30 MARCH 2018

Hunger strikes, forced labour, indefinite detainment, inhumane treatment and victims of rape, human trafficking, forced marriage and gender based sexual violence. This list of human rights abuses reads like the abuses of a foreign nation placed on a UN watch list, rebuked by the UK for its corruption and exploitation. However, the above crimes aren’t those of a regressive foreign power, these human rights abuses are happening right in the heartland of the British countryside, at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre just one mile outside the quaint village of Milton Ernest in Bedfordshire.

Long has the British government maintained an evangelical rhetoric on immigration detainment, that it’s an absolute necessity for public safety and well-being. Many political commentators hypothesise that Brexit was won on the immigration argument alone and often the most contentious political debates both in Westminster and the public domain centre around the issue of immigration. Were it the case that Yarl’s Wood was only detaining illegal immigrants, the consternation over the human rights abuses of detainees would be none the less apparent, however Yarl’s Wood not only detains illegal immigrants awaiting deportation from the UK, it detains asylum seekers and refugees as well as victims of torture and ill-treatment.

The UK is the only country in Europe to detain people for indefinite amounts of time, often without access to a solicitor or any legal support for a matter of weeks. The Home Office declares that asylum seekers and victims of torture are exempt from detainment, yet activist from within Yarl’s Wood, sharing their stories to the outside through the website, Detained Voices, reveal that many of those being indefinitely detained fall into these allegedly ‘exempt’ categories. A detainee who signs off via the pseudonym ‘Hungry Foreigner Made in Britain’ explained that “they (the Home Office) say they don’t detain asylum seekers and torture victims, but I can tell you this place would be more or less empty without them.”

Even more concerning, are the complaints of sexual abuse and exploitation conducted by staff working within Yarl’s Wood against the victims of detainment. In 2015, a report published by Women Against Rape and Black Women’s Rape Action Project, documenting over ten years of complaints from hundreds of detainees, called for the closure of Yarl’s Wood altogether. The report contained claims that CCTV evidence of abuses ‘disappeared’ when requested by lawyers on behalf of victims, as well as graphic accounts of experiences of abuse by women within the facility including: A pregnant woman reporting that a guard repeatedly propositioning her for sex, a rape survivor from Uganda reporting a male guard entering her room when she was semi-naked, causing her to be retraumatised about the rape and other women stated that strip searching and suicide watch made them feel humiliated as men were present at all times, including during toilet visits. Furthermore, a crucial and disturbing concern is the refusal of the Home Office to recognise rape as an act of torture, despite it being defined as such in the UN Convention Against Torture, which the UK ratified in 1998.

As a consequence of the constant and overlooked human rights abuses, female detainees in the only detention centre to hold women, have initiated a series of strikes - including work and hunger strikes as well as a refusal to engage with the limited health and legal services within the facility - in order to draw attention to the human rights abuses and to put pressure on the Home Office to change the way in which people are detained in the UK in general. The demands of the Hunger Strikers can be found on the Detained Voices website and include an end to systematic torture of detainees, indefinite detention as well as the separation of families, emergency alarms fitted throughout the facility, access to proper healthcare, proper food to respect varied diets and a release of people with outstanding applications, finally the strikers wish to speak with Alistair Burt, MP for the local constituency.

One would be hard-pressed to disagree with the right to basic human dignity that the women of Yarl’s Wood are fighting for, even starving for and yet, many of the most abhorrent cases of failings in human rights don’t even make the list of demands. Staff at Yarl’s Wood are employed by Serco, an international ‘public service’ company and are often subsidised in labour by detainees. Detainees work in food production and serving as well as cleaning alongside Serco employees however detainees are paid on average £3 per day for their work. This small sum of money rarely enables them to buy anything more than a £5 phone card and some other minor essentials from the on-site ‘shop’ – which Serco also have the monopoly on.

Right wing media outlets have reported that those on hunger strike are refusing food on ‘religious grounds’ and are ‘buying food in the on-site shop’ in an attempt to revoke the efforts by detainees to raise awareness of their campaign. A spokeswoman for Detained Voices has confirmed that the strike includes refusal to purchase items from the shop and points out that after purchasing a phone card with their meagre weekly wage, many detainees are incapable of buying food in any case.

By exposing victims of rape and torture to further abuse whilst they claim asylum in the only country they have felt safe, systematically denying basic human rights to the most vulnerable in society, including victims of sexual and physical abuse, trafficking, sexual exploitation, homophobic attacks and a child abused by loan sharks, the UK government has been declared ‘unlawful’ by The High Court for its policy on torture victims as a result of this abhorrent detainment..” An anonymous hunger striker apologising for their ‘incoherent’ message due to their fourth day without food said that “We feel voiceless, forgotten and ignored. This is a desperate measure due to desperate circumstances.” The nameless victim went on to state “we are on a hunger strike because we are suffering unfair imprisonment and racist abuse in this archaic institution in Britain.”

Britain; a country so intrinsically linked to progressive, liberal and tolerant values. It seems completely unfathomable that such a country would protect institutions that elude and cover up these harrowing, corruptive and negligent injustices happening at its core.

More stories and statements like these can be found on the Detained Voices website, which details experiences of victims being indefinitely detained across the UK.


Gemma McSherry, journalistGemma is a freelance journalist based between Leeds and Belfast. She works as a features writer for Belfast based arts and culture publication CultureHUB Magazine.