On Saturday 3 December, hundreds of people will gather to demand the closure of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in the biggest protest seen so far. But the movement is not just about one detention facility. It is about challenging Britain’s racist immigration policies, and it is led by those who know them all too well.
A nightmarish hellhole
Yarl’s Wood is one of a dozen Immigration Removal Centres in the UK. But it is probably the most infamous one since an undercover investigation by Channel 4 revealed what was taking place inside: sexual abuse, racist and dehumanising language and contempt from guards. From the outside, it looks like any nondescript building, with its grey walls and rows of windows. But the barb-wired fence gives away its sinister nature.
Aisha, a Yarl’s Wood detainee, told Scisco Media:
I still have nightmares. I keep thinking I’m still inside. It’s scary because you don’t know what will happen next, you have to follow what the guards are saying. In the mornings they check everybody to see everybody’s still alive.
Aisha was detained in July when she went to a police station for a routine “sign on”. The Ugandan had been applying for a right to stay on humanitarian grounds, and part of the process is reporting regularly to the authorities as she is not allowed to leave the country: Aisha said:
That moment the Home Office picked me up they told me that my application had not gone through and they detained me. I spent seven or eight hours at the police station in custody. And then they took me here to Yarl’s Wood.
Five days later, the Home Office tried to deport Aisha, which was when she applied for asylum. She was lucky to be released from detention, but panic attacks continue to haunt her.
Aisha told Scisco Media her story on a Saturday in September, standing in a muddy Bedfordshire field outside Yarl’s Wood. It was on the same day as the ninth demonstration to shut down the centre that hosts nearly 400 women, with some men and families. The detainees are mainly asylum seekers. But also foreign offenders waiting to be deported are taken into detention. Aisha asked to keep the interview brief so she can join the other activists, many of whom are ex-detainees. They were kicking and rattling the fence surrounding the building. As protested shouted “Shut it down!”, the women inside were waving from the windows.
The movement is led by ex-detainees, and the impetus to come and protest at the detention centre has come from them. As Anna Pichierri from Movement for Justice put it:
The women inside are fighters and standing up for their freedom, and this is inspiring.
Aisha has been in legal limbo for over 10 years, but has not lost hope:
I like to think positive. Positivity is the only thing that keeps you going.
Movement for Justice started the demonstrations in early summer 2015 and has since been joined by many groups, mainly those fighting for women’s rights. Pichierri told Scisco Media:
The connection with women inside and having the demonstration where they can see us is really powerful. They are organising inside for the day.
The demonstrations are about shaking the walls of Yarl’s Wood and supporting the women inside who, on a daily basis, have to respond to the racist and sexist abuse. But it is not just about the abuse, it is about being in a struggle with other women, having a sense of collectiveness. Even if you are from different countries, different sexualities, completely different backgrounds, you are living in the same space, subjected to the same abuse and you start realising ‘OK, we are united and together. We are more than those guards and we can defend each other’.
“Shut it down”
At the protest in September, when the organisers call the women inside, instead of giving speeches about detention many of the women just wanted to join the chants over the phone. “Freedom! Shut it dooooooown!”, they cry, and the demonstrators joined in.
This connection is what makes the movement to shut down Yarl’s Wood so powerful. Because let’s face it, too many protests people go to are not led by individuals facing such multiple oppressions and systemic violence. And the Yarl’s Wood demonstrations are not just against one detention centre.
As Pichierri puts it:
All immigration policies are racist. But locking up people who have committed no crime – how do you justify that?
The campaign to shut down detention centres is gaining headway. Last November, the facility in Dover was closed; in early September this year the Home Office announced Dungavel, another centre in Scotland, would be closed by the end of 2017. This forms part of the government’s strategy to reduce the number of migrants in detention, announced at the start of this year.
But this is hardly because the government is getting friendlier. Victories have to be fought for. The pressure to close Dungavel mounted from hunger strikes inside and protests outside, similar to the ones at Yarl’s Wood. And when the fast-track processing of asylum applications was ruled unlawful in 2010, the government appealed the decision, postponing the final decision until 2015.
“The end of fast track was a major victory for us”, Pichierri says. “That gave us a boost”.
But Pichierri recognises that the pursuit to end oppressive policies has not got easier. The government is still committed to reducing the number of immigrants in the country. Theresa May’s political record includes a 2013 campaign to encourage undocumented migrants to leave the country, delivered in vans carrying the message “Go home or face arrest”. In her own words, her aim was “to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.
One of the government’s tools for cracking down on immigration are raids of communities and workplaces. In July, the burger chain Byron collaborated with immigration authorities with a raid on its workers. Byron was subjected to an avalanche of bad press and instantly became a target for activists. But the crackdown was not a one-off. The Home Office does around 6,000 workplace raids a year.
“Raids are happening to get the community on their feet”, Pichierri believes.
Authorities are also ramping up mass deportations. Earlier this autumn, the Jamaican community in South London was subject to such a raid. People, many of whom had lived in the UK for decades, were taken into detention and put on a plane to Jamaica with just day’s notice.
Pichierri explains how this tears families apart:
Within the same family you can have members with a different immigration status. The law keeps changing, and maybe before you were in the right category and now just because of the change of the law you’re in a different category and can be taken into detention.
Critical research cooperative Corporate Watch have examined the legality of such mass deportations. It concluded that they may well be unlawful, as the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits the “collective expulsion of aliens”.
The scapegoating must end
In addition to the hundreds of people who make their way to the fields surrounding Yarl’s Wood on Saturdays every few months, Pichierri tells me that Movement for Justice’s message resonates with many they reach out to:
We leaflet [in London] and people get the connection between immigrant-bashing and austerity. The society we live in is made of immigrants.
Pichierri’s reflections on the debate surrounding immigration and detention in the UK are a sombre, but resolute appraisal. Reflections which we should all heed:
What we see now is the scapegoating of immigrants used as a weapon, and when we say that we can fight for jobs and housing for everyone, it’s powerful. And I think more people can see through this.
There are coaches to the demonstration from London, Liverpool, Manchester, Doncaster/Sheffield, Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol, Oxford and Nottingham. You can book your ticket here.