as a form of warehousing, since the vast majority of detainees are released rather than removed from the country.
"This is extremely concerning, and there is no lawful basis to make this sort of threat," says Nick Nason, an immigration lawyer. "This is yet another example of the deep injustice and incoherence of a system which costs millions to taxpayers at home, and stains our reputation abroad."
Prior to the warning letters being sent, the Home Office attempted to deport some of the hunger-striking detainees.
A 27-year-old hunger striker, Opelo Kgari, and her mother – who have lived in the UK for 14 years since arriving from Botswana – only just avoided deportation after MPs called out an abuse of due process on social media on Saturday night.
However, the hunger strike continues and the health of many asylum seekers and refugees at Yarl's Wood is likely to be rapidly deteriorating.
"Currently I am still on hunger strike and eating snow, as I feel that's all I want to eat right now," said a gay detainee who fears prosecution in their endemically homophobic home country if they are deported. "Let the Home Office and the Home Secretary kill me here in the UK, than returning me to a death trap in Uganda.
"I feel sad and depressed that indirectly [we are] being punished for hunger striking and protesting. What happened to human rights, freedom of speech and expression? Should we just keep quiet when we are not happy and pretend like everything is alright?"