Shut Down Yarl’s Wood

Nestled deep within Twinwoods Business Park — a former military research facility in Bedforshire, England — lies Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. The UK’s most infamous of 13 such detention centres is intended to provide migrants with shelter and care prior to their deportation from the country, and is billed by Yarl’s Wood itself as being a place of respect and support for those detained there. Its history, however — revealed through a series of reports, undercover investigations, and testimonies from past and current detainees — tells a far more harrowing story.

In 2001, shortly after the centre opened, and again in 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2015: hunger strikes are carried out by detainees in response to improper treatment. One such strike, arising from claims of indefinite detention and racial and physical abuse, resulted in ‘70 women taking part in a protest [being] locked in an airless corridor without water or toilet facilities’.

In 2002: a fire breaks out during a mass riot, devouring the building. According to witnesses, the riot broke out in response to a 55 year-old detainee having been handcuffed after awaiting medical treatment for three days. One custody officer in the centre later reported that he and his fellow officers were ordered to ‘lock the detainees in the burning building’.

In 2005: a man from Angola, being held in Yarl’s Wood with his 13 year-old son, hangs himself to give his son a chance at asylum in Britain.

In 2014: a 40 year-old detainee from Jamaica dies inside the centre. Following her death, claims arise that that staff denied her medical assistance, in addition to refusing aid from NHS for those distressed by her death. Her family is informed of her death a whole eight hours after the fact.

The majority of the stories emerging from Yarl’s Wood centre on verbal, physical and sexual abuse of female detainees, carried out by the very guards employed to protect them.

These stories turn even more horrific when considering that many of these women came to the UK seeking asylum — an escape from physical and sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence, forced marriage, persecution, FGM, and other such atrocities in their homelands. Despite many suffering from depression, PTSD and other physical and mental ailments, some found work in the UK; others entered university, started families, or worked towards starting their lives anew, filled with the hope of being free from the violence of their past.

What awaited them in Yarl’s Wood was something else entirely.

Detainees have been locked in isolation for days at a time and denied vital medication for weeks on end. Male guards (who make up the bulk of the staff at Yarl’s Wood despite the overwhelmingly female populace) frequently burst into the women’s rooms unannounced, and have purportedly offered to help with detainees’ immigration cases in exchange for sexual favours. Other detainees have complained of being punched and kicked by guards during escape attempts. Those who are eventually released almost invariably suffer from severe depression and PTSD due to their time in Yarl’s Wood. In some cases, women have become so distraught by their treatment that they have turned to suicide, throwing themselves off of stairwells, slashing their wrists, or hanging themselves.

Serco, the private company employed by the UK Home Office to manage Yarl’s Wood, has repeatedly denied allegations of wrongdoing. But in 2014, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women was blocked from entering the centre, and Yarl’s Wood remains closed to journalists. Despite reports of ‘vast failings’, the Home Office renewed Serco’s contract for Yarl’s Wood some months later, to the tune of £70 million. An independent investigation in 2016 reported ‘there is not an endemic culture of abuse nor a hidden problem of inappropriate behaviour by staff’, instead citing ‘serious concerns with staffing arrangements including capacity, training, and an inadequate proportion of female officers to care for women at the centre’. But the allegations continue to roll in, with some women claiming that life in Yarl’s Wood is worse than in prison.

On December 3, 2016, demonstrators descended onto Yarl’s Wood for the tenth protest organised by the Movement for Justice and supported by like-minded organisations such as Sisters Uncut, a feminist direct action collective. Activists joined ex-detainees along with families and friends of those still inside, in a protest whose attendees filled 24 coach busses in addition to trains and cars arriving from across the country.

The message was clear: Yarl’s Wood — and all immigration detention centres like it — must be shut down immediately.

 The demonstration begins its march at the outskirts of Twinwoods Business Park, a former military research facility.

The demonstration begins its march at the outskirts of Twinwoods Business Park, a former military research facility.

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 Yarl’s Wood is located near the back of the business park, surrounded by expanses of empty fields and barbed wire fences.   

Yarl’s Wood is located near the back of the business park, surrounded by expanses of empty fields and barbed wire fences.

 

 Demonstrators begin knocking on the wall which lines the perimeter of the detention centre at Yarl’s Wood. Standing at 20 feet high, the wall strikes an imposing figure, with all the aesthetics of some post-futuristic fortification.

Demonstrators begin knocking on the wall which lines the perimeter of the detention centre at Yarl’s Wood. Standing at 20 feet high, the wall strikes an imposing figure, with all the aesthetics of some post-futuristic fortification.

 Demonstrators announce their arrival at the perimeter of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre by pounding the high metal fence with their feet.

Demonstrators announce their arrival at the perimeter of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre by pounding the high metal fence with their feet.

 Many of the detainees inside the centre are locked down away from windows during the protest in an attempt to limit their interaction with it. The demonstrators respond by making as much noise as possible, hoping that those inside will hear the clamour.

Many of the detainees inside the centre are locked down away from windows during the protest in an attempt to limit their interaction with it. The demonstrators respond by making as much noise as possible, hoping that those inside will hear the clamour.

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 Demonstrators wave to detainees inside Yarl’s Wood from behind a banner held by members of feminist direct action collective Sisters Uncut.

Demonstrators wave to detainees inside Yarl’s Wood from behind a banner held by members of feminist direct action collective Sisters Uncut.

 Several women inside the detention centre manage to wave to the crowd through cracks of open windows.

Several women inside the detention centre manage to wave to the crowd through cracks of open windows.

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 Families and friends of those inside Yarl’s Wood take turns atop a step ladder in order to see over the fence.

Families and friends of those inside Yarl’s Wood take turns atop a step ladder in order to see over the fence.

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 Several women inside Yarl’s Wood manage to place phone calls to a cell phone which is amplified through a PA system. Story after heart-breaking story echoes over the audience of nearly 2,000 demonstrators. One woman tells the crowd, ‘We are so grateful to have you here, to know that we are not alone.’

Several women inside Yarl’s Wood manage to place phone calls to a cell phone which is amplified through a PA system. Story after heart-breaking story echoes over the audience of nearly 2,000 demonstrators. One woman tells the crowd, ‘We are so grateful to have you here, to know that we are not alone.’

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