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Yarl's Wood Detention Centre Is at the Front Line of British State Racism

There was another protest to "shut it down" this weekend.

by Simon Childs; photos by Chris Bethell
15 May 2017, 1:02pm

Mabel Gawanas addresses the crowd

Post-Brexit, Tony Blair is trying to rehabilitate himself as Mr Globalist – chief defender of cosmopolitanism in the face of our increasingly xenophobic society. But if we look to his past, the fact that he's gaining any traction at all is surely a sign of just how bad things have become.

In a speech before the 2005 election, Blair proposed an Australian-style, points-based immigration system – policy since adopted by the global citizens of UKIP – and then boasted of his close personal involvement in cracking down on migration:

"From the immigration officers checking passports at Heathrow, to the staff who fingerprint asylum seekers at Croydon, to the team who track down illegal immigrants in north London, to those responsible for re-documenting failed asylum seekers and actually loading them to flights home. I've lost count of the meetings I have chaired on this issue, and the number of people in the system I have met."

Over a decade later, while Tony tries to mount a comeback as the defender of free movement, people are still struggling against the legacy of his determination to ensure that freedom is only extended to the right people.

On Saturday, Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre was the scene of a noisy but poignant protest, as the Movement for Justice demanded it be shut down.

When the centre was opened in 2001, the government were hoping to show that they were getting on top of the backlog of asylum claims. It only took three months before it had partly burned down after protests by detainees.

Since then, it's been a fairly consistent source of controversy. In August of 2015, the centre was called "a place of national concern" by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons. This followed revelations by Channel 4 News showing staff referring to inmates as "animals", "beasties" and "bitches". Harrowing complaints of sexual abuse have been documented.

Run by outsourcing firm Serco, the centre has capacity to hold over 400 people – mostly women – before they are deported. This detention can go on indefinitely, and that's the cause of a lot of anguish. It's a situation unique to Europe: only in Britain can you be locked up for the non-crime of a failed asylum application, with no idea of when you might be released.

On Saturday morning, protesters marched through the surrounding fields of blossoming rapeseed before gathering on a ridge in front of the centre's tall fence.

When they got there, they turned their backs to the fence and kicked it repeatedly while others hit cow-bells and pans, making a complete racket. Others chanted "Yarl's Wood, shut it down!" Bubbles and plumes of smoke filled the air. The fence was covered in graffiti – "Deport May", "Set her free" and "Nobody forgotten, nothing forgiven" – and anybody not kicking it was waving to the other side.

Over the fence, past about 20 metres of dead space, detainees were pressed against the windows to greet those who had come to support them. There was a ladder you could climb to peer over and wave people inside, who were waving back enthusiastically with signs that said, "Save Us", "Treated like animals" and "Help".

Mabel Gawanas, who had been incarcerated for three years before being released this month, addressed the crowd. She said, "The struggle inside Yarl's Wood is very hard. We've been provoked, intimidated, we cannot speak out, but I was the one who found the courage to speak up.

"Mothers are separated from children. Disabled people are kept, who cannot help themselves, mentally ill detainees are kept – we don't have proper help and support. The officials and managers are hopeless – they're not professional people to deal with people who have been victims of torture, victims of rape, mentally ill detainees…"

After some more speeches, the activists attempted to call those inside and put the calls on the speakers. The line was fairly bad, but you could make out bits: "I miss my son, I miss my husband. My son is nine years old… freedom. We need freedom, please."

"I never committed a crime, I never did anything wrong. I need freedom, please."

Since Yarl's Wood opened, the discourse that justified its creation has intensified. Rather than discussions over human rights in detention centres, the focus of scrutiny around immigration this election seems to be that Theresa May could never actually hit her target of reducing net migration to under 100,000.

Ryan Shorthouse, a former policy advisor to the Conservatives before the 2010 general election, has admitted that "there was no scientific or comprehensive process for coming up with this policy. It was chosen because it was the level of immigration we had in the 1990s, before the New Labour era." It doesn't matter if the target will be met. It exists to send a message – Blair's selective cosmopolitanism is yielding to a more overtly nativist turn.

The women trapped in Yarl's Wood deserve their freedom. Their struggle is also part of something bigger, with the "hostile environment" for migrants created when Theresa May was Home Secretary extending to all aspects of government and deeper into the national conversation. Or, as Tony Gard from the Movement for Justice put it, "This has been made by Theresa May, the central issue of all British politics... every single issue is subordinate to immigration control, because they rely on the total lie that all the problems that politicians have created over the last 20 years are down to immigrants."

Karen Doyle from the Movement for Justice explained that protests like these started when women inside took the lead, organising themselves in their dorms to resist deportations. "They were refusing to cooperate, they were demonstrating, they were boycotting the canteen, they were hunger striking. We are here because you are there – because you are there and you are fighting," she said. "And because you are fighting, we know you can win."

Maybe, then, hope lies less with exhuming old leaders and more with the people trying to break out of the prisons those leaders created.

@SimonChilds13 / @CBethell_Photo