UK: Organised dissent at Yarl's Wood detention centre met with harsh treatment

19.10.2012 - Mass protests by detainees at the Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire demanding "rights and dignity, and to end the racist, sexist and abusive detention system" have been met with harsh treatment by the authorities. [1]

Sparked by the attempted forcible deportation of a Ugandan woman, C, a mass meeting of detainees on Monday unanimously agreed a list of demands calling for an end to detention, deportations and the UK's "fast track" asylum procedure; and an end to the "modern-day slavery" of work inside detention centres that pays 50p an hour.

Following the attempt to deport C - during which detainees allege she was "forcefully taken naked by seven men out of the Centre" and later "injected by the officers to subdue her and make her unconscious" - around 120 women gathered in a canteen and unanimously agreed to the list of demands which also includes calls for the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to respect freedom of expression and organisation within detention centres, an end to the monitoring of internet and phone usage, and for greater privacy and respect for detainees.

Faced with further protests by detainees on Wednesday afternoon, staff have now resorted to trying to separate perceived ringleaders from other detainees.

The mass meeting and list of demands have emerged from ongoing attempts at political organisation within Yarl's Wood, with detainees supported by activists and organisations on the outside. The current uprising also forms part of a history of protests inside the centre - reserved exclusively for women - where in 2010 some 50 detainees went on hunger strike. [2]

Outside support

Outside Lunar House, the imposing 20-storey tower block in Croydon that is home to the UKBA, members of the Movement for Justice and Croydon Migrant Solidarity gathered on Wednesday for a small but vociferous demonstration - inside a police-built pen of metal barriers - to show their support for the women inside Yarl's Wood, and for all those held in immigration detention across the UK.

Echoing the opening paragraph of the statement issued by the women of Yarl's Wood, Karen Doyle of the Movement for Justice (MFJ) said that women being held - many of whom have suffered rape, torture and abuse and yet can be detained indefinitely under UK law [2] - are being "retraumatised" by their imprisonment.

"We feel there needs to be a massive light shining on what's happening" said Doyle, who has campaigned with MFJ since the organisation was established in the mid-1990s to campaign for the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers and has also been involved in supporting victims of racism and police brutality.

Harsh treatment

At the same time as Wednesday's protest outside Lunar House, around 100 women inside Yarl's Wood gathered in the canteen again to protest and make their demands known to staff inside the centre.

According to Tony Gard of the Movement for Justice, detainees returning from appointments outside the centre, who could hear those inside chanting their demands, have reported that Yarl's Wood was surrounded by police and that a helicopter was hovering overhead. They were not allowed back into the centre.

By about 15:30 protesters inside the canteen started to return to their rooms only to be trapped in a corridor by staff who said they had to be searched before they could leave. [3] Gard says that when the women refused a "stand-off" ensued that lasted until about 21:00, when the group relented and agreed that anyone searched would be allowed to leave immediately afterwards.

Amongst those held in the corridor were several elderly and frail people. Gard says that at least one person collapsed and had to receive medical treatment. It is alleged that nobody held was allowed to have their evening meal and whilst in the corridor people were not provided with water or access to toilets, although the Home Office has refuted this last point. [4]

The next day

Reports received by Movement for Justice allege that on Thursday detainees were allowed to leave their rooms, but not their units - Yarl's Wood is divided into four main housing sections - until about 13:30, when people were allowed out in a staggered fashion. Inmates from Avocet unit, where some of the main organisers are housed, were only allowed out for between one and a half and two hours.

At about 15:00 one of the main organisers conducted an interview with a local radio station, following which herself and two other women from Avocet were called to a meeting with the management, according to Tony Gard. They asked if they could choose who and how many people went to this meeting but were told they could not. The same thing has apparently happened in the centre's Dove unit, and none of the people called to these meetings have been seen since.

Reports suggest that this morning between 8:30 and 9:00 staff came and took the women's belongings from their rooms, which is leading to rumours inside Yarl's Wood that the UKBA are planning to deport them as soon as possible. Tony Gard suspects, however, that "because of publicity they won't be deported yet."

Gard feels that the UKBA are "trying to avoid an explosion" and keep people separated in order to prevent any further unrest. The atmosphere in the centre is said to be tense and fearful.

UKBA could not be reached for comment.

[1] Statement from the women of Yarl's Wood
[2] Afua Hirsch, 'Yarl's Wood women on hunger strike 'locked up and denied treatment', The Guardian, 9 February 2010
[3] 'Yarl's Wood demo claim', Bedford Midweek, 19 October 2012
[4] Ibid.
[3] Detention Action, 'Detained Lives', January 2009, p.6


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