For the last two weeks I’ve found it exhausting and incredibly painful to walk for longer than five minutes due to a stress fracture, so, despite it getting a little better, I made the rather sad, but sensible decision not to go to Return from Strength Fest in Querfurt, Germany this weekend. Still, I was determined not to have a solo pity party soundtracked with many teeny tiny violins. The huge silver lining for me was that it meant I was able to go to a demo calling for the closure of UK Immigration Removal Centres (IRC) outside the almost all Women’s centre Yarl’s Wood, in a Bedfordshire Business Park that has been operating since 2001.
I cannot stress this more, the women held in these centres, many of whom say conditions are worse than prison, have committed NO crime, and in most cases have had sexual and violent crimes committed against them. Many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is acutely worsened by being locked up. Women who came to seek refuge from all sorts of perpetrators (traffickers, family members, soldiers, other community groups) are now being intimidated, harassed (there have been allegations of sexual harassment) and locked up by a country that is bound by International Law to look after them. Don’t get me started on morality, or basic human compassion. These conditions have led to numerous hunger strikes, self harm and attempts at suicide.
Channel Four produced an undercover report on the centre. It’s not light watching but it needs to be seen. Yarl’s Wood: undercover in the secretive immigration centre
Women make up a smaller percent of asylum seekers, being much more vulnerable whilst at home, and during the journey to another country. They have less opportunity to escape their situations due to higher levels of illiteracy, being second class citizens and generally poorer and less empowered than men. For those that do escape and claim asylum here, to then be locked up by our Government, and ‘looked after’ by a private security firm is disgusting. I have spoken to many of these women over the phone, and yesterday I got to be there in solidarity with them. Making sure they knew we were fighting for them, and they are not alone, and not forgotten about.
Approximately 400 of us turned up with placards, musical instruments and a lot of anger, and a hell of lot of love and compassion for our fellow human beings. We listened to some empowering and moving speeches by ex-detainees as well as Shami Chakrabarti, Helen Kennedy QC, Juliet Stevenson, the Bedford Tory MP Richard Fuller & comedian Josie Long (amongst others.)
We then walked around the perimeter of the compound until we reached the side in which the inmates would be able to see us out of their windows. The guards attempted to arrange a game of bingo with prizes to try and entice inmates away from their rooms/the windows, but failed.
The next hour was a mixture of both groups waving, chanting and singing. Many women inside waved clothes and flags, and put messages up against the window. Telephone conversations were shared over the microphone. It was emotional. Everyone I was with welled up a few times, either overcome by the sadness of the situation, the positivity and energy of the protest in general, but most importantly moved by the stories and strength of the women inside. A fence was pulled down, but it was a peaceful protest, and in parts had a carnival type atmosphere. Police presence was minimal, and definitely no intimidation or threats of arrest. I think they seemed more bewildered by it all than anything else.
National news coverage here: