Bringing Solidarity Home – Comment Is Free

Until she saw her baby, the mother would not eat, drink or move. She sat soaked and trembling, looking out across the Aegean for a rescue boat we knew wouldn’t come. Three hundred people had been on her boat when it sank. All night, we volunteers had been seeing in the rescue boats, providing urgent care and gathering names of the missing. We’d had reports that two newborns were flown to hospital in critical condition. Chances were that one of them was hers, but the police wouldn’t let us drive her to the hospital. Rescued at sea by the authorities, she was formally “in detention” until she registered. “No papers, no hospital,” they said.

Hours before, I’d performed CPR for the first time in my life, on a little boy who hadn’t survived. I was in shock too and haunted by the notion that this mother’s presence might somehow make the difference between life and death for her child. At the very least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. We sat shoulder to shoulder, in silence, with her relatives around her. “Where do you hope to go?” one of the other volunteers asked in a weak attempt to dent the silence.

“To Britain,” a relative replied. “To live free.”

The refugee camps have always been there, swelling quietly with the very human consequences of the political system that governs our lives. But with the age of televised warfare, the lights came on. War is becoming real for us, for the first time in a long time. Here are its orphans, its exiled freedom fighters and grieving mothers, camping out right on our doorstep. Conflict, climate change, globalisation: it can’t be some grisly reality TV show after all; here are its refugees, real human families throwing themselves on the southern steps of Fortress Europe.

What happened next was extraordinary. There’s the side of the story we know: politicians scapegoating, talk of swarms and cockroaches in the press; a thundering Brexit vote followed by a spike in hate crime so sharp it gave the nation whiplash. But then there’s the other story, less often told: that well below the radar of the mainstream media, tens of thousands of people from all nations, of all ages, cultures and political persuasions, started giving up jobs, studies, relationships and reliable wifi and heading for the borderlands to do their part. They flooded in to do what politicians and aid agencies wouldn’t: from illegal ocean rescues and calling out police brutality to running art therapy classes, feeding thousands and sorting sky-high piles of donated clothes across the continent from Norway to Calais.

I feel enormously proud to have been part of that movement. I learned a lot as a solidarity volunteer in Greece. Some of those lessons were traumatic – I still have nightmares a year later – but I think I learned as much about politics in weeks in Camp Moria as I did in years at university. The most personally challenging and painful lesson was a simple one: it will never be enough. However many volunteers we have pulling 15-hour shifts, politicians in halls of power far away are doing more damage in a week than we could undo in a lifetime. For all their summits, resolutions and deals, in 2015 one in 269 people crossing to Europe died; this year it’s one in 88.

With deprivation and incarceration systematically inflicted on people in the name of border control, when we say “refugees welcome” that is a commitment to campaign for radical change here at home – or it’s meaningless.

In December 2015 I was taken out of action by a serious spinal injury. Being forced home was infuriating. I started providing online support, fundraising, anything to fight the creeping sense of powerlessness, to stay connected. I started following the news again, watching in horror as governments closed the Balkan route and levelled camps at Calais and Dunkirk. Autonomous humanitarian aid was being criminalised, camps sealed off from independent observers and mass deportations introduced. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey deal started edging “the refugee crisis” off our front pages; it was someone else’s problem now. Europe had paid a handsome price to make it so.

Coming home, it’s strange trying to figure out where you used to fit in. Media headlines about immigration stop being abstract and become about people we know. Apathy and discrimination start to hurt instead of just irritate because we’ve seen their casualties starving and cold and the empty orange lifejackets floating in the sea. We know what it costs. We’re not supposed to just fit back in when we come home. We’re supposed to be opening eyes. The fight for refugee and migrant rights out there can’t be won without a radical political shift here, in the heart of Fortress Europe.

The solidarity-based approach developed and demonstrated by the best of the independent volunteers has enormous potential to achieve this. It has the power, not just to save lives, but to change lives; to heal the divisions in our communities torn by politicians scapegoating the poor and the undocumented for a crisis they created.

It’s not about charity. It’s about recognising shared responsibility for the state of our shared world; understanding we have always been connected.

By refusing to provide safe passage, refusing its fair share of refugees and detaining over 30,000 undocumented people every year, the British government is reinforcing the precedent that black and brown lives don’t matter. If that passes unchallenged, we are all forced into a more dangerous, divided and desolate world. And with states cracking down on independent solidarity work, simply saving lives is becoming a political act.

Humanitarian aid without a political movement is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with water one teacup at a time. Every time they raze Calais to the ground I am reminded of that painful truth.

One of the most urgent battles for asylum and immigration justice in the UK is against detention. This pointless, brutal practice is the most harmful aspect of the system. It cripples the ability of detainees to fight their own legal cases or speak out for justice. With a growing protest movement at detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, ending detention is a fight we can win right here at home. That means everything from raising awareness to the direct action of the fearless grandmas who brought immigration raids to a halt in Glasgow. A movement that broad is ambitious; but ambition and vision are all that will stop our descent into barbarism.

Work that builds practical solidarity infrastructure and political resistance which work together, from the heartlands to the borderlands, outlines the way forward: projects such as These Walls Must Fall, which combines campaigning with a solidarity-based approach to migration and asylum support to empower those affected to fight back for their rights as part of our community. We’re taking on a multi-million-pound industry which profits from the system and has close ties to the government. But if we win, that victory would be felt well beyond our borders.

If walls can fall in Fortress Britain – they can fall anywhere.

Originally published by the Guardian online & in print, 29th December 2016
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Thousands gather to demand #ShutDownYarlsWood and #EndDetentionNow!

Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault

6 December 2016

The walls of Yarl’s Wood were surrounded by unprecedented numbers on Saturday as up to 2,000 people from all corners of the country joined a protest at Britain’s most infamous detention centre, mired for years in accusations of systematic psychological torture, deprivation, sexual assault and rape. The protest was organised by Movement for Justice, and was probably the biggest ever at a UK detention centre.

While representing a much broader system of abuse and injustice – with over 30,000 people incarcerated in Britain every year just for not having correct immigration papers – there is a reason Yarl’s Wood looms large over the migration justice movement; a reason no journalists or cameras are allowed inside; a reason even representatives of the United Nations were barred from entering. It holds hundreds of women indefinitely, in prison-like conditions which compound the psychological impact of past trauma; more than half of these women are survivors of rape and sexual violence, one of whom describes her treatment there as “like being raped all over again.”

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Over a year after the chief inspector of prisons called out Yarl’s Wood as being ‘of national concern’, nothing has changed. This year alone three guards were brought up on fresh sexual assault charges, and Theresa May’s administration refused to reveal what it knows about further rape allegations and the actions taken against 28 Yarl’s Wood staff since 2007. Healthcare and food standards are also notoriously poor and reports of racist abuse by staff and self-harm by the women detained there seem endless. Asylum seeking women are also legally more vulnerable with their claims twice as likely to be unfairly rejected.

“I know what the women inside are facing. This place is a house of horror!”

Lucy’s powerful voice carried over the fence towards the centre. “I know what the women inside are facing. This is a house of horror!” Beyond, arms waved through gaps in the windows, which barely open; shut tight like a prison; like the eyes of a nation that can’t bear to face them. The arms waved socks like banners – it’s all they have – and one, a scrap of paper that simply read: ‘helpless’.

Lucy was once detained here; on Saturday, she returned at the head of a 2,000 strong crowd of protesters to demand Yarl’s Wood be shut down.

“There is nothing to compare it to. They don’t treat our people like human beings,”

Lucy continued: “There is nothing to compare it to. They don’t treat our people like human beings,”  She recalled how when guards used to come and gather women up for charter removal flights (secretive mass deportations flights), they would resort to stripping off their clothes – so male guards couldn’t abduct them – and standing together in the middle of the room, gripping each other’s hands to stop anyone being torn away. Hearing that story right outside the foreboding place where she once lived it, was chilling. And as she directly addressed her sisters still inside, her voice broke; she closed her eyes and pushed forwards.

“Please, don’t be scared! They can’t kill you. So don’t be afraid of anything! Fight the fear in your mind. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you are facing… And outside we will all join hands to fight this battle!”

On Saturday, that fight entered a whole new phase. It was the biggest ever march on Yarl’s Wood, and probably as big as the 2005 protest at Dungavel, (during the G8 summit in Scotland), but protesters also reported that the mood has changed. And this is to be expected. The sheer scale of this crisis has forced the most barbaric elements of our asylum and immigration system into the cold light of day: from countless drownings in the Mediterranean and slave-like conditions in Libya, to our own government’s racist and xenophobic Hostile Environment programme.

On top of that, the rising tide of hate crime and racist scapegoating by politicians and the media is opposed by the majority of young people in this country. We understand that demagogues like Theresa May and Nigel Farage, while they also threaten our public healthcare, housing and education systems, will build their power base on one issue: immigration enforcement. And this is also part of what brought such staggering numbers of young people to Yarl’s Wood on Saturday, chanting: “money for jobs and education, not for racist deportations!”

But money is still being wasted on this abuse. Despite growing consensus that urgent, systemic change is required, the government has completely ignored the recommendations of the 2015 All Party Parliamentary inquiry into detention, and its own internal Shaw review, published in January. Since these reports were published, people are now being held for longer periods, more torture victims will be detained, and despite a time limit being introduced on the detention of pregnant women, the government refuses to reveal how many are being held under an “exceptional circumstances” loophole. No wonder people are angry.

The march had snaked across several fields, through the frozen mud to the back fence where it could make itself heard from inside. While some hung a rich tapestry of banners along the outer walls to be viewed from the windows, hundreds of people lined up along the inner fence, scaling ladders, and attacking the fence with kicks and kitchenware.

“The women aren’t allowed social media or news access online and many will be locked away unable to see us,” one student explained. “So this is how we tell them we’re here – and how many of us are here!”

People hung balloons from the fencing and wrote messages of love and solidarity on the walls. Despite freezing temperatures the chanting, dancing and banging went on for hours, spurred on by a rising tide of outrage as the crowd heard live testimony from women inside via the sound system.

“There’s a tuberculosis outbreak inside right now, and the disease is spreading, but no one cares!”

“I want to thank you, from the bottom of our hearts, ever single one of you who came here.”

added an older woman, her voice brimming with gratitude.

And lastly, a young mother:

“We just want freedom! We want our human rights, to go to our children, we want justice! And we won’t surrender, ever! We’re gonna tell the truth!”

In a remorseless move by SERCO, who hold the £70 million contract to manage Yarl’s Wood, this time the centre was put on lockdown, with detainees stopped from moving freely inside to see and hear the protest. This proved to be a mistake. As the sun was setting, hundreds of protesters flooded around the front of the building to the front entrance, to be heard by the women kept locked on that side. As darkness fell, a group of demonstrators managed to pry off the metal plating of the vehicle entrance. The group gained access for a short time; just long enough to make some noise within the walls before retreating. While brief, controlled and peaceful, it was like watching the invasion of some medieval fortress.

Tearing into those walls was a powerful symbolic act. But if we want to see them fall we must declare war on the walls we cannot touch: the borders going up in our hospitals and our schools, our workplaces and communities, dividing us into deserving and undeserving of basic rights; the politicians that hide behind corporate responsibility and the corporations that hide behind the state; the racism that divides our communities and will make excuses for the most appalling abuse.

That will be a longer fight. That will be a harder fight. But we must commit to it now with all our strength, for ourselves, the women at Yarl’s Wood, and the tens of thousands like them being failed by a brutal, unfair system being enforced in all our names.

Originally published by Right to Remain