Sections of the outer fence of Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre were torn down last Saturday, as some 700 people protested outside to demand its closure.
Protesters had gathered at the gate of the centre, located near Bedford. They marched around the perimeter to a place where the detained women inside could hear them chanting. Many shook the outer fence until sections of it came down.
Protesters and detainees joined in cheers. Chants of “shut it down” echoed around the fields which surround Yarl’s Wood.
One woman came to the demonstration with Women Asylum Seekers Together. She told Socialist Worker, “This is the first time I’ve actually seen Yarl’s Wood. Whatever they call it, it’s just a prison.
“Seeking asylum is not a crime. We should be protected and treated with dignity. But people are detained and forced to live in fear.
“I have friends who jump every time they hear a car door outside because they think it is people coming to detain them again.”
Women inside heard the chanting and shouted back, holding homemade banners out of the tiny windows.
Yarl’s Wood is the main centre for holding women refugees whose claims have not been accepted. The centre, run by private security firm Serco, holds around 400 women. A few men and boys are also held in a small family centre.
Detainees are forced to stay there as they await appeals or deportation as “failed asylum seekers”.
Women For Refugee Women called last Saturday’s Set Her Free protest. A range of organisations backed it including Liberty and the Movement for Justice. Coaches came from Manchester, Birmingham and London.
Detainees inside organised their own parallel protest. One wrote on the Detained Voices website, “The protesting was amazing! I enjoyed every single moment.
“That was the time to let that anger out and put forward the craving for freedom. Yarl’s Wood is such a confinement and a depressing place that detainees were hoping protesters would break the gate so we could escape.
“Some had their bags ready just in case. I am sure what we did will not be a waste.”
Sophie Radice from Women for Refugee Women, spoke to Socialist Worker.
She said, “Today’s protest comes out of a year and a half of campaigning. We have produced two reports on how people are treated in Yarl’s Wood.
“The second one covered the very inhumane treatment of the women inside by the staff.
“This led to us being involved in Channel 4’s news programme with undercover filming inside. After that we felt that the issue was getting a national response.
“A lot of detainees themselves told us it was time to call a demonstration. We will carry on campaigning and coming here.”
Sophie is angry at the government’s plan to make anyone who wants to appeal against a decision to deport them wait until after they have been sent back to the country they fled.
“It’s frankly inhuman. It’s against the whole ethos of asylum,” she said
Protester Robbie Islam said, “Everyone has a right to be safe. This country always says it has a great record of helping vulnerable people.
“Well they should shut down places like this to prove it.”
Human rights barrister Helena Kennedy, head of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett were among the speakers who addressed a rally at the start of the protest.
Other speakers included celebrities Juliet Stevenson and Josie Long. The Movement for Justice has called a follow-up demonstration on 8 August.
Politicians’ hypocrisy risks lives
The government’s recent self-congratulation over its role in rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean Sea is entirely hypocritical.
The media has been full of news that HMS Bulwark has rescued 2,700 people. Defence secretary Michael Fallon flew out to the ship last weekend to praise its role.
He said, “We must go after the root cause and the trafficking gangs who are making money out of human misery.”
And last week David Cameron claimed, “The vast majority in the Mediterranean are not asylum seekers, but people seeking a better life.”
Socialist Worker thinks people have the right to come here whatever the reason. But Cameron’s claim isn’t true.
According to Amnesty International refugees from Eritrea and Syria make up 46 percent of the number.
The government argues that the problem is people traffickers, not the horrific conditions that push people to risk their lives.
Britain spent months refusing to take part in rescues. This was partly because the government claimed they encouraged more people to come.
But people were still desperate enough to come even when they knew there was little hope of rescue.
Over 50,000 people have been rescued by European Union (EU) boats since April.