Anti-detention campaigners held a protest at Yarl's Wood immigration
prison in Bedfordshire today (Sunday 21st February) in solidarity with women detainees who have been on hunger strike since 5th February.
Activists from London NoBorders, Campaign Against Immigration Controls and Feminist Fightback managed to get past the prison's security barriers and walk around the barbed-wire fence with banners, shouting solidarity slogans via loudspeakers and making noise with pots and whistles for well over an hour.
The protesters were repeatedly cheered by detainees inside, who waved their hands through half-open windows. Some also displayed hand-written placards summarising their suffering and shouted 'freedom' and 'shame on Serco', the private security company that runs Yarl's Wood on behalf of the UK Border Agency.
During the demonstration, protesters spoke to some of the detainees on the phone. One woman, who has been on hunger strike for nine days, said detainees were being "punished" by being offered "disgusting food" that many are refusing to eat. She said they were being treated "very aggressively" by the security guards and not provided with any medical care. The woman, who is originally from Jamaica and has been in detention for eight months, added that detainees were being subjected to racist abuse. This morning, she said, she was called "a monkey" by one of the guards.
Another woman, who had just stopped her hunger strike as she "couldn't take it any more", described the "physical and psychological torture" that detainees suffered. Having spent several months in detention, the woman felt "devastated" being away from her 7-year-old son and British husband.
A third woman, who has been in the UK for 11 years, of which the last 6 months have been in Yarl's Wood, described the events of February 8th, when Serco security guards tried to break up the hunger strike by force. "We were locked out between 6pm and 2am," she said. "Some women who tried to climb out of the windows were beaten up really bad. I eventually fainted, as did many others. They're still treating us aggressively and offering us repugnant food, which many are refusing to eat."
The protesters also learned that one of the hunger strikers, who had been in isolation for the past 14 days, had just been 'removed' from Yarl's Wood, in what appears to be a strike-busting tactic by the prison
management. She had apparently been dragged by five security guards, handcuffed and taken to Colnbrook immigration prison near Heathrow airport.
One of the demonstrators, who preferred to keep anonymous, said: "As if it weren't enough to lock up innocent people for such lengthy periods in such horrible conditions, thereby destroying their lives and families, those who dare to protest against their inhumane treatment are punished with even more brutality. Companies like Serco are not only allowed to profit from people's suffering, they also often get away with this kind of medieval and clearly unlawful acts. What will happen next? The Home Office will claim they take all allegations of mistreatment very seriously and promise another investigation that will never materialise."
For photos of the action see here.
1. The mass hunger strike, which involved some 84 women at the start, was started on 5th February, sparked by detainees demanding that "the frustration and humiliation of all foreign nationals [in detention] ends now." More than two weeks on, at least 36 women are still on hunger strike, while others have stopped but are refusing to eat the food provided by the prison management. A list of the hunger strikers' demands can be found here
2. On 8th February, Serco security guards tried to break up the protest by force. Some 70 women were locked in a corridor for up to 8 hours without access to food, water, toilet or medical care. Many collapsed and about 20, who tried to climbed out of the windows, were beaten up and taken into isolation cells. Four of the women, singled out as 'ringleaders', were taken to Bedford police station and subsequently transferred to HMP Holloway in London, without being charged with any offence or brought before a judge.
3. A number of protests in solidarity with the hunger strikers have taken place, including pickets of Serco's offices in Holborn, London, and
one-day solidarity hunger strikes by students and campaigners. For more details, see here.
4. A similar mass hunger strike in Yarl's Wood in June last year was met
with violent assaults on detainees by Serco security guards. For more
details, see here.