Photo Essay | This Hidden Hell: A Walk in Yarl’s Wood
New in Ceasefire, Photo Essays - Posted on Sunday, April 13, 2014 16:12 - 2 Comments
On a fine winter’s day, the first after weeks of storms and rain, I went for a walk in the country. I found myself in a typical English rural landscape, driving down hedge-lined lanes that grew progressively narrower. A couple of dead badgers lay whitening on the edges of the road.
At the gate of a farm, the road turned abruptly into an ascending mud track. Three men were digging a ditch at the entrance. I got out and asked them if I could continue up. They spoke little English – their accents from some new-entrant country to the EU I couldn’t immediately identify. I gestured up the track and one of them said, “No,” and shook his head. There was no way through. I decided to start my walk regardless, not knowing if it was a public footpath or whether someone might come running out the farm to stop me. But the three men, at least, didn’t seem to care what I did.
So I strode up the dirt track, a hedgerow along one side, a field of brassicas on the other. Another hedgerow led off the track in the direction of a patch of woodland and I followed it, tramping through a semi-flooded field then jumping over a ditch into a woodland. The ditch suggested the wood could be an old one; later, I found a map from 1886 showing the wood had exactly the same boundaries then as it does today.
I walked deeper in and saw it was a typical oak-ash English woodland. It’s an okay place to walk: Ditches running with water cut through the wood; jackdaws circle overhead. The farmer had thrown away some rubbish – the public never comes here, I’m trespassing. But it’s still a nice wood; mossy logs and crackling leaf litter and everything.
But there’s something else in this wood. I turn around. What the hell is that? It looks like a concentration camp. Oh yes, this is Yarl’s Wood.
Yarl’s Wood is not a typical English wood. Next to it is Yarl’s Wood detention centre, a prison where people can be kept for years without trial. We’re meant to call it an ‘immigration removal centre’, but many of the people here are failed asylum seekers. Many came to this country fleeing persecution or war, in fear for their lives, and this is what they got from us.
How can I feel so certain a lot of them shouldn’t be in Yarl’s Wood? Partly because I don’t agree with this imprisonment of desperate people in the first place. Partly because a few years back the UK government put de-facto caps on the number of refugees we would take so as to score points with the Daily Mail-led right-wing media.
This politically-motivated attempt to drive down numbers of refugees meant that asylum cases in the UK can’t genuinely be considered on merit. We want to turn them away. We’ve got persecuted lesbians who can’t prove they’re lesbians – what proof is there? Are they meant to lunge at their gaolers? – and torture victims who can’t prove they didn’t stumble into a forge one day and melt holes in their own arms that way. We have Political refugees who can’t explain their fear because the Home Office doesn’t want to know what’s really going on in their home country.
A few years ago, under different management, a riot was sparked by a detainee being brutally restrained by staff. Someone, maybe an inmate, later burned down part of Yarl’s Wood. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Today, the centre is run – for profit, of course – by a different company, the security services behemoth Serco. The inmates aren’t British citizens and therefore do not really have any rights, including the right to fair trial before imprisonment.
Unsurprisingly, sexual abuse allegations at the centre won’t go away, maybe because the management insist on putting male staff in charge of vulnerable women who often have already been the victims of physical and sexual abuse. Women who have been raped are denied access to trauma counselling because admitting that a detainee was raped in wartime, or as punishment for being a lesbian, might mean we would have to keep her. And we – well, the Home Office and the Daily Express and others – don’t want to do that.
In one study, over 90% of women asylum seekers imprisoned under this system said they felt depression. One in five have tried to kill themselves, with up to a third placed on suicide watch. In 2010, a number of female detainees at Yarl Wood’s went on hunger strike in protest at their treatment. Children – transported here in caged prison vans – are also imprisoned at the centre, even though the High Court has decreed this to be unlawful. A 2009 report said that “In a large majority of cases, children reported that officers’ behaviour had been aggressive, rude and, on a few occasions, violent.”
This is all-too depressing. This isn’t what I want to find in an English wood. I go back to my walk. This is Yarl’s Wood, but the water still flows down the ditches, the jackdaws still circle overhead. And, look! there’s a pheasant pen, the type of fence you expect to find in an English wood.
I wish this were just a wood and not a prison for abused foreigners we don’t care about.
As I walked away from Yarl’s Wood, a slightly odd thing happened. A military helicopter flew low overhead, speeding away from me down the boundary separating the wood and the detention centre. A cloud of jackdaws rose up all around me as the terrifying noise struck. The chopper triggered a certain amount of paranoia: were they looking for me? Had they spotted me in the woods and called in air support? That was crazy talk, but this is a crazy place: a hidden hell in an English wood.
If our fellow citizens, traumatised by war or persecution found themselves in a land far away, and we heard that they were locked up in a detention centre, would we say nothing? Would we shrug and wave this away? Would we say that they should never have run from their torturers? That they should have stayed and suffered instead? If the majority of the people in Yarl’s Wood had white skin instead of black, would it bother us more to see them behind the barbed wire?
The clouds were tinged pink over the detention centre as I walked away. It was a beautiful day to be walking in the country.
Back at the car the men were still digging their ditch. Again I was half-expecting someone to run out of the farm and demand to know what I had been doing. But no one did, and the ditch-diggers ignored me. This was none of their business.
As I drove away down the narrow lanes, a kestrel swooped low across the road.
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