Immigrant Women Detainees in the UK Are Demanding Better Conditions With a Hunger Strike

Over 100 detained women have joined together in a hunger strike protesting incredibly inhumane and degrading conditions at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in England.

In August 2015 protestors surround Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre to demand its closure due to widespread allegations of detainee mistreatment. (iDJ photography / Creative Commons)

Yarl’s Wood, located in Bedford in eastern England, holds around 400 detainees—mostly female—awaiting immigration clearance. Since its opening in 2001, however, the facility has gained notoriety for its cruel practices. Female detainees participating in the strike have cited practices such as indefinite stays at the center, the separation of families, lack of nutritious food and neglectful healthcare among the many reasons for their protest.

“At any point an officer could turn up and take your roommate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next,” stated one anonymous inmate. “Those who are suicidal have their privacy taken away because officers come in without warning. You don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or take you away. Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later.”

Despite complying with U.K. law, the striking inmates claim that some women were detained at the center multiple times. Watchdog group Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, upon discovering in late 2017 that around two-thirds of women from Yarl’s Wood are eventually released into the community, challenged “the justification for detention in the first place.”

“Every day I wake up and I have to think of a reason to go on,” another female detainee told The Independent. “I’ve given up thinking about the outside—I’ve given up thinking about it. I feel like I’m in someone’s dungeon and no one is letting me out.”

A disabled detainee who was also a victim of trafficking reported being chained and dragged “like a goat” by staff during her attempted deportation. One woman even called the conditions at Yarl’s Wood “torture.” Women for Refugee Women also found that many detained women were also previous victims of sexual violence, despite British law that prohibits detaining survivors.

“Even when we have scars and other physical injuries and suffer trauma we’re told by staff who have no qualifications that there is nothing wrong—all to justify keeping us locked up,” one woman recounted to All African Women’s Group. “A lot of medical conditions are going untreated here… Last month one woman was ill for days and ignored until she collapsed. They rushed her to a Bedford hospital at 3 a.m. and she needed a blood transfusion.”

The strikers, citing these ongoing breaches in policy, ultimately called the Home Office—the branch of the United Kingdom’s government that manages immigration—”not fit for purpose.”  They have demanded an end to the practice of multiple detentions, defined bail periods, amnesty to those who have lived in the country for 10 years or more and for staff to respect the sexual orientations of detainees.

Although Home Office has denied even the existence of the hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood, on February 23, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot visited the center and the women on strike. In her concluding remarks following the meeting, she empathized with the women’s frustrations with the detention center. “These women were clearly desperate,” she said. “Indefinite detention, with no release date, is just wrong.”

Maura Turcotte is an editorial intern at Ms.

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