Remembering a unique campaigner for asylum and human rights.
Gill Butler was a dedicated campaigner for the rights of asylum seekers and against the injustices of the asylum system. A trained, specialist nurse until she retired, she brought this knowledge to bear in her work as both Chair of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders and as a member of Medical Justice, significantly developing both organisations for the better in the process. In 2007, she was the first individual winner of the Una Padel award for her contribution to penal reform and social justice.
After her funeral in a church packed to the rafters, one woman with puffy, tear-red eyes and sad smile, explained that Gill used to call her ‘trouble’ when visiting her some years ago when she had been a detainee in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. ‘Trouble’ because she agitated for her rights and for those others imprisoned there. ‘Trouble’ because she refused to eat the food which she said was not fit for human consumption. And this was exactly the kind of trouble that Gill was too. Gill was the person who would organise legal representation, the person who would ensure that independent doctors would go in to those places and redress inadequate medical care, the link between campaigners, lawyers, doctors and detainees, the ‘befriender’ who made the most real, lasting friendships.
Nobody knows exactly how many people were released from detention because of Gill, or how many deportations she prevented. But her work didn’t stop there. For some people released from detention, her home became their home. And she was always available with her car, ferrying doctors to Yarl’s Wood, waiting in the car park for them afterwards, lending an ear when they needed to unwind. In these ways and more, she helped create an extended family of activists, quietly guided by the principles she held dear, that true humanity goes far beyond simply being humanitarian.