Almost 2,000 people marched on Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire today, Saturday, chanting "Shut it down!" Rejected asylum seekers, mostly women, are locked there for indefinite periods in prison-like conditions.
Many of the marchers were current or former asylum seekers themselves.
Helen from Togo told Socialist Worker, "I'm here to support my sisters inside—and to say nobody is illegal."
Serge from Cameroon said, "I have friends in there who don't know when they will be let out. When people claim asylum they do it for a reason—they flee their country to find safety.
“But instead they are locked up when they haven't committed any crime."
Former detainee Atieno from Uganda added, "No-one deserves to go through what they go through in Yarl's Wood.
“For the first day you are in shock. After that you sink into loneliness and depression. I came to Britain for help—what I got was a prison."
The protest was called by Movement for Justice. It was the latest in a series of demonstrations outside the detention centre. Each has been bigger than the last, as pressure builds to get rid of the brutal detention system.
Aurelia from London said, "I didn't know much about Yarl's Wood, until one of my friends was detained there last year. It really opened my eyes."
Paula was on her first protest. "People often forget about refugees—showing our presence can have a big impact,” she said.
Louise from the Women's Lives Matter campaign against domestic violence service cuts had come on the Doncaster coach. "A girl in a school I worked in was taken into detention with her mother in an early morning raid," she said.
"But there was a campaign that went national, and got one of the first victories against detention. So I've seen what detention can do to people, and what campaigning can achieve against it."
Demonstrators chanted, "When the Home Office attack, we fight back" and, "Asylum seekers have the right, hear to stay, here to fight!" Detainees gave thanks and joined in the chanting over a phone link up.
Some protesters let off flares, and banged on the metal fences and on pots and pans to make sure detainees inside would see and hear them.
Former detainee Rosemary waved to her friends still inside. "I'm very excited. Last time there was a protest I was in there watching. Now I'm out here," she told Socialist Worker. "We want freedom—detention centres must shut down."
Getting asylum in Britain can be a long and stressful process, even for those eventually accepted. Belal from Afghanistan carries a piece of paper warning he is "a person liable to be detained".
He is not allowed to work, has to sign in regularly with the authorities and could be locked up or deported at any moment. The worry has driven him to self harm.
"I've been asking for asylum for eight years but they still won't grant it," he told Socialist Worker. "My mother, my family, they are all dead—and if I go back I'm dead too."
A number of protesters carried rainbow flags to highlight the plight of LGBT+ refugees. Valerie and Kathleen had been locked up in Yarl's Wood after fleeing persecution for their sexuality in Cameroon.
"The Home Office don't believe you about anything, not even your name," said Valerie. "They just have it in their mind that you must be lying if you're an asylum seeker.
“They demand proof that you are a lesbian—things like photos of you having sex. It's abusive."
But protesters were hopeful of landing a blow against the system. Atieno said, "Detention used to be a taboo subject. Now more and more people are becoming aware of it. Rome wasn't built in a day, but with every step we are getting closer.”
And today's demonstration should give further encouragement to take to the streets in London, Glasgow and Cardiff next Saturday against racism and to say “Refugees are welcome here."