by Lotty Clare

Content warning: mentions violence against women, abuse, rape, self-harm, suicide, racism, harassment, homophobia.

Last Saturday, a group of UEA students and Norwich residents travelled to a protest at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire. This protest was the fifth Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary (MFJ) has organised to shut down detention centres. As I approached the building, hidden inside an industrial estate, surrounded by fields, in the middle of nowhere, it was just as intimidating and depressing as 6 months ago when I went to Yarl’s Wood for the first time. It looks like a prison, except that it is ‘worse than prison, because you have no rights’, as former detainee Aisha Shua put it. Some women are in Yarl’s Wood because their visa expired, others because their asylum claim was unsuccessful. They have committed no crime. And yet they can be detained there indefinitely.

The Yarl’s Wood website paints a rosy picture of smiling and laughing women. Serco, the company that run the centre, promise ‘Respect, Support, Commitment’ and ‘innovative services’ like healthcare, welfare and work opportunities. The reality is starkly different.

The detainees are treated with an appalling lack of respect for their basic dignity. I have spoken to former detainees who told me how women are always taken there in the dead of night, in the back of bumpy, threatening immigration vans. How people are taken from their homes or kidnapped from the police station where they are signing in as part of the monitoring required of asylum seekers. How they are searched on arrival and have medication taken away from them. Women in Yarl’s Wood are denied healthcare and mental health support, which is particularly shocking considering that the majority of these women have suffered from trauma. Many have ongoing legal proceedings and need to be in contact with their solicitors, but they are denied access to money for phone credit. One of Serco’s ‘innovative services’ offers the detainees work for £1 an hour to cover these essential expenses. Detainees are locked in their rooms at night. They are verbally abused and there have been allegations of sexual abuse and rape. Their treatment is so inhumane that women are self-harming and killing themselves.

The fact that detainees and migrants are leading this fight is what makes it so powerful

Despite these conditions that appear to be designed to break human spirit, and despite efforts to separate the detainees based on race and nationality, women have been organising together and resisting this injustice. Detainees have been holding hunger strikes and writing messages on their t-shirts – to resist and protest in any way they can the inhumane conditions that they are living under. The fact that detainees and migrants are leading this fight is what makes it so powerful. Movement For Justice, who organised the Yarls’ Wood demonstrations, knows that to win means mobilising the most dynamic forces in society, which are the people who are central to the struggle.

This rang true when we listened to ex-detainees like Aisha, who was detained for 2 weeks, and Mabel, who was detained for almost 3 years, sending their message: “Sisters inside, don’t give up, stand up for yourself!” This rang true when the women inside were asked over the loudspeaker what they wanted to say, and in unison the shouted “Freedom!” It rings true when queer youths, people of colour and migrants lead protests against systematic oppression.

This protest was about more than banging on the fence and making lots of noise. It was about more than solidarity. The Yarl’s Wood protests are a part of a sustained movement to fight anti-immigrant bigotry, racism and homophobia. Movement For Justice focuses on immigrant rights and anti-racism precisely because racism and immigrant scapegoating is the most weaponisible tool the political elite can use to divide and rule. Immigrant rights are central to LGBT+ liberation and the student movement as well as the feminist movement. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender migrants are bearing the brunt of institutionalised homophobia and discrimination in the immigration system. LGBT+ people are being locked up in detention centres like Yarl’s Wood. The majority of LGBT+ asylum seekers are being deported back to countries where their lives are in danger because the home office thinks people can just pretend to be straight. For student campaigners, to effectively fight austerity and education cuts, fees and privatisation it is essential to recognise that international students and migrant students are impacted disproportionately.


UEA students at the #ShutDownYarlsWood protest. Image courtesy of Lotty Clare.

The issue of immigration has become the central issue in politics now, with the whole of the Brexit campaign and Theresa May’s Prime Ministerial campaign revolving around “taking back control” and securing our borders. It is a poisonous rhetoric that has detrimental impacts on the lives of thousands of people, who have become dehumanised.

The last few years, especially post Brexit, has seen a massive increase in hate crimes, government attacks on healthcare, education and migrant communities, and widespread hostility towards migrants and refugees. Theresa May led the British government’s Hostile Environment Policy that forced migrants into poverty, turned working a job into a criminal offence, torn apart legal aid, legitimized the bullying and harassment of Muslim children and students, threw thousands of international students out of the country, increased immigration raids, and placed thousands of asylum seekers and others of immigrant backgrounds in secretive indefinite detention. None of us are disconnected from these struggles. If you think these problems are distant from you, you are very wrong. There are immigration raids happening every few weeks in Norwich as in every other UK city, and deportation charter flights leave every few months from Stansted airport.

It is easy to get depressed about how awful this reality is. It would be much easier to believe the lie of the Yarl’s Wood website that the women inside are happy doing multicultural arts and crafts. But the truth is that these women are suffering unimaginably from human rights abuses perpetrated by our government, which is supposed to embody ‘British values’ like tolerance. The irony might be funny if it wasn’t so horrific. Call me crazy, but seeing arms stretched out of narrow window openings, holding signs that say ‘Help’ and ‘Save Us’ does not imply to me that Serco is showing much ‘respect, support, and commitment’ to these women.

Immigrant rights are central to LGBT+ liberation and the student movement as well as the feminist movement

Saturday’s demonstration left protesters with mixed feelings. Stella Ivory, a third year student at UEA, said that she felt ‘deeply sad that we live in a society that has dehumanised immigrants so much that it’s now somehow acceptable to the UK government and the staff there to keep them locked up like animals.’ Another protester, Shannon Wells, told me that she left the protest feeling sad that we are able to go back home while the detainees have to stay indefinitely. But despite the solemn mood, people also left empowered. Most importantly, the detainees, former detainees and asylum seekers present left the protest feeling hopeful and with renewed energy to keep fighting. Aisha told me that, although she feels depressed sometimes, she was encouraged and empowered to see so many people at the demonstration showing that they are willing to fight.

We all have to be willing to fight, to speak out, and to vote to put immigrant rights at the forefront of our action. If we don’t, we are complicit in the forces and systems that oppresses all minorities.


Featured image credit: Jan McLachan

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