“Home Secretary, you are a woman too”: protesters call on Theresa May to free Yarl’s Wood detainees

Women demonstrate outside the Home Office in solidarity with refugee women who come to the UK.

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“SET HER FREE” is the chant that has been ricocheting off the glass and steel of the Home Office all afternoon this International Women’s Day.

A small gathering of protesters soon turned into a crowd of nearly 100 people, all calling on the Home Secretary Theresa May to free the women of Yarl’s Wood – the notorious detention centre where female asylum seekers are held.

Organised by Women for Refugee Women, this demonstration was both “to celebrate and to demonstrate” – defiant speeches and angry chants were interspersed with dancing, singalongs, poetry, and even some stand-up comedy.

The atmosphere was largely optimistic; many observed that their cause was receiving more attention among parliamentarians than ever before. Politicians present included Labour MPs Stella Creasy, Kate Osamor and Clive Lewis, the Green party leader Natalie Bennett and Green MP Caroline Lucas.

Creasy reassured the crowd: “It is not a question of if, it is a question of when, Yarl’s Wood is closed. This is the 21st century.” And Osamor promised to be the women’s voice in Parliament: “I stand in solidarity with all those detained, and all those who have been detained, in Yarl’s Wood.”

The actor Juliet Stevenson held aloft a box of postcards – written by 99 women in British public life, in solidarity with the 99 pregnant women who were detained in 2014 – which she is delivering to the Home Secretary today.

Indeed, the main focus of the speakers was on the “inhumanity” of the Home Office, failing to protect women who come to the UK seeking asylum by detaining them in Yarl’s Wood. The centre has repeatedly faced allegations of abuse and neglect of its detainees, many of whom are vulnerable and fleeing persecution. Last August, the chief prisons inspector called Yarl’s Wood a “place of national concern”.

Perhaps the biggest cheer from the crowd came when the human rights campaigner and former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti called directly on Theresa May to have sympathy with the Yarl’s Wood women:

“Mrs May, are you listening? We have been coming here and we will keep coming here. We will come here until this wonderful small group of friends turns into hundreds, and thousands, and tens of thousands of women for refugee women . . . Until you set these desperate women free.

“Home Secretary, if I can’t appeal to your politics, can I not appeal to your humanity? Home Secretary, you are a woman too. These are your fellow women and they are your prisoners still.”

The Migrants Organise CEO, Zrinka Bralo – herself once a Bosnian refugee – added: “Apart from being here today, we can make sure that our Home Secretary – and I’m ashamed to say a female Home Secretary – can hear us today.”

But, as Stevenson remarked, it will take more than lobbying the Home Office to have Yarl’s Wood shut down. The real pressure will come when the general public is informed about the conditions in the centre:

“I really do believe that these places are allowed to exist because most people in this country do not know what they’re like,” she said. “And if most people did have a glimpse into them, and knew what those women inside were suffering, that they did not want Britain to be supporting an asylum system that is so brutal and unnecessarily cruel.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.