Show Hide image

“What have I got to lose?” Hunger strikes and protests at Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Campaigners and refugee women alike are calling for the closure of Yarl’s Wood, where vulnerable women who have claimed asylum in the UK are detained.

On Saturday, hundreds of protestors gathered in the muddy field outside Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, calling for an end to the detention of vulnerable women who have claimed asylum in the UK.

Despite the pouring rain, the mood on both sides of the fence was impassioned and defiant, with the women inside apparently buoyed by the support and solidarity of the chanting crowd.

On the way back from the demonstration, message after message reached me via asylum seeker and ex-detainee Karen*, who was travelling with me and taking calls from friends inside Yarl's Wood detention centre. The news that seemed to please her most was that a hunger strike was being held, with one friend telling her: "We told the officers, 'We have just come from a huge protest; we won't spoil it by eating your food!'"

Karen is a keen supporter of these hunger strike tactics and was quick to encourage the friends she'd left behind when she was released from Yarl's Wood less than two weeks earlier. She personally took part in four hunger strikes during the three months she was detained. The first, in early September, involved about 30 women, while her fourth strike was coincidentally held not long after the release of the film Suffragette.

At the time, as I watched Carey Mulligan's Maud being force-fed on the big screen, I felt overwhelmed with sadness for the sisters who I'd been calling and visiting in Yarl's Wood since I joined Women for Refugee Women (WRW) – a charity that works with women who have sought asylum in the UK – six weeks earlier.

There's no forced feeding in Yarl's Wood, and the hunger strikes there may at times be more symbolic than sustained – but I couldn't help feeling an echo of the women's desperation and defiance in their belief that, if they refuse food, the authorities will eventually have to listen.

At the moment, the Home Office locks up around 2,000 women who have sought asylum every year. A growing movement is speaking up against this unnecessary indefinite detention. Supporters come from across the political and social spectrum, but some of the most inspiring women I have met are those who have experienced Yarl's Wood first hand. 

This week, I caught up with trafficking survivor Caroline*, who has now been detained for 12 months. She told me many of the women in Yarl's Wood are still refusing to eat, insisting: "I am not going to have their food for days because they need to release me."

She, like many others, felt the protest had given her a renewed drive and energy to continue her own act of rebellion.

At WRW, we know the tactics vary. Many women simply eat their own food, buying instant noodles and snacks from the shop; the more militant, like Karen, forgo some meals and even medication, putting their health at risk.

For Karen, brought up in South Africa during the Seventies and Eighties, her cultural reference points are more Nelson Mandela than Emmeline Pankhurst. She'd never heard of the suffragettes, but a similar spirit of resistance and sisterhood is alive and well in Yarl's Wood.

The women still inside Yarl's Wood had been preparing for the protest for weeks beforehand, using markers, old T-shirts, bedding, towels, and even toilet roll to create banners demanding "FREEDOM" and "SOS".

On the morning of the protest, I received a text from Ann*, a detained asylum seeker who was forced to undergo FGM in her home country, and whose husband was murdered by the same tribal group from which she fled. "The girls are ready!" she said. "Most of them were prepared yesterday."

One woman, Bianca*, told me she'd been wearing her protest T-shirt around Yarl's Wood since mid-October, emblazoned with the hand-written slogan "WE WANT OUR FREEDOM! WE ARE NOT ANIMALS!"

She laughed as she told me an officer had asked her to remove it: "He said he found it offensive. I just said 'I find it offensive that I'm here!'" Throughout the protest, I could hear her voice – angry, indignant – booming from a phone held up to a megaphone, joining the calls for freedom.

Ann and other women who attend the church in Yarl's Wood had already spent three days fasting ahead of the protest, praying for the demonstration to make a difference. Her protest was quieter and more spiritual than the men scaling our side of the fence to hang a solidarity banner – but she was there, calling and waving from the window nonetheless.

As Mulligan's Suffragette character Maud found, though, this fight is not without its personal risks and sacrifices. On the morning of the protest, one of the fiercest ex-detainees I know, Elsie*, pulled out of coming with us, saying she felt too worn down and depressed by her on-going battle for Home Office protection.

Earlier in the week, I'd spoken to a young woman inside Yarl's Wood, 18-year-old Gemma*, who told me she was anxious about the protest. "The officers don't want us to do it, I'm worried about getting in trouble," she said. "But what have I got to lose?"

On the morning of the protest, she described her banner to me over the phone; hers was the first I spotted when we arrived at Yarl's Wood, hanging from the a darkened window that only opened just wide enough for her to slide her hand out. 

Outside too, former Yarl's Wood detainees led the mood of sisterly resistance. The overwhelming message, from individual speakers and group chants, was "You are not alone", with messages of love, support, gratitude and inspiration crossing the fence down phone lines and loud speakers.

Torture survivor Gill* was returning for the first time since she was detained in 2006. When we arrived, she was off the minibus and away as soon as the driver opened the door, hood pulled up over her face to protect against the driving wind and rain.

By the time I caught up with her, she was standing with her back to the solid metal fence, amid a sea of people and banners, kicking it as hard as she could, with one arm holding her "#SetHerFree" placard high, and the other raised in a fist above her head. She clearly felt her personal payback against the walls that had incarcerated her and her friends was long overdue.

The noise was incredible: boots pounding on fences; chants calling on the Home Office to "SHUT IT DOWN"; detainees past and present sharing their stories over the PA system; cries of "we love you" and "we support you"; and several rousing choruses of "Don't worry about a thing".

For Karen it was more reflective; she spent the day on her phone to her friends inside. At one point she confessed that she half expected someone to come, take her back in, and lock her up again. It must have been difficult for her, having been released such a short time ago. "If you believe in it, you have to be there, even if you are not in there anymore," she reflected. "The girls are counting on me not to let them down; I couldn't not come."

Later, as we left the sleepy Bedfordshire countryside behind us, a dozen refugee women, many of them also ex-detainees, filled our minibus with chants of "Goodbye Yarl's Wood! Hello freedom!" which continued sporadically all the way back to our Old Street office.

Karen was in particularly high spirits, relaying to me every piece of news she heard from the women inside Yarl's Wood. "While [Immigration] think they are breaking us, actually they are making us, because we build friendships as sisters," she said – and this solidarity has the power to inspire us all.

*names have been changed.

Women for Refugee Women is campaigning to end the detention of women seeking asylum in the UK. Find out more about their Set Her Free campaign here:

Show Hide image

Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.

Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.

Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.