Visible Women

Why we must continue to fight for the women of Yarl’s Wood

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Clare Considine
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In 2015, Clare Considine visited the women incarcerated in Yarl’s Wood immigration centre just outside Bedford to report for Stylist. Three years on, she returns to find little has changed.

In 2018, we’re clued up on the war in Syria, US gun violence and FGM. But sandwiched between an activity centre and a pet cemetery on an industrial park in Bedford is a site of major injustice that’s seemingly forgotten. Yarl’s Wood is home to around 400 people, mostly highly vulnerable women, who came to the UK seeking refuge only to find themselves in prison-like conditions for indefinite periods.

I first visited Yarl’s Wood in 2015, when Theresa May was home secretary and Harvey Weinstein still a Hollywood power player. Stepping into the visitor’s centre again, it’s as though time has stood still. The same tired-looking Serco staff take my fingerprints. The creepy farmyard mural is still there. There are sticky plastic chairs, a distrustful hush.

Yarl’s Wood is one of 11 immigration-removal centres in the UK. Opened in 2001, its purpose was to temporarily house migrants with unsuccessful visa applications until they could be returned to their countries of origin. Seventeen years on, its function is less clear. It currently houses people at various stages of asylum applications, the vast majority of whom, government statistics show, will eventually be released to live in the UK.

Three weeks ago, whispers of a hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood began circulating: no mean feat, as smartphones are banned. But Detained Voices, a blog that records verbatim statements from detainees over the phone, published the demands of the 120 hunger strikers. They raise human rights issues, such as indefinite detention and the incarceration of victims of gender-based violence. Journalist Ash Sarkar explains, “The demands are incredibly reasonable and simply bring the UK in line with other countries.” Britain is the only EU country that practises the indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

I meet Dembe*, a 30-year-old Ugandan woman who’s been detained for five months, and is currently on hunger strike. “You get crazy in here,” she says. “You see people talking to themselves in the corridor.”

To all intents and purposes Yarl’s Wood is a prison. Tiny rooms house two narrow beds so no woman has a private space; guards have access to all areas; solitary confinement is used to threaten.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott visits former detainees at Yarl’s Wood in February 2018

No end in sight

But for most at Yarl’s Wood, almost anything would be bearable if they knew how long they had to endure it. “For the first two weeks you think you’re going to get out,” says Dembe. “Then you meet people who’ve been here for six months, a year. They have stories similar to your own – you’re not special here.”

Evodie* is from Cameroon and has lived in Britain for almost 20 years yet still has no legal status, despite fleeing torture. She’s dealt with homelessness and sexual violence, but sees the three months she spent in Yarl’s Wood as one of her toughest ordeals. “You’re surrounded by so much pain in there,” she says. “You can see, taste, smell the human misery.” Evodie was released after three months with no explanation and is now housed by a charity.

In 2016 the government introduced a new ‘Adults at risk’ policy, acknowledging that survivors of sexual violence are unsuitable for detention. Despite this, a report released at the end of last year found that 85% of the women detained at Yarl’s Wood were victims of gender-based violence, from forced prostitution to FGM.

Dembe was forced into an abusive marriage in Uganda when her family found out she was gay, and fled when she was attacked by a mob. She attempted suicide three months into her time at Yarl’s Wood, meaning she was put on suicide watch, with male officers using their keys to enter her room unannounced. “My husband [used to] come home drunk every night and rape me. When the officer comes with his keys, I get so scared,” she whispers.

Broken world time clocks are seen in the waiting room of the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre

Yarl’s Wood is full of women who have been in Britain between 10 and 30 years. A driving force behind the strike is Sarah, 34, who came to the UK when she was 11. “There was a civil war in Algeria when my Dad brought me here,” she explains in a thick Rochdale accent. “Had he known the correct procedures it would have been very easy for me to be documented.”

Sarah’s entire life is in the UK. She worked in Starbucks and had gone back to school to get her A-levels when the Home Office discovered her status and banned her from working or studying. “I don’t identify with any other country,” she explains. To Sarah, Britain will always be her home, but recent events have shaken her understanding of what her country stands for. “I didn’t think you could be locked up in England indefinitely without a judge having put you there.”

As the hunger strike continues, Dembe’s weight has dropped from 54kg to 47kg. On 2 March, the Home Office sent strikers a letter warning them that their refusal to eat and drink “may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner”. Sarah tells me they’ve already followed through on their threats, with one hunger striker deported straight from the healthcare facility. “She’s back in India and we can’t get hold of her,” she says. “She’s completely destitute. We’re really worried about her.”

What happened to my interviewees from 2015? I speak to Natasha Walter from charity Women For Refugee Women to find out. Chenai, a Zimbabwean activist, is thought to have been deported. Maimounia, an enforced FGM cutter from the Gambia, was last seen at a charity conference last year – she still had no leave to remain and “was very fragile”.

A protester holds up a banner in support of the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers

But for a handful, a happy ending is possible. Margaret, a mother of three who spoke of being kidnapped and gang-raped, now has refugee status. “Since then we’ve helped get her kids over. They were found in a refugee camp in Uganda,” says Walter. The family are in Essex rebuilding their lives. 

Two weeks ago, staff at Yarl’s Wood tried to deport two hunger strikers with asylum applications still pending: Opelo Kgari, from Botswana, and her mother, Florence, who have lived in the UK for 14 years. Pressure from the public, politicians and lawyers halted their removal at the airport. Sarah says this is an important victory. For the women inside it’s “a small miracle that we must cling to”. For us, the public, it’s a reminder we can make a difference.

Throughout 2018, Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is celebrating the voices of brave, inspirational women that often go unheard. There is no better example than the 120 inmates at Yarl’s Wood risking the unthinkable and using all they have – their bodies – to fight for the rights of detainees. 

“There’s a tradition of hunger striking that goes back to the suffragettes,” notes Sarkar. “If we’re serious about celebrating our political history, we must offer support for these women now – let them know that they’re not invisible, that we recognise their struggle.”

How you can help the women at Yarl’s Wood

Write to your MP asking them to raise the issue in Parliament (find contact details at parliament.uk), and amplify the hunger strikers’ voices by sharing their words on social media.

Main image: Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and Baroness Shami Chakrabati at Yarl’s Wood in February. 

Images: Getty Images / Rex Features