I've written before about immigration, and as I pass the one-year anniversary of my own immigration (immigration? Expat-dom? As a dual citizen, I'm never really sure), the ease of my own movement around the world has been highlighted starkly. I receive a welcome in two of the most difficult countries in the world to enter, the United States and the United Kingdom, and it's by sheer luck - the roll of the dice that had my two specific parents meet, and the happenstance of their countries both being willing to offer me passports.
I've recently felt compelled to learn more about other people's immigration experiences, and in particular, the terrifying journey of asylum-seekers. The innumerable deaths of boat people trying to get to the EU has broken my heart, and every time I waltz merrily through Logan or Heathrow (okay, Im never waltzing, I'm usually jet-lagged and a bit punchy), it feels almost like cheating, like I've been gifted some secret password that others would give their lives for.
This brings me to the story of Yarl's Wood, a detention centre in Bedford, England, for majority-female asylum-seekers whose applications have been rejected and who are awaiting deportation. Constructed in 2001, the facility was never intended as a prison - those being held there have not been charged with offenses - but from the beginning, stories of violence and intimidation, investigative reports, and frequent protests have led to repeated calls to shutter it.
Ineffective border control
|Image from Bedford Today|
Yarl's Wood is meant to be a way station on the way to deportation, yet a 2013 inspection found that in the six months before the unannounced inspection, 1,188 people had been "released into the community," and 198 had been "transferred to other places of detention," raising the question of exactly why people are being held in the first place at a centre intended to be a last stop before leaving the country.
The same inspection also found that detainees did not have access to digital communication such as Skype, and were given only very limited mobile phone use, under the control of the officers. Moreover, there was "no structured needs assessment," so detainees were often left waiting and wondering what would happen to them, rather than being presented with a plan for their relocation upon arrival. There was also no follow-up with people once they left the centre, so outcomes were impossible to evaluate.
Abuse of power
The same report found that male staff (who comprised 58% of staff) were regularly present at female detainees' "rub-down" searches, and were also entering female detainees' rooms without invitation. Remember, this is a group of mostly-female asylum-seekers, and many of the detainees are fleeing histories of violence, so this behaviour, coupled with the centre's record of detaining mentally ill and pregnant people (against the government's guidelines, it should be noted), set the stage for some of the abuses that the centre is now known for.
Those would be abuses such as withholding medical treatment and mental health care, detaining pregnant women, which "not only contravenes Home Office guidelines but makes little sense, given that virtually none of them ended up being removed from the UK," and contemptuous attitudes and threats from the staff, such as "They're animals. They're beasties. They're all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up. Right?" (That last quote came from an undercover investigation by Channel 4, which I recommend taking a look at.)
What we're doing to fix things, and how you can help
|Image from Bedford Today|
The UK should show asylum-seekers respect and aid. These people are not criminals; they are not opportunists or sneaks or any of the all-to-simplistic caricatures of exhausted immigrants. These are people fleeing violence and controlling governments, and they deserve dignity when they reach our shores, because getting here has been one hell of a journey.
On August 8th, I and a number of other protesters from all over Britain will be at Yarl's Wood to bring attention to this issue and make progress towards getting it shut down. If we (or more accurately, Serco, the private contractor that actually runs the facility) can't operate Yarl's Wood in accordance with respect for the basic human rights such as freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security, and freedom of expression, then it should not operate at all.
Want to join us? Movement for Justice has a Facebook event that you can check out, and there will be coaches going from many UK cities, so you can book your ticket (in London? Book your seat here). You can also donate to help fund the coaches so that other can get there, via this GoFundMe page.