More than 100 women have gone on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Center, a UK detention facility that mainly houses female asylum seekers and immigrants awaiting deportation. It remains one of the UK’s most controversial and scandal-plagued centers. In 2015, a report published by Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, labelled the site as "a place of national concern” and a hunger-striking detainee said, “This is a desperate measure due to desperate circumstances.”
Today, strikers have escalated their actions to an “all-out strike” including hunger strikes, work strikes, occupations, and a refusal to cooperate with the mechanisms of detention from the inside, as well as releasing statements and interviews.
The strikers’ full list of demands can be found on Detained Voices, a website operated by activists outside of Yarl's Wood that publishes the stories, experiences and demands made by the women held in immigration detention centers in the UK. The demands include, but are not limited to: an end to indefinite detention and a return to the original plan of the 28 day limit; for the Home Office to respect due process and stop deporting people before their cases are decided or appeals are heard, and adequate healthcare.
“You are assumed to be lying and guilty and you have to prove you’re innocence. It’s a constant battle."
“[The detainees] are always assumed to be lying,” Karen Doyle from Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary, a grassroots activists movement campaigning for the rights of migrants and refugees told VICE Impact. The volunteer group has been campaigning against abuse in Yarl’s Wood for six years by organizing protests and supporting the detainees through befriending networks. Today the majority of the group’s volunteers are ex-detainees from Yarl’s Wood. “But that’s the entire asylum system,” she added. “You are assumed to be lying and guilty and you have to prove you’re innocence. It’s a constant battle. And when you are inside, with healthcare it’s the same thing.”
The women inside protesting are also asking for the Home Office to stop detaining the vulnerable people including victims of rape, torture, trafficking, forced labor, as well as disabled and mentally ill women, in addition to amnesty for those who have lived in the UK for more than 10 years and an end to the exiling those who came to the UK as children.
The detainees also want the Home Office to stop employing them to do “menial work” for £1 per hour, explaining via Detained Voices that “it prays on the vulnerable and forces them to participate in their own detention.”
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Accusations have also been made around the way the way deportations are currently carried out. “We want an end to charter flights and the snatching of people from their beds in the night and herding them like animals,” the women on hunger-strike explain in their list of demands, ending the document by explaining that “there are as many demands as there are detainees, everyone in detention is unfairly treated, and all we want is a fair process.”
The strikes are being met with formal threats and intimidation by the Home Office. “Refusing food and/or fluid may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner,” read a document written by an Immigration Enforcement Manager published on March 2.
In an attempt to amplify their voices and protest, hundreds of activists from organizations like Movement for Justice are supporting the women inside Yarl’s Wood fighting, striking and calling for justice. Activists from the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (LGS Migrants) blockaded the headquarters of Serco, the security firm in charge of Yarl’s Wood with rotten food.
"All we want is a fair process.”
“The rotten food is a reference to a number of things. It’s a reminder that the hunger strike is happening and that the food hasn't been eaten,” an LGS Migrants activist (he asked to remain anonymous for security reasons) told VICE Impact. “It’s also saying that the whole immigration and detention system is rotten. We always try to creatively challenge our actions. It’s about amplifying the message that is already there and in doing that we can link people to the call-of-action.”
One of these calls-to-actions has come from Movement for Justice. Surround Yarl’s Wood, which will take place on March 24, will be the group’s thirteenth demonstration outside the fences of the detention center. The aim: make sure the women know that there is a whole movement behind them.
“Last time we had a woman released literally the day before get up on the ladder, tell her friends still inside ‘keep fighting,’” Doyle told VICE Impact. “You know when you are in detention you don’t have access to Twitter or Facebook. So you don’t see the retweets and the hashtags or any of that, but seeing the people there in real life is powerful.”
“This inspirational organizing by the strikers in Yarl’s Wood is an important reminder that, despite the attempted constraints of people’s agency in the context of imprisonment, they are and must be at the forefront of the fight against their incarceration."
“Consistently the women have said that the demonstrations have left them feeling stronger. And everyone who goes comes out feeling stronger,” Doyle explained. For example, an ex-detainee who had previously been inside Yarl’s Wood protesting, and who Doyle remembers had written “SOS” in one of the windows, told her while campaigning outside the fences: “When you came here it awoke the freedom-fighter inside of me.”
“This inspirational organizing by the strikers in Yarl’s Wood is an important reminder that, despite the attempted constraints of people’s agency in the context of imprisonment, they are and must be at the forefront of the fight against their incarceration. As people acting in solidarity with them - we are not here to co-opt or reformulate their struggle, but to contribute to it,” Lex Ah from SOAS Detainee Support, a group coordinating much of the fighting on the outside, as well as the Detained Voices website, told VICE Impact.
There are few things you can do if you also want to support the women protesting inside Yarl’s Wood: Sign the Petition – calling on the Home Office to grant the demands of Yarl’s Wood strikers. Tweet Solidarity photos – tweet, retweet and share photos holding signs of support for Yarl’s Wood strikers, and share using hashtag #HungerForFreedom. Join a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood strikers. Amplify the voices of the strikers by retweeting their accounts from @detainedvoices. Surround Yarl’s Wood on March 24, 2018.