Around 120 people in Yarl’s Wood detention centre have gone on hunger strike to protest against ‘offensive’ Home Office practices, including indefinite detention.
Detainees at the Serco-run immigration removal centre in Bedford described the Home Office as “overwhelmed, not fit for purpose… [and operating] in a rogue manner” in a statement.
The protest, which began on Wednesday and will coincide with a visit from the shadow home secretary on Friday, aims to highlight how the UK is the only country in the EU with no time limit on detention. Some of the 400 people currently imprisoned in the facility have been held for more than a year. Namibian asylum seeker Mabel Gawanas had been detained for three years when she was finally released last summer.
In addition to demanding a 28-day time limit and an end to re-detention (many people who are let out are later returned to the centre again and again), the hunger strikers want rape recognised as a form of torture, and an end to the detention of victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
Victims of other forms of torture, human-trafficking and modern slavery are all still regularly detained against Home Office guidelines, along with disabled people and those with serious health conditions, protesters said, demanding an end to this, along with access to proper medical treatment. Healthcare inside detention is notoriously poor, with women who fall ill in Yarl’s Wood frequently belittled and denied any treatment beyond paracetamol.
The Home Office is incompetent, according to hunger strikers, with many of the worst rights abuses occurring because it is unable to process claims in a timely manner, does not abide by guidelines and has a vested interest in deporting people irrespective of their right to stay in the country.
Detainees highlighted the particular injustice of young adults who arrive in the UK as children and are “culturally British” being detained simply because their parents did not complete the necessary paperwork in time, and the difficulties LGBT migrants face in detention, where they are often not believed by staff. In some cases, transgender detainees have allegedly been forced to discontinue hormone treatment while in Yarl’s Wood.
Protesters also demanded the Home Office stop separating families, make bail more accessible and release people with outstanding applications.
Hunger strikers want an end to charter flights — which deport people en masse, often with little warning and in the middle of the night — an amnesty for those who have lived in the UK for 10 years or more and a meeting with the constituency MP.
On a day-to-day basis, detainees have demanded better food at the centre so that people can manage their own diets and stay healthy, alarms fitted in every room in case it is necessary to call for help, new and comfortable beds, and an end to what they describe as “systematic torture” by guards.
“At any point an officer could turn up and take your room mate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next,” they said. “Those who are suicidal now have their privacy taken away because they are being watched – you don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or coming to take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later.”
Detainees in Yarl’s Wood last staged a mass hunger strike in 2015, when a woman who had visited the UK on holiday with her family continued to be held at the centre after her husband died from a heart attack. In 2010, at least 50 people refused food for weeks to protest conditions inside the centre.
The action will end on Friday evening, after Diane Abbott’s visit. The shadow home secretary, who has been trying to visit the centre since November 2016 and has repeatedly been denied entry, said she intends to speak “to the women there and hear first-hand their experiences and their concerns.”
Novara Media spoke to detainees taking part in the hunger strike.
Opelo, 27, Botswana
Opelo moved to the UK with her mother when she was 13. She has spent the past decade in immigration limbo, which forced her to turn down a place at university. This is the second time she has been detained in Yarl’s Wood.
Novara: How long have you been in Yarl’s Wood?
Opelo: We’ve been here a little over a fortnight now. I’m here with my mum. I’ve been here before: last May I was here for about five weeks. It’s been sort of a rollercoaster. It’s been going on since 2010.
Novara: How did the hunger strike start?
O: A few of the ladies in Yarl’s Wood sat together and had a chat about some issues that they have faced in here and with the Home Office and broke them down. [They decided this would be a way] to bring those issues back up and try and raise awareness. I guess it was just a case of, “we’re really fed up, let’s have a hunger strike” — and so it is.
N: What’s it like in Yarl’s Wood at the moment?
O: A lot of people are very pro the hunger strike and definitely want to see change. It’s a bit difficult because obviously with people not eating, people are hungry. But there is a general feeling that everyone knows why we are doing this and wants to see a change. It kind of gives you strength to just keep going. Everybody’s checking up to make sure you are doing OK and to see if there’s anything you need.
A few of the staff have said they’ve seen something like this before and they don’t understand why the hunger strike is happening and don’t think a change will happen. But I’ve said to some of them: Actually a letter has been written to the Home Office. It’s not just in vain. Something has been done on a more practical level.
N: How has it affected your life to have this ongoing immigration case hanging over you for so long?
I’ve not been able to go to university, so I’ve certainly been held back in that respect. It’s been really difficult having to see my friends getting on, going to university. graduating, and going off and starting their futures and I’m in a position where I literally cannot do anything. It’s been really, really difficult.
All of this kind of kicked off really when I was about 18, so pre-university. I had to defer my university offer twice before declining it altogether and that was really difficult in itself. Since then I’ve just been trying to keep myself busy and to stay in the loop. I’ve gone through difficult times, I’ve had to battle with depression.
It just makes you feel really small, like you are nothing, you are literally just a statistic to someone — a piece of paper that doesn’t really matter to them. It’s just sat on a table doing nothing.
N: What would it be like for you if you were deported?
I couldn’t even fathom that. I don’t know because, having been here for such a long time, and having a life here, everything I know is here and for that to be taken away would actually be really unimagineable.
Mercy*, 55, Botswana
Mercy is Opelo’s mother. She has been in the UK since 2003, trying to claim asylum. She was first detained in 2010, released, and then detained again for several weeks last year, before being released for a second time — and recently detained for a third.
Novara: How long have you been in Yarl’s Wood?
Mercy: I am going into my fifth week now.
I wasn’t doing anything [wrong] when they detained me. I was still waiting for the decision [in my case]. It was submitted last November, in January, when I was still complying with their rules by signing, they detained me and told me my decision had come out, and they were detaining me because the Home Office had denied my case. It was a shock to me and it was a shock to my solicitor because he did not know why they did not send him a letter. It has become a habit now that they detain people who are signing.
I was first detained in 2010. Why are people being detained three times?
N: Why are you on hunger strike?
M: I’m going on hunger strike because they detain us indefinitely, they don’t give a specifc [amount of] time. Our solicitors tell us: No, you are not supposed to be detained more than seven days. But the Home Office holds us here for up to one year.
[A big issue for me is] why are they detaining young adults who came as minors to the country? They are culturally British. they are being detained due to their parents [not] processing their documents [in time]. After their documents are processed, the Home Office delays giving a decision, by that time the child is over 18 and they start detaining them. Sometimes they even wait for their 18th birthday and then they start detaining them. That is torturing young people.
Young people who came here as kids, if you take them back to the country where they were born they can’t even speak the language, they don’t know anyone there, a lot of things change in their mind. Sometimes they end up committing suicide.
We have been here more than 15 years. Why don’t they give us the papers to work? If they want to control the borders, give amnesty to us so we can contribute to the economy of the country.
They want us to come and wait inside the centre while our cases are still being determined. They want to exploit us inside the detention centre working for £1 per hour. If they can let you work in the detention centre why can’t they let you work out there?
N: What started the strike?
M: Among the detainees [we felt] that enough is enough. We’ve had enough of this now. Lets just come up with something and come together in unity.
People outside are not there [for us]. People are being mentally tortured within the detention centre. Everyone is very unhappy inside here. So everyone inside is very supportive of the hunger strike. Even if they [the staff] don’t do anything they will know that we are unhappy.
N: How have the staff reacted to the hunger strike?
M: Well, what can they do really? We don’t care. I can see that they are like somehow afraid of: ‘What if we lose our job? What about our own lives?’ But they cannot make us eat.
Sugam, 32, Nepal
Sugam is in one of a handful of men who are detained in Yarl’s Wood with their families. He did not know his visa had been revoked until he was taken to Yarl’s Wood from his home with his wife. He has now applied for asylum, but the Home Office will not grant him bail while he waits for his case to be decided.
Novara: Why did you decide to go on hunger strike?
Sugam: We’re not happy with what the Home Office is doing. I’ve been here [in Yarl’s Wood] nearly five months and my case is still ongoing. If I didn’t have any kind of case then I’d understand, but my case is still going on. In the beginning they said: ‘Everything will be finished within a month’. But they haven’t been able to decide it. It’s been nearly 5 months and my case is still going on and we have applied for bail as well, and without any reason they just haven’t given us bail.
I came here in 2009, so it’s been nearly nine years, and we had a proper visa when we came in — I was a student — everything was proper. After getting my masters degree I applied for a post-study work permit. I was granted the work permit, but then the company that sponsored me had its licence revoked so my visa was cancelled. But the thing is, we didn’t get any kind of letter from the Home Office, so we were just picked up from our home. We were taken here and applied for [asylum], they accepted the case, we have done everything they’ve asked, but still our case is pending and we are held here.
N: What’s it like in Yarl’s Wood at the moment?
S: Some people have been brought straight from the airport. The Home Office gave them a tourist visa for 6 months, but [when they arrived] they straight away got them from the airport and brought them here. They’ve been here 3 months.
They’ve got people who were signing, they were not running away, but they got them from the signing and brought them here. Even if their application has been refused, they don’t inform them until they go and sign, then they say, “OK your case has been refused” and take them to Yarl’s Wood. It happened a week or two weeks earlier but they weren’t informed.
If you apply for bail [from detention], it’s supposed to take 72 hours but in here it takes more than two weeks. That’s a really long time.
Even if we fulfil all the criteria of the bail, they will just refuse it, they don’t even give you a chance to withdraw, if we could withdraw we could apply the next day or so, but if bail is refused we have to wait for 28 days which is a long time, it can take two weeks for bail to come, so that’s like one-and-a-half months. You can’t imagine being here for that amount of time. It’s very difficult. Everyone is very depressed. People don’t eat, don’t sleep the whole night. And they go to the office for medicine and they only get paracetamol, that’s the only thing [the staff will] give, and nothing else. If we want to go and ask for a medical they will take many days. Some people have been waiting for a month and they haven’t heard anything from them
N: Was there a particular trigger for the strike?
S: We all decided together we’re not going to eat. We met in one room and decided not to eat because we want them to hear our voices.
*Some names have been changed