migrant women on hunger strike at yarl’s wood

by Victoria Thompson

Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre was opened in 2001 and is the main detention centre for families and children. Run by a private firm, Serco Group plc who also manufacture nuclear weaponry, it has 405 bed spaces, and at any time scores of young children are detained within the grey prison walls. Yarl’s Wood has courted controversy since its opening, with hunger strikes, riots and even suicide attempts commonplace amongst the prisoners.

Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire is a prison for immigrants

Several investigations into the detention centre have concluded that the prison is “not safe” on a basic health and safety level, as well as the site of sexual and racist intimidation and violence.

Families with young children and heavily pregnant women often have to wait for hours in vans before they are taken into the prison and many other women are separated from their new born babies to placed in detention.

The first hunger strikes began just a month after Yarl’s Wood opened, with five Roma women refusing to eat in protest at the conditions they were being held in. By January, an ethnic Albanian fleeing Kosovo had been on hunger strike for thirty days, prompting local Bedfordshire residents to hold a series of candlelit vigils in support of his plight.

Just a year later in 2002, damage costing over £30 million was caused after a serious fire destroyed much of the building. The fire was started by angry inmates after a 55 year old woman who had been seeking medical treatment for three days was forced into handcuffs for the journey to the hospital.

The prison’s managers had previously ignored warnings from the Fire Brigade that a sprinkler system would be necessary, instead choosing to jeopardise the lives of the hundreds of men, women and children held prisoner there. A sprinkler system was not installed as part of the refurbishment, even though five immigrants had been injured in the fire.

The repugnant treatment of asylum seekers in Britain is best highlighted by the case of Manuel Bravo, an Angolan asylum seeker who hanged himself in front of his thirteen year old son in Yarl’s Wood in 2005. Bravo, who took his life on his 35th birthday, was first contacted by Immigration Service officials on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, he was seized by police and taken to Yarl’s Wood. He was to be deported on the Thursday, even though his parents had been murdered by the Angolan regime, and both he and his wife had previously been imprisoned. Bravo’s solicitors took his money, but refused to represent him. Desperate for his son to stay in Britain and continue his high school education, Bravo’s suicide was a last desperate act of parental love, the only way to ensure that his child at least could live their common dream of a life free from persecution in Britain.

A 2006 investigation into Yarl’s Wood by Legal Action for Women (LAW) found that 70% of the women detainees were rape victims, 57% had no legal representation and over half had been detained over 3 months. LAW produced a self-help guide for the women, but it was confiscated by the prison’s guards.

Three years later, an investigation into the conditions experienced by the child detainees showed that the incarcerated children are handled violently and frequently left at risk of serious harm. In one instance, a young autistic boy did not have sufficient food for a period lasting several days. Some families report being given formula milk for their children that is past its sell by date.

Looking at this catalogue of injustice, it is not wonder that hunger strikes – sometimes with over 100 women refusing food at any time – are still continuing.

Last month, a number of women on hunger strike were attacked by guards with riot shields. One woman who was bleeding severely called an ambulance, but the paramedics were not allowed to enter the prison. Around 70 women (including one who had been imprisoned for fifteen months) took part in this hunger strike, angry at the length and conditions of their detainment, the lack of legal aid offered to them and their separation from their children. The hunger strikers were locked away from the other prisoners in an airless corridor. Sadly, the plight of these women barely made the news, forcing activists outside of the prisons to undertake solidarity fasts in an attempt to garner more publicity. In Manchester, I was one of scores of activists who fasted with this aim in mind.

Yarl’s Wood and the other “detention centres” scatted across the UK are merely prisons where the incarcerated have committed no crime.

We should not consent to call them by their euphemisms, but instead make clear at every turn that they are indeed prisons – prisons in which over 2,000 children are detained every year. For those whose asylum claims are subsequently refused, Yarl’s Wood is the last stop before they are deported to countries where they face rape, torture, imprisonment and murder. For those who find their claims accepted, there is no recompense for the time they and their children spent behind bars.

Communists must be unequivocal in raising the demand for an immediate end to this indefinite detention of men, women and children fleeing persecution. We must oppose the forced deportations of those seeking asylum and the inhumane, degrading treatment of some of country’s most vulnerable people.

More than this however: communists stand for the abolition of all borders, for absolute freedom of movement for all, and for the unity of the working class to transcend all national boundaries.