The women of Yarl’s Wood protest against inhuman conditions

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The women of Yarl’s Wood protest against inhuman conditions

More than 100 women detainees are on strike. We must show our support, writes Felicity Kersting.


(c) Felicity Kersting

About 120 women went on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood detention centre on 21 February 2018 to protest against the centre’s inhumane conditions. The women refused to take part in detention in any way including work and use of the shop and gym, and they occupied the Home Office and healthcare departments of the centre.

More than a week into the action, strikers are protesting against what one detainee described as ‘unfair imprisonment and racist abuse’. One striker collapsed and they took her for medical attention in a wheelchair. They called another into a private meeting room, and said it was to talk about her health. But then they deported her to India, where she fears serious abuse after her family disowned her.

Strikers’ demands include an end to indefinite detention and a return to the 28-day limit. They demand an end to charter flights where they give detainees very little notice of the flight and so they cannot tell their family. They also demand for the Home Office to stop deporting those with asylum applications, and to stop detaining vulnerable people who are victims of torture and rape.

The strike comes at a time of increasing pressure on the UK Home Office as there are serious questions about its treatment of those in detention. In September, a BBC Panorama TV programme reported the terrible treatment of detainees in Brook House. Diane Abbott, MP, finally visited Yarl’s Wood after trying for a year. She spoke to some of the women and plans to talk about their situation in parliament.


Protests outside Yarl's Wood detention centre. Photo by Felicity Kersting.

Yarl’s Wood is one of nine detention centres in the UK, with 410 people. Most of them are women. They detain about 30,000 people each year. Many of them have asylum applications or, in some cases, visas. The UK is the only country in the EU without a time limit on detention. At one time, between 210 and 260 detainees are in detention for more than a year. This is against the purpose of these centres, which is to detain people who are soon to be deported for a short time only. They release more than half of the detainees. This shows that detention centres are not doing what they should.

The government uses detention centres to make migrants afraid and to create an attitude of racism and nationalism and an atmosphere of distrust. This is not looking at Britain’s problems, which are austerity, capitalism, and oppression. One striker said they felt that ‘we are your prisoners whom you choose when to detain and when to release and when to deport’. This abuse of power creates a frightening environment where, detainees say, staff in the centre ‘come and take people at two o’clock in the morning and the next day you don’t see them’. This creates serious mental health problems for the detainees. This is worse because there is not enough support in the centre, where detainees see nurses as part of the home office.

The government policy is that they will not detain victims of torture. But women in Yarl’s Wood often seek asylum to escape abuse and many are victims of rape. The government asks for evidence from a doctor before they believe a woman’s story of abuse or health problems. And when there is evidence, women often stay in detention.

The government refuses to recognize rape as a form of torture. The hunger strikers said ‘We want the Home Office to stop detaining the vulnerable people, that is, victims of rape, that is, torture, all forms of torture, trafficking, forced labour, the disabled, the mentally ill and so on.’ During the occupation at the Home Office department of Yarl’s Wood, immigration officers refused to say that rape is torture. They use this to keep vulnerable women in detention and it effects their mental health.

One detainee striker said that ‘ no one hears our voices because we are in here’. Another said that they want people to ‘talk to those people who are in power. To take action and help our situation here’. Detainees feel ‘removed from my friends and family, removed from society, so far removed from every comfort’ so our protest is very important. Those on the outside can show support for the protesters in many ways and force the government to recognise that no one can accept these conditions.

What you can do

To show your support, sign the petition calling for the government to accept the strikers’ demands. (

Send a letter to your MP. (

Put photos of support on Twitter or other social media holding up signs of support, and use the hashtag #HungerForFreedom. Find out if a there is a demonstration near you – there was one in London on Wednesday 7 March 2018, with over 500 people.

Join an organization that works to support detainees, for example SOAS Detainee Support, Women for Refugee Women, or a local organization.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).