Image: Women wave at protesters from their rooms in Yarl’s Wood.
On 13 May 2017, the women detained at Yarl’s Wood saw the biggest crowd to date protesting outside the metal fences that separate them from fields of yellow flowers.
After the train journey to Bedford and a fifteen-minute coach ride to the middle of nowhere, we joined over a thousand people outside the business park that houses the immigration removal centre, along with a pet crematorium and an indoor skydiving centre.
Together we marched past fields and around the business park until we reached Yarl’s Wood’s fences. At the other side, women’s hands waved at us through the small gaps that their windows open up to.
Over 400 detainees are currently being held at Yarl’s Wood, most of whom are women. They are asylum seekers and “illegal” immigrants held without trial, waiting to be deported. And the wait can be long. In fact, the UK is the only country in the EU that doesn’t have a time limit for detention.
A parliamentary report from 2015 shows that spending more than 28 days in detention can be “catastrophic” for someone’s mental health. And yet the longest-serving detainee at Yarl’s Wood, Mabel Gawanas, was released on 6 May 2017, after three long years in detention. She has now been reunited with her eight-year-old daughter following years of fighting for her – and her fellow detainees’ – freedom.
People who are taken into a detention centre do not know how long they will be held before they are released or deported. Many of the women detained fled countries where they were at risk of violence or female genital mutilation, only to be met with more violence in a continent where they thought they would be safe.
“We are kept like animals”
We banged on the fences, we played music. Detainees could be heard shouting “we want freedom” from their windows. Some of the women inside the detention centre called a phone that was plugged into some speakers. “I want freedom, please!” one of them said, “I have two children”.
Yarl’s Wood is run by the private-sector company Serco. The company was offered a new eight-year contract by the government in 2014 (for £70 million) despite allegations of sexual abuse and human rights violations being made for over a decade.
A year after the contract renewal, an inspection carried out by HM Inspectorate of Prisons in April and May 2015 found that the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre was “not meeting the needs of vulnerable women” and that it had “deteriorated since the last inspection and that needs of women held [had] grown”.
A Channel 4 undercover documentary from 2014 revealed the racism and misogyny with which some of the staff members talked about detainees: “Should’ve f***ing headbutted the b**ch” said one, while another said: “Some of those women in there are horrible… There’s a lot of them that are really nice. But some of them, these black women, they’re f***ing horrible, mate”.
Women inside Yarl’s Wood have accused Serco’s staff of sexual abuse and humiliating treatment, including watching them take showers, walking into their rooms without warning while they were getting changed, strip searching and offering them help to be released in exchange for sex. Self-harm and suicide attempts are not uncommon and the prevalence of mental health issues amongst detainees is high.
One of the most alarming accusations is that many women aren’t getting the health services or psychological support that they need.
“Mothers are separated from children, disabled people are kept who cannot help themselves, mentally ill detainees are kept … who do not have support”, said Mabel Gawanas, who has taken part in every Surround Yarl’s Wood protest, but on Saturday did so from the other side of the fence for the very first time.
“The officials and managers are not professional people to deal with people who have been victims of torture, victims of rape and mentally ill detainees… we are kept there like animals”, she said.
Image: Mabel Gawanas at the protest outside Yarl’s Wood on 13 May 2017.
In her heart-breaking speech, Mabel addressed the women who are still detained at Yarl’s Wood and who were listening from their windows: “I told you I would come back and I have kept my promise. I am there with you. I will never forget you”.
It is not difficult to imagine the isolation that the women at Yarl’s Wood must feel, the sense of having been forgotten by everyone except for a few campaigners and support groups, while inside they are protesting, going on hunger strikes and waiting indefinitely for someone else to decide their future.
Surround Yarl’s Wood is not only a demand to shut down all detention centres. It is also a cry of solidarity, a way of showing that other people care and to bring the women inside fresh hope as they continue to fight for their freedom.
If you would like to get involved or attend the next Surround Yarl’s Wood, follow Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary.
Clare Crosland is the Projects and Communications Officer at The Circle.