Yashika Bageerathi (right) has been deported just months from taking her A-levels. Photo: change.org
Show Hide image

Yashika Bageerathi’s deportation and the institutional heartlessness of our asylum system

The Mauritian schoolgirl had been held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where another woman recently died. If we want to be a country that can be proud of helping those in need, we need to shut it down.

Last night, a 19-year-old girl was deported. She was escorted on to Air Mauritius flight MK057 by five security guards, and placed in the middle of the empty rows of seats the Home Office had bought up to make sure she sat alone. She was warned not to scream or answer calls. Her supporters claimed that she had been denied food all day, in an effort to weaken her. After two failed attempts to bundle her out of the country, this time, the Home Office was taking no chances, sparing no amount of “taxpayers’ money” to rid us of this troublesome sixth-former. Her name was Yashika Bageerathi. Next month, she would have been taking her A-levels.

The Home Office has been reluctant to comment on this case. And no wonder. Whatever the merits of Yashika’s asylum claim, there could be no credible case for deporting her so close to exams that could shape the course of her life. And these were exams in which Yashika was predicted to excel – her teacher told me that she was expected to achieve A*s in all her exams, and that she had been offered scholarships by both Newcastle and Queen Mary’s University. And so the Home Office hid behind jargon. Proper legal process had been followed, they told us. “We do not routinely comment on individual cases”, they squirmed. No answer to the repeated question of why the unseemly haste, given their own policy says students under 18 should not be deported in the final months before their exams? Yashika was 19 though, and therefore the spirit of the law need not be applied. Only the petty-minded letter.

Still though, in the Home Office’s defence, they could argue that they had already ruined Yashika’s chances of getting those predicted grades. Since the 19 March, she had been detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where a 2013 inspection found that education was “restricted to study at a low level”. Even if they had been able to provide her with the tuition and materials she needed, it is unlikely she would have been able to focus. Torn from her family, with an uncertain future and the fear of being returned to a country where an abusive relative awaited her, Yashika told Channel 4 News, “I try to [sleep], but it’s just sleeping, wake up, sleeping, wake up. And I just keep thinking. About what might happen. What will happen.”

The day Yashika spoke to Channel 4, was, she said “a bad day”. A 40-year-old woman, Christine Case, died of a heart attack at Yarl’s Wood. Women for Refugee Women has heard reports that she was complaining of chest pains for days before she died and “was not given appropriate medical attention”. While they have, as yet, been unable to confirm the report, they do point to their recent report, Detained, which found that the vast majority of women detained at Yarl's Wood characterised the healthcare there as “bad” or “very bad”. Meltem Avcil, who was detained with her mother at the age of 13, tells me, “every time you go, no matter how ill you are , they just give you paracetamol and they send you back”. When I later speak to more women who were detained at Yarl's Wood, unprompted by me, paracetamol again emerges as Yarl's Wood’s panacea for all ills.

“I don’t believe there’s adequate provision there”, Louise King, a local councillor tells me. “I don’t believe there is an acceptance that the women [in Yarl’s Wood] are likely to have mental health problems and likely to be extremely distressed.” She has only recently started to visit Yarl’s Wood, as a part of an investigation into the centre’s healthcare provision, but, she tells me she has been “very shocked” by what she’s witnessed. She tells me about an offer she facilitated, for SEPT, the South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, to provide the women in Yarl’s Wood with counselling, to help them cope with the sudden death of their friend. This offer was refused.

Christine’s friends wanted to send her family a condolence card, but Serco, the private contractor that runs Yarl’s Wood, “wouldn't help us”, they told Women for Refugee Women. “We all feel very unsafe and frightened and as if no one cares about what happens to us here”. Some women have expressed a fear that they will now be deported, to silence them. Councillor King went to Yarl’s Wood on Tuesday and asked to speak to the woman who had called her to tell her about Christine’s death. The guard initially allowed her to, but after only a few minutes, Councillor King was told to leave. No reason was given but the conversation had been about Christine. Whether or not these women’s fears of being deported to prevent them speaking out are grounded is, in a sense, immaterial: they tell us all we need to know about the culture of mistrust and fear in which these women live.

Women for Refugee Women’s recent report on Yarl’s Wood is damning. It presents a prison where 93 per cent of the inmates are depressed, 89 per cent struggle to sleep, and where 80 per cent have been raped or tortured back home – often by soldiers, police and prison guards. And yet, section 9.1 of the United Nations Commission On Human Rights' Guidelines states that “victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence need special attention and should generally not be detained.” The key word here is, of course, “generally”, but when the latest Prison Inspectorate report found that for “the most vulnerable of the women held, the decision to detain itself appears much too casual”; when it found that pregnant women were being detained “without evidence of the exceptional circumstances required to justify this”; when it found that “obviously mentally ill women” were being detained before being sectioned, and that “it was difficult to understand why they had been detained in the first place”, it's hard not to conclude that the Home Office has developed its own very unique definition of the word “generally”. And this is before we get to those inconvenient but persistent reports of sexual harassment and exploitation from the guards themselves.

Yarl’s Wood is an unnecessary blight on the conscience of this nation. The Home Office tells us that we have a “proud history of offering asylum to those who need it” - and yet from the moment an asylum seeker steps foot in this country until the moment it is accepted that they have been raped, tortured, persecuted, they are treated like criminals – worse than criminals, since they can be kept locked up indefinitely. They are assumed to be lying (up to 96 per cent of female asylum seekers on the Fast Track system are refused on their first application), with many women attributing their depression to not being believed after having disclosed their experiences of sexual violence. The existence of Yarl’s Wood is the most visible and ugly manifestation of that sour culture of disbelief that creeps around our immigration system, infecting everyone with its mistrust, fear, and cruelty. If we want to be a country that can rightly be proud of helping those in need, we must cease our attitude of lying until proven persecuted. We must abandon our system of asylum by numbers. We must re-train our immigration officials, so that there is not one case worker who has not heard the term “female circumcision”, or who asks a rape victim if she tried to prevent her rape. And we must close down Yarl’s Wood, because while Yarl’s Wood remains open, we are complicit in every death, every suicide, every life-long case of trauma. We are complicit in saying to all those who flee persecution and come to us for help, “We don't believe you.” I don't want to be part of that system any more. Sign Meltem Avcil’s petition to end the detention of asylum-seekers in Yarl’s Wood, today, and help to #SetHerFree

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Getty
Show Hide image

Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.