As we arrive at Yarl’s Wood, a thick blanket of snow renders the sprawling Bedfordshire industrial estate that is home to the centre particularly bleak. Yarl’s Wood is not a prison. However, inmates are banned from social media, threatened with solitary confinement, share small bedrooms, are granted sporadic bail hearings and are paid £1 an hour for basic labour. Last weekend, the women reached breaking point and defied their individual fears of deportation to come together and fight for the rights of immigration detainees across the country.
Britain is currently the only EU member state that practises the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. This sees women – the majority of whom are victims of sexual violence – incarcerated for months on end in an arbitrary and chaotic system, with Home Office statistics showing that over 80 per cent of them are ultimately released back into the community.
Yarl’s Wood is what the government call an Immigration Removal Centre – one of 11 in the UK, created ostensibly to house migrants with failed visa applications until they can be deported to their countries of origin. It holds up to 410 mostly female inmates and is managed by private company Serco. Since opening in 2001, the centre has been mired in controversies surrounding conditions, from sexual-misconduct allegations against staff to daily suicide attempts.
"We believe the Home Office is overwhelmed, not fit for purpose and operates in a rogue manner,” is the rallying cry currently on the Detained Voices (an online pool of stories from women held in immigration centres) Twitter page – the platform through which over 120 hunger strikers have been communicating with the outside world since last Wednesday. It’s these women I’m here to meet.
After slowly making our way through layers of security we meet Afiya (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) in the centre’s stuffy and creepily innocuous visit room, where a television blares and a cartoon mural of cows in a field is a poor replacement for reality. Afiya explains that she’s a lesbian from Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal. Aged 17, she was forced into a nine-year marriage with a man who regularly beat and raped her, and was attacked by a group from her local community, including her husband. Four months after escaping the marital home, a charity helped to bring her to safety in the UK. She had already built a life for herself in London when she was arrested and brought to Yarl’s Wood in the dead of the night, five months and one week ago. Her asylum application had been refused on the grounds that she couldn’t sufficiently prove her sexuality.
Serco and the Home Office have received their list of demands – including adequate healthcare provision, improved legal access, an end to the detention of victims of torture and sexual violence and a 28-day limit on detention – but, so far, they are yet to respond
Afiya describes the strange elation that she felt when a note about the strike was passed to her in the dining room. “For the first two weeks [after arriving] you think you’re going to get out,” she explains. “But detention takes away your spirit.” She’s visibly weak and sometimes struggles to maintain her train of thought, having had nothing to eat or drink for three days, but this new action has offered a glimmer of hope. We explain to her that the protest was debated in the House of Lords yesterday – where it was raised by Liberal Democrat spokesman Lord Paddick – and she beams with pride.
She’s elated because, with little access to the outside world, it’s difficult for the strikers to gauge whether their efforts are having any impact. Serco and the Home Office have received their list of demands – including adequate healthcare provision, improved legal access, an end to the detention of victims of torture and sexual violence and a 28-day limit on detention – but, so far, they are yet to respond.
In fact, a Serco statement last week denied that there was a hunger strike at all. “There are a number of women who did not take food in the restaurant,” the release read. “Furthermore, the purchase of food by residents from the shop increased at the same time so we know people have been eating.” Afiya explains that in preparation for the hunger strike, protesters were advised to stock up on food from the shop so that they could provide a small amount to those needing to take medication.
Since Monday, approximately 40 of the hunger strikers have been staging sit-ins outside the legal and medical departments. Among them are a Nigerian woman, who has lived in the UK for over 30 years, and an Algerian who was going on her honeymoon when she was detained, having lived in England for 20 years.
Many are still in the process of appealing asylum decisions. Afiya is awaiting a tribunal that was postponed on 14 February, but she says that this is no guarantee that she won’t be whisked away to board a charter flight to Uganda. “We live in constant fear of removal,” she says. Plus, she still suffers from flashbacks of her nightly beatings, exacerbated by male staff who can enter her room unannounced at any time following a suicide attempt. Her only mental-health provision is a male nurse who asks probing questions about her visa status. She isn’t even allowed to go outside for the runs she once found so cathartic.
But now there’s hope. Last week, the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was granted long-awaited access to Yarl’s Wood and cited conditions as “deeply concerning”; campaigner Ash Sarkar called out the strike on Question Time; and an estimated 200 demonstrators came together yesterday outside the Home Office in a show of solidarity with the strikers.
We spoke to Natasha Walter of Women For Refugee Women. “For too long, women who are locked up in Yarl's Wood have been out of sight and out of mind. This strike is important because women themselves who are in detention are speaking out. We owe it to them to listen.”
And Afiya has a defiant message from the group. “We are willing to push the strike until our voices are heard,” she says. These brave women will not be leaving quietly