Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Say it loud, say it clear: Refugees are welcome here"


The Yarl's Wood protest last weekend was a success, and I'm so glad I went. It was hard, though. I mean, I understand that protest organisers have an obligation to keep the crowd amped up, and we were there in large part to boost the spirits of those being kept inside, so a general noisy, rambunctious atmosphere reigned. However, there's nothing easy about seeing that place.

For one thing, it's geographically isolated in the middle of hay fields surrounded by rutted paths, giving off the impression that, though it is beautiful countryside, this is ultimately a place intended to be forgotten about. And the windows of the women's rooms can only open a few inches, so we say waving arms and makeshift signs that were hard to read through the metal fencing. One woman had hung signs saying "SOS," which was an unmistakable call to us. Though we spend some time being quiet as group to allow the women's un-magnified voices to be heard across the centre yard, by and large there was a horrifying anonymity to the detainees. The windows appeared to have a reflective tint, making it impossible to see the people behind them - so disembodied arms and shrieking voices were all we had access to.

At one point, our group - which was a couple hundred-strong - moved across the grass to talk to the women at windows further down, and then we tromped back to where we had started. But the women at the other end remained in their windows. I walked over that way, so that it was just myself and a policeman (and for the record, the police were perfectly polite, directing traffic and not interfering. The guards of the centre, however, were nowhere to be seen except in a window late in the afternoon). I started waving to one woman who was still there, and received a mad wave in return. We stood there, waving at one another, until my arm ached and I realised I needed to go to catch my bus back to London.

I cried quite a bit, to be honest, as did one other protester I saw. Beyond that, I got a feeling of collective anger more than sorrow, which I suppose is more helpful to the women inside - pity is less helpful than energised activity. But it was a heartbreaker.

Two days ago, the BBC published a piece calling the detention centre a "national concern," which is heartening to see. Here are a couple of other pieces from the week that I encourage you to read:




At Yarl's Wood, the attitude towards asylum seekers from Calais has changed



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