Yarl’s Wood Hunger strikes: Tragedy, hope, action

February 27, 2018

This piece has been written by Mishka*, a member of the Freed Voices group. Freed Voices are a collective of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK. Between them, they have lost over 20 years to detention in this country. They speak out in solidarity with all those in detention. They speak out because they want an immigration system based on justice, dignity and respect. They speak out because they want to see the walls of detention fall.

Freed Voices members stand in solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers.

I see tragedy and hope in the hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood. It makes me recall the hunger strike I was a part of in Harmondsworth a few years ago. There were about sixty of us altogether. We were determined to fight the unfairness that surrounded us. We saw no other way out. We wrote a letter addressed to the Home Secretary at the time: a certain Mrs. Theresa May.

Our asks were a lot similar to the demands the ladies in Yarl’s Wood detention centre are making now. We called for an end to charter flights. We demanded the Home Office stop sending people back to their countries before they had a proper chance to challenge unfair decisions, often made by prejudiced caseworkers. The culture of disbelief in healthcare was still a huge issue. The quality and access to legal support was still being systematically restricted.

We, too, could see no end in sight to our detention. We, too, demanded an end to indefinite detention.

The guards in Harmondsworth took many steps to try and keep our uprising at bay. They suggested that these kinds of actions would affect our pending claims and detention records. They told us this would be evidence of non-compliance. They tried to scare us. They had a clear message: don’t raise your voices against the unfairness or you will face consequences.

Fast-forward a few years, and it seems that the hunger strikers in Yarl’s Wood are both giving (and getting) the same message.

One of the big differences to me is that the number of demands they are making has increased compared to those we made in Harmondsworth. This is an indication that – despite lots of promises from the Government after the Shaw Review – the situation for people in detention has not improved. If you speak to Freed Voices members who have experienced detention several times over the last few years, most of them will say that the reality of detention is getting worse.

What really struck me was just how many of the strikers’ demands are about things that should technically, by the Home Office’s own published protocols, already be ‘in place’. They are asking the Home Office to respect Article 8 law. They are asking the Home Office to respect the European Convention on Human Rights and 1951 refugee convention. They are asking the Home Office to respect due process and procedures.

The Home Office says the Adults at Risk policy protects vulnerable people from detention… but the strikers are calling for an end to the detention of survivors of rape, torture, trafficking and forced labour. Why? The Home Office says they only detain people as a last resort and for as short a period of time as possible… but the strikers are demanding to an end to indefinite detention and a 28-day time-limit? Why?

This is because the Home Office does not practice what they preach. They are dealing with ‘alternative facts’ for political gain. This week, the ex-Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, was on BBC Question Time and he said that “people in detention are people who are illegally in this country” – “asylum seekers go through a different process” – and that those detained “are there for a period of time until they go back to their country”. If only he had looked at his Government’s own immigration statistics released a few days before he appeared on TV!

If he had he would have seen that many people in detention have permission to be in the country – there are people will cases pending, leave to remain and EEA status; around half the people in detention are asylum seekers; and more than half of those detained in 2017 were not removed at all. They were – like me – released back into the community, thereby undermining the foundational Home Office argument for detention: that it is necessary in order to remove people from the UK.

The same statistics showed that, by the end of 2017, of the 2,500 people in detention, 70% had been locked up for more than 28 days, 64 people had been held more than a year, and one person had been held for 4.5 years and counting. It is not a great surprise to learn that Mr. Lewis was the last in a long line of Immigration Ministers who have been ridiculed for claiming there is no such thing as indefinite detention in the UK. We are still waiting to see if the new Minister, Caroline Nokes, owns a dictionary…

Nevertheless, I believe these protests are also cause for hope and a sign of gathering momentum for real change on this human rights disaster.

If you are not someone who has experienced detention first-hand, it might be difficult to understand the dangers of speaking out against this unfair system from inside. There is enormous pressure on you when you are in detention to keep your mouth shut. You are under a strict system of control. The Home Office depends on this culture of fear to continue with their detention policy unchecked.

It takes enormous bravery to do what these women are doing. They can be extremely proud. I also respect that they are talking about the whole system, not just Yarl’s Wood on its own. And that they are talking about comprehensive changes to wider detention policy, not just conditions. We need change everywhere, for everyone. And if it is not fundamental change then people like Brandon Lewis will always just hide behind obscure policy jargon and misinformation.

I hope that these protests form part of some wider actions against the whole ‘hostile environment’. When people like the Yarl’s Wood strikers stand up and speak out, they directly challenge the idea that we migrants are unable, or uninterested, in speaking about policy change. They also remind the world that, first and foremost, before we are stuffed into the Home Office’s divide and rule categories of ‘asylum seeker’, ‘illegals’ or, the ‘very dangerous’ (as Home Secretary Amber Rudd described us yesterday), we are human beings. We are equal. And we demand to have our human rights and our civil liberties protected as such.

These women are doing something really courageous inside.

What are you doing from outside to show our solidarity and support for these brave women?

We need them to know they are not alone.

Here are four things you can do to support the people in detention, courtesy of the SOAS Detainee Support website:

  1. Sign the Petition – calling on the Home Office to grant the demands of Yarl’s Wood strikers.
  2. Send a letter to you MP outlining what the strikers are calling for. Use this template, use the Write to Them website.
  3. Tweet Solidarity photos – tweet, retweet and share photos holding signs of support for Yarl’s Wood strikers, and share using hashtag #HUNGERFORFREEDOM
  4. Attend the Demo in London – Emergency protest outside the Home Office on Wednesday. Here are the details.

* Mishka is not the author’s real name.

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