Hunger For Freedom: Campaigning Against Detention From Inside and Outside Yarl’s Wood

by Irene Renny and Tom Kemp

29 April 2018

At the end of March, Yarl’s Wood detainees concluded a month-long hunger strike and began a new phase of resistance to immigration detention.

The Hunger For Freedom protest built upon a long history of resistance from people held indefinitely by the home office under immigration powers. Before this year, the most recent large scale protests included a hunger strike involving 60 people in Harmondsworth detention centre in 2014, a three day protest in Yarl’s wood in September 2015 and a two week action across 5 facilities in March of the same year, which prompted the start of the Detained Voices project, to platform the stories, experiences and demands of detainees.

The Hunger for Freedom campaigners made demands that anti-detention organisers also call for on a daily basis: an end to indefinite detention, an end to charter flights, an end to £1 per hour wages for work in detention and an amnesty for people who have been in the UK for over 10 years. Yet, the protesters had to overcome many barriers which people on the outside did not face in order to make their voices heard.

Irene Renny was detained in Yarl’s Wood at the time, while Tom Kemp was among activists supporting the protest from outside.

Inside Yarl’s Wood: The start of the strike

Irene: It all started one Sunday, when a list of demands was photocopied and shared at dinner time. The word spread and lots of people said: “we’re in”. After a short meeting, the group organised to start a three-day hunger strike the following Wednesday.

On the Friday, Diane Abbott visited Yarl’s Wood. The protesters heard about it the day before and, knowing the guards were going to try and stop us seeing her, we organised to converge in the post room corridor, which she would have to pass by.

Many of the protesters became extremely emotional when they saw her, they broke down in tears and surrounded her, hugging her and pouring out their painful experiences. People were emboldened to talk about their personal cases with her. The group had to move to the sports room because too many people were there

That visit, to us, will always be historical. It gave us energy to know that whatever comes our way we are going to continue fighting. It was our first win.



As the protest continued, the home office and Serco denied there was a hunger strike happening at all. In a statement designed to tap into the culture of disbelief and distrust of people in the asylum and immigration system, Serco said in statement:

“There are a number of women who did not take food in the restaurant over the last 48 hours but that does not constitute a hunger strike. Furthermore, the purchase of food by residents from the shop increased at the same time so we know people were eating.”

We had a two day break and then met again to evaluate the successes and failures of the protest. We felt we could go even further. What really sparked the second phase of the hunger strike were the comments from Serco that there had not been a hunger strike happening at all. We were more than 40 women in that meeting. We consolidated our demands and planned to resume the strike on the Monday.

The second protest was an indefinite hunger strike against indefinite detention. This time, they would not have a date when this hunger strike was going to stop. We didn’t go to the restaurant, to the shop, to the library, to the gym, to any of the social activities. We didn’t go to the bingo, we didn’t go to the computer room. Instead there was a programme of sit-in protests for each day at different venues within the detention centre, like the legal and health care departments, and the library, among others.

Inside Yarl’s Wood: Surveillance and reprisals

Irene: This time the home office denied the hunger strike was a political protest. Baroness Williams, a Tory minister said there are a ‘multitude of reasons for refusing food and fluid’ and said we may be doing so ‘for dietary and religious reasons’.

These denials were directly contradicted by the home office’s decision to issue letters to protesters, despite a policy suggesting these should only be given to those on hunger strike ‘as a form of protest’.


It became increasingly obvious that the home office and Serco were targeting us to try and stop the protest. They sent us letters saying: “The fact that you are currently refusing food and/or fluid: may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner.”

To disrupt one protest, they started calling our names individually across the sound system which runs through whole detention centre. Every time we were in a group, before we knew it they would be calling one of our names. The director also made it clear that we were being watched. We started becoming paranoid, even thinking there were cameras in the TVs.

Through their actions, they were trying to intimidate us and saying to us, “do not express your pain, swallow your pain”. We spent days with pain inside our hearts, feeling threatened all the time. There are cameras everywhere, including body cameras on all the guards. They say you can go everywhere, you can use this and that facility, but you know you can’t step out of line.

At a demonstration on 24 March, the guards showed the highest level of control over our freedom of expression. They told us to stop shouting from the windows, threatening that our participation in the protest would affect our individual cases. A male manager moved from room to room asking ladies who were not taking part in the protest or hunger strike not to allow demonstrators to enter their rooms. They made it known that they had their body cameras on – which was funny, given they never videoed incidents where they manhandled detainees during deportations.

Outside Yarl’s Wood: How best to show solidarity?

Tom: People in detention have no camera phones, and very limited access to the internet, with social media and websites such as Detained Voices, that publish accounts written by people in detention, off limits. The protest reached the outside world because groups such as SOAS Detainee Support, Black Women’s Rape Action Project, Women for Refugee Women and Detained Voices worked with the protesters in publicising their action and responding with legal and political support to attempts to remove protesters.

Over the three years Detained Voices has operated, we have developed a practice of publishing stories written by individuals in detention to evidence the effect of detention and deportation. We had covered protests in detention before, often through accounts of individuals involved. However, we realised relatively quickly that this was a different sort of action, one in which protesters wanted to maintain collective control over their messaging.

The question for us was how to allow the protest to speak for itself and at the same time take responsibility for our role in shaping the conditions in which the hunger strike was unfolding.

While respecting the tactical decisions of those inside, we worked to amplify the messages the protesters wanted to share, and in turn share with them information gained from work supporting previous hunger strikers.

It was an experimental and collaborative process: press releases written by those on the outside were read back to the protesters to check over before they were sent out; we linked those inside with journalists the group wanted to speak to; we obtained legal support for those targeted for expedited removal because of their involvement and used public and political pressure to stop removal attempts.

Inside Yarl’s Wood: Getting the message out

Irene: Groups like SDS and Detained Voices were consistently checking in on us about our health and giving us support and updates. But there were also negative sides to speaking to groups on the outside because each had their own interests and opinions which we did not have control over.

Our main goal was to promote our demands, which covered the interests of all detainees,  but we feared how our comments might be used to further other people’s political agendas. 

At the same time we knew we couldn’t fully control how people perceived the protest. We couldn’t control how the hunger strike would be used by people on the outside, like the media and politicians.

Our demands were directed at reforming the system of detention but the protest was frequently interpreted as instead being about the conditions of detention. The protesters were described as desperate, vulnerable asylum-seeking women and their demands were limited to those deemed innocent and deserving of recognition and sympathy.

The demands of the protest were also continually displaced by a tendency to individualise and make exceptional examples of protesters with sympathetic stories. Journalists would want to know personal details and protesters would have to emphasise that it was a collective protests for every migrant inside and outside the detention centre. It was about the women.

Not all individuals are able to have public platforms and the people without are the ones we wanted to speak for most.

Inside Yarl’s Wood: The Impact of the Protest

Irene: The hunger strike was successful because we focused as a team on one set of demands. We gave our whole selves to it. It was like a life and death situation. Even when we faced being deported, we knew we had laid down our lives to fight the injustices we were facing at the hands of the home office and Serco and that we will be remembered for speaking out on behalf of other women. All the blood in our veins moved for it. The fact that we were in detention made us one people.

The strike brought attention to our immediate demands to end indefinite detention and charter flights. It showed how people who have been in the country for over 10 years can end up being detained in places like Yarl’s Wood. Three MPS visited the protesters, drawing attention to detention at a time when Labour is formulating its own detention policy. The action formed the backdrop to the Home Affairs Select Committee questioning of Serco.

It uncovered the home office’s bullying tactics and their efforts to suppress our voices. It exposed Serco and the home office for looking at detainees as objects to be used for monetary gain. They have no interest in helping people, detention is just a method by which they can easily deport people and pressure detainees to ‘voluntarily’ return.

The protest also had a positive impact on people in detention. While Serco wanted to convince us that our cases would be harmed by our involvement in political action, the protest formed connections that enabled us to fight our cases better. It gave people a platform to talk about their cases a lot more with each other. It made them feel like their cases were not unique and they were not alone, that others had been through similar situations. It enabled them to seek help and find ways to challenge removals. If we didn’t have that, many of us would have been removed and suffered in silence. The protest helped form this bond that can never be broken amongst the detainees.

Lessons learned

The protest challenged how people in detention are seen. On the one hand, the home office casts people in detention as ‘immigration offenders’ or ‘illegals’, categories that serve to undermine detainees’ right to freedom of speech. On the other, campaigns against detention all-too-often prefer to centre their own solutions and render detainees invisible, passive, victims of the system. It showed that immigrants are ready to fight the injustices they face on a daily basis as they try to regularise their stays in the UK.

The success of the Hunger For Freedom protests shows that listening to and collaborating with people in detention is an important part of building a successful anti-detention movement. It shows how important it is to consider people in detention as a part of the movement to end detention, not just the victims of it.

It also poses challenges. How can we build movements that listen and amplify the demands of those inside that do not require people in detention to refuse food in order to be heard? How can we build upon the actions of people in detention to create a movement that ends detention? How can we build a world where no human is illegal?

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