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Yarl's Wood: Immigration Detention

Since the refugee crisis began, I’ve been one of perhaps millions of people who have watched the news in horror, feeling sad and outraged at the suffering, but feeling powerless to do anything about it. On Saturday 3 December I decided to change that and joined one of two coaches leaving Sheffield to protest at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in Bedford, in a demonstration organised by Movement For Justice. Yarl's Wood, run by the US company Serco, is one of 13 similar detention centres across the country. The UK’s immigration detention facilities are among the biggest in Europe. Costing £91 a day per detainee, they are big business for private outsourcing companies. Arriving at the centre, you see that it’s a prison. The view is bleak. Surrounded on all sides by prison fencing, the women look out each day through windows that barely open onto miles of grey fields. The demonstrations are a huge source of hope and strength to the women, who join in by waving handwritten signs, socks and underwear through the gaps in the windows. The 2,000 strong crowd shouted, chanted and kicked the exterior fence to create a wall of sound. The women inside the centre were able to speak on their phones directly to the crowd to tell their stories. One woman said, "We don’t have TV or internet. We can’t contact the BBC and tell what’s happening to us in here. People can’t see their kids and they will be deported without seeing their kids. Some people in here have been in the country since they were born." Many of those detained in Yarl’s Wood are from Commonwealth countries and have been living the UK with their families for decades. Others came to the UK seeking sanctuary from torture, violence and oppressive regimes. Many of the women have suffered sexual abuse and are extremely vulnerable. Levels of self-harm are high and suicide attempts and hunger strikes have been frequent. A Channel 4 documentary in 2015 raised public awareness of the centre, but it is surrounded by secrecy, with journalists and cameras not allowed and the Home Office recently banning entry by UN officials. There have been extensive allegations of sexual abuse by Serco guards, half of whom are male, and what one Serco employee described as an ‘anti-immigration culture’ among staff. Fortunately, children have not been held at Yarl’s Wood since 2011, after the Children’s Commissioner for England described them as living in "extremely distressing conditions" and the High Court ruled that their detention at the centre was unlawful. One woman told how detainees were frequently woken in the early hours of the morning and put on flights without warning, often returning to countries where their lives are threatened and with no money or possessions. She said, "They don’t treat us like human beings". Many women have been in the centre for over two years. They are all imprisoned for the crime of seeking a better life or for simply not having the right paperwork. One speaker said, "This is a message for everyone in detention: Your fight is our fight, your victory is our victory. We want a policy that puts human rights before profit." The demonstration was a moving and powerful experience and we left feeling that we had made a difference to the women inside Yarl’s Wood that day. One of the things I realised when talking to friends is that many people do not even know that people are being detained indefinitely in the UK in centres like this one, which is why it’s so important to see for ourselves and tell other people. The movement is growing all the time and more demonstrations are planned. Social media activism is not enough. If you want to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers, come to the next demonstration and get involved. movementforjustice.org facebook.com/movementforjustice )

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