The Women of Yarl’s Wood: Abused for Profit and Political Point Scoring

TW: Rape, sexual violence

In the third instalment of our collaborative week with Bristol STAR, Amy Finch recalls joining a protest at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre is set back from the small village of Milton Ernest in the heart of the Bedfordshire countryside, next to an industrial estate only notable for the huge guard tower looming above it. On the 12th March, I stood alongside 2000 protesters, kicking the 25 foot walls of the centre, firing flares and chanting messages of hope and anger to those within.

From inside, women waved to us, streamed rolls of toilet paper to the floor and suspended banners from barely opened windows. One of these makeshift banners, made from t-shirts strung together, read: ‘guards are having relationships with vulnerable women’.

According to Movement for Justice (MfJ), an anti-racist movement that has recently turned its attention to immigration detention and the organisers of the march, guards resort to underhand tactics in order to suppress such resistance. MfJ must communicate cautiously with detainees as the phones and computers supplied are constantly monitored.

At another protest, a party was held for these destitute women, including bingo with prize money. Meanwhile, guards systematically removed pens, pencils, and anything they thought the women might use to communicate with those protesting on their behalf.

In July 2015, the number of asylum seekers entering Europe reached a record high. David Cameron warned that this ‘swarm… coming across the Mediterranean’ would not find a ‘safe haven’ here in Britain.

The UK’s extensive immigration detention estate – the largest in Europe – certainly reflects this message, that refugees and immigrants alike are not welcome. We are also the only EU member state that detains non-citizens indefinitely without charge. More than half of the 32,000 individuals that passed through the system last year were asylum seekers. These people are fleeing their own countries for reasons including political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation. They are often the victims of traumatic incarceration or even torture.

An independent report commissioned by Theresa May called for a complete and immediate ban on the detention of victims of sexual violence, those suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, pregnant women and disabled people. These calls have been ignored.

Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire has a particularly disturbing timeline. Opened in 2001, the centre mainly houses women and until 2011, children.

By February 2002, detainees had burnt the centre to the ground after the aggressive physical restraint of a woman by guards. Reportedly, guards complied with orders to lock detainees inside the burning buildings.

At least half of the incarcerated women are asylum seekers and many will have faced sexual violence in the countries they are fleeing from – one charity alone has records of 500 rape survivors held there. Seeking asylum is a basic human right, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and can under no circumstances be considered a crime.

twss refugee series 3

A Legal Action for Women Report in 2006 investigated several claims of sexual and racial abuse by the guards in Yarl’s Wood: over 70 per cent of women surveyed reported that they had been raped. It would appear that our valuation of basic human rights does not extend to those who threaten our borders, even on UK soil. The blame must fall on our political institutions.

Detention is incredibly expensive, with annual costs per person reaching £44,000 by some estimates. Reportedly, whole flights are chartered to deport small groups of people.

In the independent report commissioned by the home office, Shaw found that internment was not an effective means of ensuring the removal of those who do not have the right to remain. He described the process as excessive and assessed that most people in detention posed no threat to the public.

There can be no financial or practical element to this process. In the case of Yarl’s Wood, this government is using vast sums of taxpayer money to fund systems where women are routinely abused.

In the face of this evidence, the government’s aims can only be ideological. As the dehumanising terminology Cameron uses routinely makes clear, these people are not seen as individuals. MfJ believes that this system plays its part in a cycle of exploiting racist attitudes to present a ‘tough stance’ on immigration.

If these people do not gain citizenship and thus remain part of the immigration system, insidious racist hierarchies remain.

They can be detained at any point on suspicion rather than charge – even those who have lived here for 20 years. Of those held in custody for over 12 months only 38 per cent were actually deported from the country – the purported aim of these ‘removal centres’. This imprisonment of innocent, yet undesirable people violates their basic human liberties on racist grounds for coercion or mere administrative convenience. Residents described the journeys that they made from where they were seized to Yarl’s Wood itself. One woman, apprehended in Northern Ireland, was held in a van with no windows for four days until she reached her destination.

Survivors report that women who are seen to be forming friendships with each other are placed at opposite ends of the detention centre. On release, accepted asylum seekers are often granted accommodation in distant corners of the UK to limit any development of community. Depression rates on leaving the system are high.

These exploitative tactics fall disproportionately on the traumatised and mentally ill, with no consideration for their health or welfare. The charity Women for Refugee Women reported that half of the women they interviewed had been placed on ‘suicide watch’ during their time, with many watched by men, even in intimate situations.

This is representative of the complete control over the women that the guards maintain. In the context of a culture of oppression and control maintained by the center’s privately contracted owners, it is hardly surprising that sexual abuse by guards is both pervasive and repeatedly overlooked. This only furthers the systematic coercion of prisoners.

The main tenet of MfJ is to show solidarity with these women, whilst supporting their liberation. Despite initial language and cultural barriers, as well as naivety to their rights in our legal systems, these women are undoubtedly resilient.

One story of resistance by a woman named Alice was particularly moving. When she wrote ‘freedom’ on her centre-regulation uniform, inciting excitement in the other detainees, the guards restrained her and removed her top in the corridors of the centre. A second time, the same happened, but this time she had also written the message on her body.

In enduring persecution in their own countries and still finding the strength to make incredible journeys to the UK, these women have already demonstrated their incredible optimism. Their vision for a fair and integrated society, free of division and persecution, is surely far greater than the one we are consenting to in allowing this injustice to continue.

MfJ are hopeful for the future. They believe that the expansion of the unjust systems and extreme tactics which aim to oppress and vilify immigrants and asylum seekers will in fact be its downfall, concentrating resistance rather than submission.

These passionate women are forming community within and beyond removal centres, despite the greatest effort to isolate them. After the last election, the Conservatives planned to expand immigration detention centres. Instead, two have been closed down by direct action and inmate defiance.

There is evidence that anti-racist movements may be compelling enough to counter the hateful rhetoric that we have grown accustomed to. Protests in Italy have forced complete reform of their own immigration systems, whilst the fast track process has been eliminated here.

Ending unlimited detention must be the first step to ending this systematic violation of human rights happening in our country. If we are to create a fair and unprejudiced society, the internment of the most vulnerable on suspicion alone must end completely. However David Cameron may frame the movement of refugees and migrants into Europe, the rights of the individual cannot be breached in order to vilify immigrants and further policy.

As the protesters filed out through on the 12th March, we left behind placards, banners, paper cranes and other emblems of solidarity tied to the fences of the centre. But despite the calls of thousands of angry campaigners and several reports at the highest level, Yarl’s Wood remains open and unreformed. The government must be held accountable for Yarl’s Wood and end the institutional violence there. As long as a racist and ideological immigration system persists here, these vulnerable women will not be protected from abuse.

If you are interested in finding out more about or getting involved with Movement for Justice, have a look at their Facebook page.

Image by Kate Dickinson


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