Comment | ‘We are not animals. We are human beings’: Why we went on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood and why our struggle continues

Today, detainees at the Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre ended their month-long hunger strike. In a powerful essay, one of the detainees explains why they went on hunger strike, and why their #HungerForFreedom actions will continue.

Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 13:27 - 0 Comments

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People inside the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre wave at activists outside from their windows in 2015 (Photo: iDJ Photography/Creative Commons)

I am one of 120 people detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC) who had been on hunger strike for a month — since Wednesday 21st February, until today Wednesday 21st March — to protest the inhumane conditions we are subjected to and the cruel and unjust system of immigration detention in the UK.

Throughout our month-long hunger strike, the Home Office and Serco, the private company contracted to run the centre, continued to deny that we were protesting. When we staged a peaceful sit-in protest outside Yarls Wood’s Home Office department, one official asked if we were having a party.

We went on hunger strike because we are suffering unfair imprisonment and racist abuse in this archaic institution in Britain. We are fighting peacefully and respectfully for our rights as human beings. It has been a desperate measure in desperate circumstances. We feel voiceless, forgotten, ignored. This is how we had chosen to be heard.

After the Home Office refused to acknowledge our strike and ignored our protest, we decided to stop participating in their project of detaining innocent people altogether. Our peaceful occupation of the healthcare and Home Office departments at the centre have been met by threats and intimidation from the guards, who have threatened us with transfer to prisons.

We have had our messages to the outside world intercepted — some of the messages we have sent out have had all their content removed. Some of us have been told that if we don’t eat, this will affect the decision on whether we we can remain in the UK.

The Home Office does not want the world outside to hear our voices and what we have to say. They have been refusing to acknowledge our struggle, our strike, the legitimacy of our claims.

On Tuesday 27th Feb, one of our group was called to see a home official, and that same official asked her “why don’t you go back to your country?”. She is an asylum seeker with a case pending in the Home Office. This is racist and xenophobic, and an example of how we are treated.

On Thursday 1st March, one striker collapsed and was taken to medical in a wheelchair. We are hungry and we are tired, but we will not give in until our demands are listened to.

We decided to take this collective action, as we believed this was the only option we were left with to express how we feel, and to force the government to acknowledge the conditions under which we are forcibly detained. We are not granted access to healthcare and we are not given decent food.

Systematic torture takes place in detention. We live in a constant state of anxiety knowing that at any moment an officer could arrive and take your roommate, or you. The way they take people is inhumane. They round people up in the middle of the night, at 11, at midnight, at two o’clock in the morning, and the next day you don’t see them. They lock them up in offices and then you find out they have been deported. Someone had an appeal coming up in a few months but she was deported before it was held.

Furthermore, some of us are kept in solitary confinement. Those who are suicidal now have their privacy taken away because they are being watched – you don’t know whether an officer is coming to check on you or coming to take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later.

The government justifies its system of immigration detention as a temporary holding facility, before people are forcibly deported, or because they believe people are at risk of absconding. Yet they detain people who have appeals still pending with the Home Office and who, before being detained, had followed all of the rules the Home Office outlined for them (e.g. reporting to an immigration centre every week without fail).

The government claims that the Home Office does not detain asylum seekers. This is a lie. They do detain asylum seekers, alongside survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, survivors of human-trafficking, modern day slavery and other forms of torture. I can tell you this place [Yarl’s Wood] would be more or less empty without them.

Home Office/government officials are lying outright, repeatedly. When they finally agreed to meet with us as a group, they said they don’t detain asylum seekers and torture victims. False. They said our detention is lawful, but how can they claim lawfulness when they are breaching the European Convention of Human Rights?

The Home Office is not fit for purpose, it systematically fails to provide timely decisions and frequently acts outside of domestic and international law. Being in Yarl’s Wood doesn’t feel lawful, and according to the Convention of Human Rights, it isn’t. The UK is the only country in the EU with no time limit on immigration detention.

We want an end to indefinite detention. We want the Home Office to respect Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. We want the Home Office to stop deporting people before their cases are decided or appeals are heard.

We want a fair bail process. We want adequate healthcare and the mental health nurse to stop operating as an extension of the home office, asking, “did you know you were going to stay in the UK when you entered?”

We want amnesty for all people who have lived in the UK for more than 10 years and an end to the exiling of those who came as children and are culturally British. We want the Home Office to stop detaining vulnerable people: victims of rape; the disabled; the mentally ill; and LGBT people.

We want an end to working for £1 per hour: it prays on the vulnerable and forces them to participate in their own detention. We want an end to charter flights and the snatching of people from their beds in the night and herding them like animals.

We are not animals. We are human beings. Some of us in here are mothers (we have been separated from our children who need our care for months and years). Some of us in here are victims of torture, rape (rape is also torture, but the Home Office is denying this), trafficking and domestic violence.

Some of us members of the LGBT community who face discrimination here in Yarls Wood and who face persecution or death in the countries the Home Office wants to deport us to; some of us are older, up to 69 years of age; some of us came to the UK as minors and are facing detention not because of our actions but because our parents, or lawyers or the Home Office, did not ensure our paperwork was complete.

Some of us have chronic health conditions, for which we are not receiving adequate medication or care; some of us suffer depression, are suicidal, are cutting ourselves. When the officers know about this they start checking on us every hour.

But instead of checking up on us, they should be asking: why do these women, who have children and families, want to take their own lives? Instead of ignoring our strike, denying our rights, intimidating us with xenophobic slurs, confining us and doing random invasive searches on us, the Home Office officials and Serco officers should be asking: why are these women on hunger strike?

We have been staging our all-out strike to protest the Home Office’s continued immoral practices and the hostile conditions we face. They lie to us and they lie to the world outside these walls, but we will not sit silently as the government tries to conceal their lies from the world. We are demanding that these practices are stopped along with the practice of detaining people indefinitely.

Strikers have been targeted for individual legal meetings with the Home Office, where decisions about their cases have suddenly been made. People have been targeted — rounded up and separated from other detainees — for a charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana. Several amongst us have been deported since the start of the strike.

They are waiting to see if we do anything violent, but there will be no violence, no abuse, we just want to be silent, calm and respectful. There are as many demands as there are detainees, everyone in detention is unfairly treated, and all we want is a fair process.

Immigration detainees at Yarl’s Wood have been staging hunger strikes, work strikes and a series of occupations inside the building since Wednesday 21st February.  They are calling for an end to indefinite detention, an end to mass deportations by charter flight, and an end to mistreatment at the detention centre. A full list of strikers’ demands is published on the Detained Voices website.

In a statement this morning, the strikers in Yarl’s Wood have announced an end to the hunger strike, but a continuation of Hunger for Freedom protests. The strikers’ emphasise; “We are still hungry for our freedom and justice. We will continue to fight for our human rights and will not participate in our own detention”. The strikers will continue to organise internally and fight for their demands.

On March 21,2018, solidarity groups will be staging demonstrations across the UK in:

Glasgow: https://www.facebook.com/events/319801881880913

Leeds: https://www.facebook.com/events/361984667615143/

Liverpool: https://www.facebook.com/events/397793477351203/

Bristol: https://www.facebook.com/events/560292434350887/

Manchester: https://twitter.com/WASTCampaigning/status/976239864873136128

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