“We haven’t got any human rights at all. We’re treated like we are nothing. They should close this place down.”
This is the brave rallying cry from Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where, for the second time this year, a major hunger strike has been launched. Dozens of women are refusing food, risking their health and their lives, in protest against their indefinite detention.
Many of the women have been in Britain for decades and know no other country than the one they call home. Others are facing removal to extremely dangerous situations in their countries of origin. All are being held in what is effectively a high-security prison. None know when they will be released.
When power is abused, protest follows.
That these strong-minded women have been driven to this is no surprise. Throughout history, those who are most marginalised have been forced to take extreme risks to assert their common humanity and demand their rights.
These women do not stand alone. The injustice of the UK’s indefinite detention, and the damage it causes, is now indisputable. And outside the UK’s detention centres, the movement against it is also strong and growing.
My organisation, Detention Action, provides practical and emotional support to people in detention. Everyday we see how our society’s most powerless are imprisoned arbitrarily and driven to despair. It is a maddening system that terrorises its victims. Those who are not vulnerable before they enter detention are soon made so.
The evidence supports our experiences. It was recently revealed there are an average of two suicide attempts a day in detention centres. Eleven deaths were recorded in UK immigration detention in 2017, the highest on record. Just this week, an inquest opened into the death of Branko Zdravkovic who died after repeated Home Office failings to act on his suicidal intentions.
This is nothing short of a public health crisis. Little wonder that last year the British Medical Association joined the call for detention to be phased out and replaced with alternate, more humane methods.
Yarl’s Wood is perhaps the most notorious detention centre. It holds almost all of the women who are detained in the UK.
Over its seventeen year history, it has locked up a huge number of survivors of gender-based violence and those fleeing persecution. It imprisons people brought to the UK as children, and others who have their roots in the UK including children, spouses, families and communities.
Perhaps most shamefully, Yarl’s Wood imprisons survivors of trafficking and modern day slavery.
This is the more peculiar because the Prime Minister claims that eradicating modern day slavery and protecting its survivors is her crusading mission. Yet her pervasive hostile environment ensures that those who have been freed from the slave-master’s grip are routinely detained for long periods and re-traumatised. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this situation is staggering.
Over the summer the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced a pilot project for women otherwise at risk of being detained in Yarl’s Wood to be supported to live in the community.
This is a welcome step in the government’s new strategy to reduce detention. Community-based case-working is the humane and practical alternative to detention. But there is no case for keeping women locked up arbitrarily while the pilot takes place. Yarl’s Wood could, and should, be emptied tomorrow.
If the government lacks the political courage then parliament must act. The campaign to impose a strict 28-day detention time limit has overwhelming cross-party support. The parliamentary arithmetic means there is now a majority for ending indefinite detention in the House of Commons. The forthcoming Immigration Bill could provide the perfect opportunity.
That hope may be little solace for the determined and united women currently detained in Yarl’s Wood and the thousands of others who are right now detained, or liable to be detained, all over the UK. But their courage calls to ours and their suffering must galvanise further action. Together we will bring this inhumane system to an end.
A demonstration will take place outside Yarl’s Wood on Saturday 1 December.