Hundreds of protesters surrounded the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire yesterday, Saturday—as detainees waved homemade flags and banners from inside.
The crowds chanted, “Brick by brick, wall by wall, detention centres have to fall”.
Yarl’s Wood, run by private firm Serco, holds hundreds of migrants and failed asylum seekers—the majority of them women—in prison-like conditions. It has become notorious after three deaths in custody and numerous allegations of racist and sexual abuse.
Jade, secretary for campaign group Women For Refugee Women, told Socialist Worker, “These people have committed no crime, yet they are in a prison. They are not free to do anything, they are monitored 24 hours a day.
"All they have done is seek asylum—and I think asylum is not a crime.”
The demonstration was called by Movement for Justice and supported by pro-refugee, anti-racist, feminist and human rights campaigns including Stand up to Racism. Organisers said around 1,000 people joined it.
Holly from the Student Action for Refugees society at King’s College London told Socialist Worker she was encouraged by recent protests in defence of refugees. “Last year we had ten members, this year it’s 80,” she said.
“There has been a change and it’s given me immense hope. We can get rid of detention centres. It’s got to come through movements like this, through protest."
Many of those protesting were former detainees. One woman told Socialist Worker she had joined this demonstration after seeing one from inside her cell as a detainee.
Jade was detained in Oakington detention centre in her youth. She marched on Yarl's Wood with her daughter.
“Oakington is now closed, and Yarl’s Wood will close too," she said. "If the government doesn't close it down we will keep campaigning."
Protesters banged on the metal walls, as detainees held up signs at their windows with slogans such as “Freedom Now” and “I am human”.
Movement For Justice organiser Antonia told Socialist Worker, “They knew we were coming today and they are well organised. There’s been a consistent group in there organising for some time.
“And today a lot of people have shown they are determined to join their struggle.”
‘All my dreams died in Yarl's Wood'
Josephine was detained in Yarl's Wood in 2009. She told Socialist Worker, "I came to Britain running for my life but the Home Office didn't believe me.
“They brought me here in a van. I couldn’t see where I was going, I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know about asylum or refugee status or legal aid. There was a young girl from Ethiopia who didn’t speak any English. I just tried to comfort her and tell her not to cry.”
Josephine described the conditions inside.
“You have no privacy as a woman—they can check on you at any moment. You could be sleeping, you could be bathing, and the men just come in. There are cameras everywhere. And then you hear the chains on the door.
“Out of my window I could see more vans bringing more people all the time—even at night. There was a woman deported who was heavily pregnant.
“If your family sends you a tape or CD to help keep you strong they can listen to it—or not give it to you at all. If you have a good phone with a camera they take it off you and replace it with one that doesn’t have a camera. Why would they do that if it was a nice place?
“I got too stressed to eat—I would vomit every time. So they said, ‘Ok, if you want to starve yourself to death you will be locked in isolation.’ I was all alone.
“It’s not detention—it’s a prison.”
Josephine left an abusive relationship in Uganda, only to be trafficked to Denmark by a relative who tried to push her into sex work. But she made it to Britain, found work and for seven years tried to make a new life for herself.
“I worked so hard,” she said. “I dreamed of being a carer. But all my dreams died in Yarl’s Wood.”
Josephine was released after two months, but is still awaiting asylum. She is not allowed to work, and has relied on charities for accommodation. Now the charity that has housed her for a year has said she has to move out to make way for others in need.
She remains a person “liable to be detained”—and has to keep reporting to the authorities with the threat of a return to Yarl’s Wood hanging over her.
“What more do they want me to do?” she asked
“Sometimes I feel like dying. I wish I was a politician to change this. This land was made by God—how can they put us in prison for being here?”