On 24th March, M and I got on a 7am train to travel to Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford. We went to join a solidarity demonstration, aiming to give support and encouragement to the (mostly) women inside the centre who were themselves protesting their treatment. 120 of the detainees had been on hunger strike for a month, and we felt so moved by that show of courage and desperation that we felt we had to show up to support them and do what we could to make their voices heard.
Yarl’s Wood is an immigration detention centre. People who do not yet have leave to remain in the UK can be raided and taken to these centres, and locked up there indefinitely. Sometimes they are released, sometimes they are deported, and often without notice. Those detained may be undocumented immigrants, or they may be detained during the process of claiming asylum. They may have had asylum claims rejected and are either in the process of appealing their rejection, or have been left destitute with no means of leaving the country (and in any case, nowhere to go to if they feel that ‘home’ is no longer safe for them). It is government policy that asylum seekers may neither work nor claim benefits, so that if their claim is rejected they are often left destitute, in theory to ‘persuade’ them to leave.
Claiming asylum is a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If a person is in danger and has to flee their country, they may claim asylum on arrival in the first country they arrive in after escaping. If the receiving country finds their claims to be reasonable, they must accept the person and give them protection as a refugee. But countries such as the UK make it a very difficult process. As part of the policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ towards immigration, targets are set for the number of deportations, which means officials are under pressure to reject as many claims as possible to keep numbers of accepted refugees small. As a result, asylum seekers are often lied to or given confusing and conflicted information on arrival about the proper process to making a claim, meaning they can easily be refused refugee status later when it is shown they didn’t follow procedure. If they do claim, they can be kept waiting long periods, refused arbitrarily and forced to go through long appeals processes, made to give concrete proof of their claims, or provide documentation they cannot obtain without putting themselves further at risk. Conversely, they may be ‘fast tracked’, giving them just days to make their case. And all the while, they may be detained and risk deportation.
We first became aware of what was happening a few years back, when a couple we knew were detained, mistreated and deported.
The husband was involved in a political party in his home country, but his political involvement attracted the attentions of a rival, more extreme political group that were known for ‘disappearing’ political opponents. Realising they were in danger, but not understanding their rights to asylum, the couple decided to escape to the UK where they could study towards their profession under student visas. When their studies and visas ended, they then tried to claim asylum, but were rejected as they hadn’t claimed on arrival. They appealed the decision; whilst in the UK, the situation back home had deteriorated. His brother had been hunted down and murdered by the extremists, and furthermore, the couple had become Christians here, which put them at additional risk of persecution back home (and was also how we had come to know them). They went through lengthy appeals; they had the documentation necessary to prove their identities, their political involvement, the activities of the rival group, their relation to the murdered man, his death and the facts surrounding it, and there was plenty of evidence for their new faith being genuine. At the end of the process, their claims were eventually thrown out on the grounds that, as corruption existed in their country, they could in theory have bribed multiple agencies to falsify all the documents. There was no evidence that they could provide that would be accepted in any circumstance, simply because of their country of origin. (That is particularly awful; I challenge you to find me a country in which corruption is completely absent.)
Now pregnant, the couple were detained, I believe in a sudden raid, and taken to Yarl’s Wood. Whilst there, we got word that the husband was being physically abused. The church attempted to gain access to him, to have his wounds investigated, and gain access to a legal investigation into how he had been hurt, but this was denied. The border agency then made a rushed, botched attempt to deport them. The private security firm guards contracted by the agency tried to force them to board a flight to their country of origin; when they struggled to resist this and screamed for help, they were both beaten, subjected to anti-Christian abuse, and handcuffed so tightly that their hands turned blue due to loss of blood circulation. Other passengers on the aircraft who expressed concern were told not to worry, and that the guards would keep them safe from the ‘illegals’ who were making such an unruly racket. The pilot then intervened, and upon seeing how the couple were being treated by the guards, ordered them all to leave the aircraft.
Eventually the agency managed to deport them by separating them, holding them in solitary confinement in different detention centres for a period, and then misinforming both of them that the other had been deported so that they finally consented to be taken. We heard from them shortly after their return that they had immediately fled the country again and were now in hiding over the border. Thankfully their baby survived.
What outrages me most about this process is that people fleeing danger in their own countries are treated with fewer rights than criminals, despite having done nothing wrong. I accept that our country’s resources and capacity to help are not infinite, and also that some bogus claimants will try to play the system, and that it is legitimate (though in my opinion not necessarily moral) to want to exclude such people and ensure that they use legal means of entering the country if they wish to do so. But I don’t accept that we should deny compassion and human rights to anyone, especially those who come to us claiming to be in grave danger and seeking a safe refuge.
Even the most dangerous serial killer is considered innocent until proven guilty (this is because it is easier to disprove a person’s claim to innocence by producing evidence of their culpability than it is to produce evidence that nothing happened, as well as to avoid the possibility of a miscarriage of justice). They must be given a fair trial. They have access to legal representation, medical care, and protection of their lives. Once they are found guilty, they are given a defined sentence. Once they are locked up, they lose their freedom for the duration of that sentence, but are still given adequate food, clothing and medical care, and allowed contact with their families unless deemed dangerous to them.
But an innocent person seeking sanctuary, who has committed no crime but may have escaped a war zone, or torture, or persecution due to their religious or political beliefs or sexuality, is considered guilty until proven innocent. They can be detained without warning, and without trial, denied access to legal representation and medical care. Their detention can be of any undefined duration. And whilst detained, they may not be given adequate nutrition or medical care and may be held in solitary confinement, without access to their families or other detainees. And all this is extremely damaging to a person’s physical and mental health.
Human rights abuses are occurring. In addition to taking away a person’s freedom, access to adequate care, dignity and rights to a fair trial and determined period of detention, there are allegations from former detainees of physical, sexual and emotional abuse taking place within the secretive confines of the detention centres, away from public scrutiny, so numerous that such treatment may be the norm.
When we heard the women of Yarl’s Wood were on hunger strike as a result, we felt we couldn’t stand by and do nothing to back them up.
When we arrived at Yarl’s Wood, we saw a large, long accommodation block, surrounded by a tall, green security fence and CCTV cameras. Outside the fence, stretching most of the length of it, was a crowd of fellow demonstrators, many of whom were themselves former detainees of Yarl’s Wood or other centres, with PA systems set up. Inside the fence, though the windows of the centre were only able to be opened a hand width, we saw the vague shapes of many women detainees in the windows, heard their voices calling for freedom, human dignity and closure of detention centres, and saw their waving hands. Many of them had put up placards in the windows with slogans such as ‘No human is illegal’, and some were waving bras(!) or beating the windows with plastic bottles. Placards on the outside of the fence held encouraging messages about other detention centres that had been closed down. The demonstrators had put up a phone number that detainees could call to be put through to speak to us over the PA, and between chanting (‘Yarl’s Wood – shut it down!’) and beating on the fence to make a noise that the detainees could hear to know we were there with them, we were addressed by speakers from both sides of the fence. It was incredibly powerful; the stories we heard and the courage evident in the detainees’ protest were moving and humbling.
We heard both current and former detainees tell their stories. Some had escaped torture. Several were in danger of persecution or of the death penalty for their sexuality (they told of the difficulty and humiliation of having to try to prove their sexuality). One was in danger because of her opposition to the government. Some could not speak of what they had escaped. They told how they were qualified in fields such as nursing and engineering. We heard from some how they longed for home, but could never return whilst the danger persisted, from others how frustrating it was to be unable to do the jobs they were qualified for here and realise their potential.
We heard story after story detailing demeaning treatment from officials, of dismissed evidence, of being detained without warning in dawn raids. We heard of lies they’d been told whilst in detention to repeatedly raise and dash hope, amounting to psychological abuse (the worst example was from one of the current detainees, telling us how another couple had suddenly been summoned early one morning, told they were being released and to pack because they would be leaving in a mere matter of hours, and being overjoyed – only to find it was a deportation attempt). Several reported that detainees were offered a paracetamol for any medical complaint, regardless what it was or how severe, so that detainees themselves sometimes had to call an ambulance to gain proper medical attention, and of suicide attempts being met with removal of possessions and humiliating denial of privacy as the suicidal person was put under constant watch. And we heard that they were offered ‘work’ such as cooking, decorating, cleaning and repairs at the centre – for £1 a day! Tantamount to slavery, and assisting in their own detention. Several former detainees had told how they had been detained and released multiple times.
We also heard stories of courageous resistance; of hunger strikers, of detainees standing up to the authorities, of those put to work in the centres deliberately being non-cooperative (for example, one man told how, made to work in the kitchen, he had emptied a pan onto the floor in front of the guard who was ordering him to work). Former detainees urged those inside to stay strong, to keep resisting, to make life difficult for their captors (one spoke of how he had been accepting and compliant during his first detention, believing what he was told about his release being sped up if he behaved well, but found that those who made the most trouble were released sooner, and had subsequently learned to fight back), and to believe that change is possible and that we were here supporting them. They told them the authorities were running scared, and encouraged them to keep up the pressure.
These people showed tremendous strength of character, enduring and resisting under conditions I don’t doubt for a moment would break me. I was profoundly humbled.
It was clear that the process was both inhumane and damaging for individuals, but also ineffective and costly to the state.
These detainees strike me as brave, educated people, wanting to contribute to society and with so much to offer; already brave in escaping such awful dangers, they are now speaking out for justice in a shamefully hostile environment here. I was humbled and inspired by their bravery and strength. I felt honoured to have the chance to meet some of them, to hear their stories, and I couldn’t help feel that these heroic individuals could only be of benefit to our society for their courage, compassion, wisdom and determination to see the world change for the better. The more I heard, the more I was inspired to keep speaking out with them.
Short-term, I want to see asylum seekers treated like (suspected) criminals – and it appals me that that would be an improvement on the current situation. I want to see the hunger strikers’ demands* met. I want to see asylum seekers informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained. Medium-term, I hope one day we can see the end of detention all together, and a much fairer and more compassionate approach to asylum.
Long-term… I dream of a world that is safer and more equal, where people can move freely as they choose, where borders are reduced to a line of an address and an administrative convenience, and no longer deny anyone’s freedom. So long as some countries are relatively poor, dangerous or unstable there will naturally always be both a flow of refugees and a separate pressure of net migration away from them, but I believe the better response to this (though more difficult) is to work towards the prosperity, stability and safety of those places, rather than to close the borders of our country and our hearts against those trying to find a better life here.
‘Break the silence, cross every border that divides us, unite us…’
– Delirious?, Break The Silence
Below is a copy of a letter I’ve written to my MP; if you want, please feel free to use this as a template to write to your own MP, though I’d advise you to put it into your own words since I’ve written it from my own perspective as someone who attended the demonstration and heard these stories first-hand. You can send an email to your MP quickly and easily here, all you need to know is your own postcode as the site finds your MP’s name and contact details for you from that.
On 24th March, after hearing that 120 detainees had been on a month-long hunger strike in protest at their treatment, we went to attend a solidarity demonstration at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. I want to tell you what we saw and heard there, and ask you to speak up on their behalf and mine as one of your concerned constituents.
(I here added much of what I’ve written above)
I believe human rights abuses are taking place in these detention centres and in the asylum system as a whole. It appals me that people who have committed no crime but are fleeing danger and horrors are given worse treatment and fewer rights than even the most dangerous criminals. I want to at the very least see asylum seekers treated like suspected criminals: I want to see them informed properly of their status, rights and procedure, and what they can expect of their treatment from the outset. I want to see them given fair trials. I want them to be presumed innocent until proven guilty (ie, that their claims would be taken to be true with the onus on us to try to disprove what they were saying and produce contrary evidence, or else accepted). I want to see those detained given definite, fixed detention periods, and full access to food, clothing, contact, legal services, medical care, protection from abuse, and human dignity whilst detained.
Please would you do all you can to put pressure on the government to:
- Meet the demands of the hunger strikers (which are detailed below*, as written by them)
- Close detention centres like Yarl’s Wood and move towards a fairer, more humane process
- End the ‘hostile environment’ policy to immigration
Our country is not ‘full’, and I believe there is plenty of capacity, will and ability to help many more people seeking sanctuary than we are currently. Furthermore it is inhumane to set quotas on the numbers of people fleeing for their lives who we will help.
I want to see the government stand up to xenophobic rhetoric head on and assert the UK as a place of safety for those in genuine need of it, as far as we possibly can as a prosperous nation, whilst working towards a safer world, tackling the dangers that force people to flee their countries in the first place.
Thank you for your time.
*The demands of the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers:
1. Shorter bail request periods
Legally it should 3-5 days, however it can take anywhere up to 21 days, or even a month before you get a bail hearing date
2. Amnesty for those who have lived in the UK 10 years and above
3. End indefinite detention
Detention periods shouldn’t be longer than 28 days
4. End Charter flights
Charter flights are inhumane because there are no prior notifications, or only an oral notification with no warning. They give no time to make arrangements with family.
5. No more re-detention
Redention should not be allowed – if you have been detained once, you should not be re-detained if you are complying with the laws they have applied. This is a contradiction, you are being punished for complying with the law; it ruins the whole purpose of expecting compliance
6. End systematic torture
Systematic torture takes place in detention – at any point an officer could turn up and take your room mate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next. Those who are suicidal now have their privacy taken away because they are being watched – you don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or coming to take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later
7. Stop separating families
Separating families is inhumane – people in here are married or have British partners and have children outside, and they are denied their right to private life and right to privacy; their Article 8 rights
8. No detention of people who came to the UK as children
Young adults who came to the country as minors should not be detained, deported or punished for their parents’ immigration histories
9. The beds need to be changed
Some of us have been here for a year on the same bed; they’re the most uncomfortable beds
10. LGBT+ persons’ sexuality be believed
It should be understood that explaining your sexuality is difficult
11. Fit emergency alarms in every room in the detention centre
Only some rooms have them, and there have been a lot of cases of people being very ill in places where they can’t call for help
12. Give us access to proper healthcare
13. Give us proper food to look after our diets
14. Release people with outstanding applications
15. We want to speak to Alistair Burt MP for the constituency