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

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Stand-off with prison profiteers at the Tower of London

November 17 2016

The Tower of London has been a tourist attraction for as long as anyone can remember. But on 15 November the infamous tower was back in action, opening its doors to host the European Custody and Detention Summit. Despite the talk of progressive reform, the £1,500 per head summit was a closed-door trade fair for private security corporations and their public partners.

Migration justice and refugee rights

In a complete reversal of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ principle, the life and liberty of migrants and asylum seekers in the UK are routinely stripped away. Our government detains them more often and for longer than any other European nation – including war refugees, torture survivors and those with special needs. Britain is the only European nation with no time limit on immigration detention and over 30,000 people are incarcerated every year in a system rampant with abuse. Meanwhile, the government continues to ignore its own experts and wriggle out of endless human rights obligations and outsource responsibility for its devastating policies to private security companies like G4S and Serco.

It’s a far cry from the international persona Britain projects as a nation of individual freedom, human rights and equality before the law. But today in the UK, being undocumented means being criminalised while legal aid cuts make access to justice through the courts increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, communities are divided as we are pressured to police each other. Hospital staff, teachers, employers, local authorities, charities, contractors, travel operators and now banks and landlords are all coerced into playing border guard.

Incarceration is a costly and inhumane response to people forced to cross borders by conflict, climate change and crushing poverty – all deep social crises in which countries like Britain have long been and remain deeply complicit. Yet instead of taking responsibility for the consequences of its actions and the lives destroyed by them, the government continues to build new prisons, erect new walls and incarcerate men, women and children for nothing but the “administrative convenience” of the Home Office – and the profit of private security companies.

Protesters made their presence felt

A few days ago, organisers agreed to hear what the summit’s hosts, International Research Networks, had to say. IRN facilitates exclusive networking events for almost every sector undermining climate and social justice, from arms dealers and oil companies to investment banking. Their representative expressed regret that several participants had pulled out after the protest was called – including delegates from G4S and Serco. They also claimed to have cancelled their business matching sessions and some immigration and border enforcement events.

IRN explained their recent decision to enter the industry by reference to its rapid expansion in Britain and Europe. They emphasised the role of reform and NGOs becoming “key providers of criminal justice and security services,” but denied that privatisation helped drive this expansion, in stark contrast to the figures and widespread concern amongst civil society that Britain has become the ‘mercenary kingpin’ of the global private military industry. They refused to reveal how much profit the summit would make and warned that no attempt should be made to enter the tower or block the walkways, reminding organisers that there were armed police inside and that they would “hate to see anything happen” or anyone “fall foul of a broken criminal justice system.”

The protest, called by Reclaim Justice Network, brought together a range of groups campaigning on migrant rights, criminal justice and the arms trade. We turned out before work to stand handcuffed at the entrance for the opening of the summit, demanding an end to privatisation in the sector and calling for ‘social justice not criminal justice’ and returned again that evening. One protester was aggressively confronted by a participant from the summit. “He squared right up to me,” she said, “shouting that he couldn’t understand why we’d be protesting. I suggested he listen to what we were saying.” But the public response was overwhelmingly supportive, if shocked.

The campaign has made a real impact and cut into the summit’s profits. Though the Tower of London trustees refused to cancel, its effect on their public image forced a prompt change of advertising, with all references to the Tower of London as “the world’s original high-security prison” swiftly deleted and an apology for any offence taken. But this isn’t about slogans offending political correctness. It’s about an unjust, racist and violent system making profit from people’s misery.

Social justice not criminal justice

The creeping privatisation of criminal justice should concern us all. Its impact in the USA, where the experiment has been most widespread, has been devastating both socially and economically. It led to a drastic rise in incarceration for non-violent crime – more African American men in prison now than were subject to slavery – and solitary confinement, dangerous conditions and forced labour have become routine. Of course, you are vastly more likely to be affected if you come from a low-income background – even in some UK prisons, more than half of inmates were never taught to read and write properly.

The knock-on impact of all this on families, loved ones and communities is immeasurable and by 2016 even the Department of Justice was issuing damning reports. Obama pledged to end the use of private prisons. Meanwhile, in countries like Norway where the criminal justice system puts rehabilitation before punishment and profit, societies have been rewarded with drastically lower rates of re-offending, creating safer communities and stronger economies as a result.

It is deplorable that at this moment, when more people are forced to leave their homelands than ever before, multi-billion pound companies present militarisation on our borders and incarceration within them as the solution when there are so many just alternatives. Now, the kind of technological ‘security solutions’ promoted within the industry are even being used to keep humanitarian volunteers out of Europe’s refugee camps and obstruct lifesaving operations at sea. And when state-sanctioned violence is outsourced to private companies, creating a profit motive for punishment, the government thinks they can’t be held to account. They “see no evil, speak no evil.” But we see it; the families and communities torn apart, they see it; and we came together to speak against it, because this isn’t the migrants’ crisis – it’s ours. It’s about taking responsibility for the kind of society we’re creating and willing to live in; about asking us what it means to think of ourselves as ‘civilised’. Because that defines who we are, too.

 

The protest was organised and supported by a range of organisations including:Right to Remain. Reclaim Justice Network. SOAS Detainee Support. Campaign Against Arms Trade. The London Latinxs. Brick Lane Debates. Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol). Lesbian and Gays Support the Migrants. NUS Black Students’ Campaign. Stop the Arms Fair. Global Justice Now.

Originally published by Red Pepper online