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10 November 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:31pm

“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.

By Sarah Graham

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.

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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:

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