At the top of the hill and surrounded by innocent grasslands stretching remotely into the distant skyline, migrants remain behind bars at Yarl’s Wood detention centre and they are continuing their hunger strike to protest their treatment.
Their allegations of mistreatment include physical abuse such as beatings, holding some women outside without winter clothing for hours, using a security shield to smash one of the women, and racial abuse such as calling the migrants “black monkeys” during their protest in February.
Unlike terror suspects who can be detained only up to 28 days, migrants without the right to remain in the UK can be detained indefinitely. This takes an obvious mental toll on the migrants and Home Office statistics show that in 2009, 215 people needed medical treatment for self-inflicted injuries, a 20 percent increase from 2008.
This is why yesterday on Mother’s Day in the UK, roughly thirty protesters gathered at Yarl’s Wood at around noon to protest the continued detention of the migrants, who are people they view as having committed no wrong.
Most of the protesters were in their twenties, many of them colourfully dressed and a few covered their faces to conceal their identity. They brought banners, plastic horns, whistles and bongos, and used them to make noise in order to show their support for the migrants who could hear them from inside the detention centre, roughly two hundred and seventy-five metres away.
During the protest, one of the migrants at the detention centre was able to tell the crowd her experiences by speaking on the phone with one of the protestors.
Mary, a migrant from Zimbabwe who has been on hunger strike since February 7th and has been detained for six months so far with no set date for release, said, “I’m running away from my own country because of torture but I come here and I find myself being tortured again.”
She said that women in the detention centre are distressed as a result of being treated disrespectfully and experiencing abuse from the detention staff.
In particular she spoke about a migrant who arrived at the detention centre with a leg in a cast. She said that the migrant was supposed to have the cast removed within two weeks of arriving but she was not allowed to see a doctor to have it removed because the staff accused her of wanting medical attention only to “enrich herself.” She said that that was the sort of attitude of the staff, and the migrant now has permanent damage to her leg. Mary also accused the staff of not giving them proper medical treatment and said that the women were simply given paracetamol for whatever ailment they had.
Home Office guidelines state that migrants who can provide independent evidence showing that they have been a victim of torture should only be detained in “exceptional circumstances.” However, Mary said that these guidelines were not being followed because many of the women at Yarl’s Wood are victims of torture, including herself, but that is being ignored.
She also expressed her anger at Home Office minister Meg Hillier for her “smearing rumour” that the women were not on hunger strike.
“There are currently ten people on hunger strike and the CCTV footage shows that the women were buying drinks from the vending machine but not food” she said.
Mary ended by saying she wanted a moratorium on all deportations and that the serious allegations of physical and racial abuse that took place in February need to be investigated, and the guards should be prosecuted.
Daniel Owen, a 22 year old mechanical engineer who is a member of the group Cambridge Anarchists, said he went to the protest to support the women who he saw had not committed any crime. He also said that the issue of immigration could not be understood in isolation, and that other issues such as employment have to be considered.
“We are seeing a demonizing of immigration and the effects of unemployment in Britain. This is happening while Labour and the Tories are attacking and victimizing public services, welfare and incapacity benefits, and civil liberties.
“The people should not be detained, and we need to look at the underlying problem and see why they leave their country. Mass immigration is caused by global capitalism which creates poverty, war, and famine. We need to unite with people in other countries.”
He said that he rejected party politics, and street protests and grassroots self-organization were the way forward.
Another anarchist at the protest, a man roughly in his mid-thirties, dressed in black with his face covered and did not give me his name, said that it was his personal belief that borders of any kind were a geopolitical construct, and that it was an “innate human right to move unhindered.” He said that climate change is going to be more pronounced and that would result in more migration to come. He said, “We need to dismantle the state structure and replace it with a federation of decentralized power structure.”
Jessica, the protestor who spoke with Mary during the protest, said that Serco, the company that is running Yarl’s Wood, is not treating people with dignity and respect, and they are treating the migrants as if they are criminals and liars making up stories. Furthermore, she explained that there are children born in Britain, or have British fathers, that are being detained with their mothers because otherwise their mothers would have to send them to a foster home while they remained in detention.
It is unclear how local residents feel about the detention centre. One local resident, a man in his late thirties possibly in his early forties, who was present at the protest but did not take part, said, “Local residents really aren’t that bothered by the hunger strikes.”
“Traditionally the British have been one of the most welcoming countries towards foreigners but it’s just not when they sponge off the system.
“There’s been a backlash, and you see this with the rise of the rightwing [parties] such as the BNP and the UK Independence Party.
“The British prefer to do things by the rules and don’t like it when people don’t follow them.”