An all-out hunger strike by 120 women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre has highlighted the barbarity of Britain’s racist immigration laws.
One hunger striker collapsed on Thursday, while another was tricked into being taken away for deportation.
The women are demanding better conditions at the prison—and an end to indefinite detention.
Britain is the only country in the European Union (EU) where asylum seekers can be locked up indefinitely before being deported.
Every year around 30,000 people go through its 13 immigration prisons, such as Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire or Harmondsworth on the outskirts of London.
Theresa, an asylum seeker from Uganda in East Africa, described being in Yarl’s Wood as “psychological torture”. “We should not be locked up like prisoners,” she told Socialist Worker. “At least prisoners know how long they’ll be locked up for, but we don’t.
“Before you know it, it’s six or seven months.
“Yarl’s Wood is depressing and oppressing, they don’t want people to know what it’s like inside.”
Some 314 people were in Yarl’s Wood at the time of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons’ (HMIP) last report, published in November. They included a small number of men and children, but the overwhelming majority were women from Africa.
Many suffered from homophobic laws that were brought in by former colonial power Britain. Theresa explained, “I can’t talk about the details of my case, but there is a problem in my country for LGBT people.
“It means that I cannot return to Uganda.”
Tory minister Amber Rudd’s Home Office will use almost any excuse not to grant people asylum in Britain. “The Home Office said I can go back and live there ‘discreetly’,” said Theresa. “But how can I do that? I can’t.”
She said her case reflected a “pattern” of how the government treats asylum seekers.
Since Tony Blair’s Labour government opened Yarl’s Wood in 2001, the prison has been plagued by scandal after scandal. Just two years into its opening HMIP found that the centre was “not safe”.
And there have been repeated allegations of racist and sexual abuse—including rape—by the private security guards.
Former women detainees described their treatment at a meeting organised by the Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), Women Against Rape (War) and the All African Women’s Group.
According to a report by BWRAP and War one woman said, “A male officer grabbed me when I was naked and still in bed. I started screaming and he covered my mouth.”
Others said “guards watch naked women in the punishment room” and that suicide watch is “used to harass and sexually humiliate”.
Outrage at the scandals has forced some improvement, such as male staff not watching women who are on suicide watch. But the most recent HMIP report found that “in some cases the Home Office refused without explanation to accept rape as torture”.
Many of the women in Yarl’s Wood are already suffering trauma after suffering sexual abuse in their home countries. “Detention had been maintained in most cases that we looked at without addressing the exceptional circumstances for doing so,” noted the HMIP report.
And “in several cases detention was maintained despite the acceptance of professional evidence of torture”.
Detainees have to jump through hoops to gain access to basics such as medication.
As Theresa said, “There’s a laxity in remembering that this is someone that needs help, that we are people.”
The HMIP report admitted, “Some detainees experienced unacceptable gaps in treatment.”
It said, “An unregistered assistant was in charge of medicines [and] a doctor who was not registered as a GP with the General Medical Council was employed at weekends.”
Theresa described how difficult it was for her to get medication. “I needed Olbas Oil for sinuses, but they said they couldn’t prescribe it without going through security,” she said. “I asked if someone could bring it in, but they said that wasn’t allowed.
“They finally sent the email and then forgot about it. And when it came they said—sarcastically—‘Don’t give it to anyone else’.”
This can damage prisoners’ health and is part of a regime designed to make life difficult for them.
Theresa: ‘What affects me affects my sisters too. We’re doing it as a team to put our demands out there’
Before Christine Case died in Yarl’s Wood after a heart attack in 2014, Serco guards had only given her paracetamol.
“Some people who can’t access specialist medication end up on paracetamol, but that’s no good for the liver,” said Theresa.
And the guards’ response to prisoners’ resistance is part of the daily brutality meted out on behalf of the Home Office. “They keep saying patronising things, such as that the hunger strike won’t work because we’ve all got individual cases,” said Theresa.
“But what affects me affects my sisters too. We’re doing it as a team to put our demands out there.”
The women went on hunger strike last week, but have now escalated to a sit-in protest outside the Home Office department in the centre.
Theresa explained, “We had a three-day hunger strike, but it was nullified because we got water and juice.
“So about 25 of us have been doing a sit-in as well.”
Guards at Yarl’s Wood, currently provided by outsourcing multinational Serco, have tried to crack down on the hunger strike.
“They did a lock down last Monday so others could not join us here,” said Theresa.
Prisoners are bravely resisting in the most brutal conditions.
Theresa said, “They try to confiscate our messages for the outside, they are acting under the influence of the Home Office.
“A guard tried to take a note off me. But I said, ‘No’, let the head of Serco confiscate it.”
She added, “The hunger strike will be indefinite to shake them up a little bit—we’re sticking to our guns.”
Anti-racists have to build a movement to show solidarity with them and force Theresa May to shut down all the immigration prisons.
The brutal treatment that Theresa and hundreds of other women face in Yarl’s Wood is meted out by Serco security guards.
The detention and deportations business is a multimillion pound industry for outsourcers such as Serco. Prisons and immigration detention are two of the biggest parts of its empire in Britain.
But the problem runs much deeper than privatisation, and state-run prisons are no less brutal than privatised ones.
Orders in Yarl’s Wood come right from the top of the Tory party—and detainees’ treatment is a direct result of the racist policies it pushes.
As home secretary, Theresa May said she wanted to create a “hostile environment” for migrants who’d come to Britain without the necessary papers. May sent racist vans around some of London’s most multicultural areas telling people to “Go Home”.
This push was all part of the Tories’ flagship Immigration Act 2014 that turned landlords and some other public sector workers into border guards.
It meant it was harder for those without the right paperwork to rent a home, open a bank account or get a driver’s licence.
The 2016 Immigration Act toughened those rules and restricted some migrants’ rights to use public services.
This sort of treatment is designed to put people off coming to Britain—and it has been working.
Figures from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford show that the number of asylum seekers coming to Britain has fallen over the last ten years.
In 2001 the number stood at 84,100, but fell dramatically to 25,700 in 2005 under the Blair government. And following a slight increase after 2010, this fell again under May and Rudd’s watch.
The Tories and right wing press whip up racism against “illegal migrants” whatever the numbers.
For them, attacking asylum seekers is a bridge to encouraging racism against migrants in general. One survey found that the 2014 rules meant anyone without British passports and those with “foreign accents or names” were less likely to get a home.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and attorney general Shami Chakrabarti went to Yarl’s Wood last month.
Abbott called for the Tories to end their racist policy of indefinite detention—and spoke out against families being split up.
Indefinite detention is brutal and is rightly opposed by many campaigners and MPs, including some Tories. But scrapping it wouldn’t stop the deportations—or even imprisonment of asylum seekers.
Anti-racists should demand that Labour pledges to shut down Yarl’s Wood and all the other immigration prisons. It should also stop all deportations and grant asylum seekers indefinite leave to remain.
But the fight against the Tories’ attacks cannot wait for a Labour government, which will in any case not solve the problems facing migrants.
It requires building a mass movement against racism now—and is another reason to join the Stand Up To Racism demonstrations in London, Glasgow and Cardiff on 17 March.
US president Donald Trump has gained the power to detain some migrants indefinitely.
The US Supreme Court ruled last week that migrants can be detained indefinitely without the right to a bond hearing (bail).
Shockingly, even people with permanent legal status and active asylum applications are subject to the new rule.
A 9th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling last year found that migrants in custody should have the right to a bail hearing every six months. The 9th Circuit is the judicial body covering much of the west of the US.
A statement from the Hope Border Institute read, “Many of the cases involve persons seeking asylum who have been determined to have a ‘credible fear of persecution’ in their home countries.”
The chances for the Supreme Court decision to be overturned are slim and the opportunity won’t come until later in the year—or even next year.
“It will get appealed but that likely wouldn’t be until December or January,” migrant rights activist Roberto Valdez told Socialist Worker.
And the move comes on top of other attacks on migrants’ rights. Roberto said that “there are four different lawsuits about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals legislation so it will be difficult to combat all those.”
But legal means are not the most powerful way to fight back against a Trump administration bent on pushing through racist attacks.
As with Theresa May’s attacks in Britain, it will take a movement to push them back
Class struggle toppled apartheid