A matter of conscience: hunger strikers at Yarl’s Wood

Frances Laing reports on the women’s hunger strike that started on 5 February

Activists show their solidarity with the hunger strikers. | Frances Laing

On Friday 5 February women detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire started a hunger strike. It involved over eighty women who were locked up at the centre.

The following Monday the Black Women’s Rape Action Project – who support women at Yarl’s Wood – published a report that alleged that the hunger strikers had suffered brutal recriminations and had been beaten by guards and subjected to racist abuse:

‘Over fifty women are currently trapped in an airless hallway in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. On Friday 5 February they began a hunger strike. Today they were herded into the hallway where they have been left there for over two hours without access to water or toilets. Four women, including an asthma sufferer, have fainted. Around 1.30 the guards came into the hallway and started to beat women. As we spoke to one woman she told us that someone was bleeding. One of the managers told the women they would regret what they have done; she called the Chinese women monkeys, and the Black women black monkeys. Four other women have been locked in other rooms for three hours, and have been told by room mates that their belongings have been packed. They are worried they face immediate removal even though their cases are still being considered. Fifteen women have been locked up in “Kingfisher”, the punishment wing.

They are being detained contrary to international law which governs who should be in detention and who should not…

According to women on the other wings all movement has been restricted – even those not on the hunger strike are not getting any food including diabetics who urgently need it. Hunger strikers want to speak to the press and get the truth out about the protest. They are protesting at the length of time they have been detained – one woman who cannot speak English, has been held for over two years…’

In the days that followed the hunger strike made national news.

And just a few days later the Children’s Commissioner’s report on Yarl’s Wood was published, revealing further urgent and serious concerns about the welfare of Yarl’s Wood children.

The strike is now in its third week and over twenty women are still on hunger strike. Many are at risk from self-harm and five we know of are on suicide watch. Despite the media attention the women (and children) are unsafe.

Women are demanding an independent investigation into reports that women were subjected to violence, mistreatment and racist abuse from guards, were ‘kettled’ for over five hours in a hallway, denied access to toilets and water and locked out in the freezing cold. They are demanding a moratorium on all removals of women who took part in the hunger strike pending the results of the investigation.

But a public inquiry is not enough. Vital evidence is quickly lost. Women are transferred to prisons, they can be deported or they die.

Christel Amiss of Black Women’s Rape Action Project said: ‘They are being detained contrary to international law which governs who should be in detention and who should not… so for example we have women who are rape survivors who’ve come and fled and who have often been raped in prisons in the countries they have left behind… they end up in a place like Yarl’s Wood they can be there for months and months… without any legal representation if they don’t have English without any translation to explain what is going on in the process and in fact they can also be turned around very, very quickly from the day they come in because there is a fast track process, whereby women’s cases can be decided in ten days’

‘The government has built in legislation, rules and regulations which have made this possible, against the United Nations conventions that are meant to protect victims of torture because it is quite clear that what they have introduced is a process to remove people not to give protection and safety to people’.

Visit https://www.qarn.org.uk/
to learn about the Quaker asylum and refugee network.
Visit http://www.franceslaing.co.uk to read more articles by Frances including further information about Yarl’s Wood.