“They took our freedom, our dignity, our sanity, and now they are trying to take way our hope.”
“No matter what happens, let me be remembered as a Uganda Detainee that was fighting for the vulnerable and mistreated asylum seekers”.
“This is the only option we are left with to express how we feel. We will not eat till we are free”.
These are the voices currently speaking from inside the confines of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, one of the most high-profile detention centres in the UK. The women inside it are now on day 20 of their hunger strike, protesting the conditions of the centre, and wider government approaches to immigration, detention and deportation.
Real hunger is political – some of us have felt it and been lucky enough to escape it. Some of us don’t remember the feeling, or have never felt it, not really. Some of us opt for it with our religious community, for 30 days, to remind us of what it means to not have. In times of austerity, it drives hundreds of thousands of people to food banks. In times of persecution, it can be the last resort when we feel our voices have been ignored, simmering flames of rage put out before they’ve even begun to set the masters house alight.
The women of Yarl’s Wood understand hunger. They understood its power. They made a list of demands last month (which you can read in full here) that “children won’t be snatched from their beds like animals”. They demanded an end to charter flights, an end to the Home Office’s employing of detainees to do menial work for £1 per hour, an end to the detainment of victims of rape, torture, trafficking, forced labour, and an end to the detainment of the disabled and the mentally ill. They demanded that the Home office to respect the European Convention of Human Rights regarding refugees and asylum seekers. Most importantly they wanted an end to indefinite detention, an injustice that the UK is alone in Europe in exercising.
These demands were expertly ignored by Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and the women soon resorted to their all out strike to make their point: no food, no work, no use of facilities. They chose the lurches, the pain, the weak voice and the disjointed Twitter updates so that we can see and amplify this moment. Some of the women, like 27-year-old Opelo Kgari and her mother Florence, were forcibly driven to Heathrow for deportation as the hunger strike went on. Their deportation was halted at the last moment thanks to the efforts of her friends, journalists, and her local Labour MP Ruth Smeeth.
It is our collective responsibility to continue to shout, to be hungry for change. I have felt the rage, the helplessness, the fury to a point of incoherence. It is something keenly felt by so many women of colour. Having your demands ignored for something as simple as due process sends a message. It sends a message that you ain’t shit, you’ve never been. You are nothing. Your voice can be squashed.
And these stories send a message to other insecure residents of colour in the UK – that you are not safe, that the state can take your feeling of home away at any point. That you are an outsider, one paper away from being sent back to where you came from, from being imprisoned. Our government seem hell-bent on making sure we get that message. That no-one gives a shit about so many that look like us, that breathe and navigate the world like us, about our trauma and our strength.
Fortunately, there are people who do give a shit. The work being done by organisations like Detained Voices and SOAS Detainee Support is crucial. Following those organisations, you can find updates on how to help. Signing petitions, sending a letter to your MP, tweeting solidarity photos with the hashtag HUNGERFORFREEDOM and attending the many planned demonstrations is all vital in the fight against detention.
There are activist groups like the Anti-Raids Network, set up by Latin American precarious workers based in London to share skills and knowledge about resisting the presence of immigration enforcement in communities. They do work on the ground to make sure that migrant communities know their rights. They achieve this via multi language pamphleteering, workshops, community information stalls, and skilling up those affected, as well as those that wish to intervene in solidarity.
“We need people to come together and challenge this terrorism of working class communities, which is perpetuated because people are unaware of their rights,” says Rani, an organiser with ARN. “If someone in uniform approaches you, commanding you to account for yourself, it is intimidating for anyone – let alone those already vulnerable to state violence. Forces of the state rely on this power to behave with impunity. So our purpose is to fight this state violence by undoing that intimidation.”
Intimidation is a tool that has always been used to prop up the state. The actions of Amber Rudd and the Conservative government in the last month towards the women of Yarl’s Wood simply illuminates something that has gone on for years and will probably continue once the media glare has moved on. The hunger of these detained women is a rallying cry for collective responsibility, in the hope that standing in solidarity might meet demands that ask for basic human rights.