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“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:http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/campaign/

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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