Detainees in Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood removal centres have been taking action in the last month in protest against the conditions inside the centres and the ‘fast track’ processing of their asylum claims.
In Harmondsworth on the morning of 1 May, a peaceful protest started with almost all of the detainees refusing food. They later occupied the courtyard, with 120 of them remaining there overnight. The protestors also wrote a letter and signed a petition that they sent to the European Court of Human Rights and the local MP John McDonnell. The protestors said that the conditions inside the centre were not satisfactory and that the ‘fast track’ asylum system means that they do not have time to prepare their cases properly, and that the legal assistance they receive is often of poor quality. In addition, some detainees have made allegations of having suffered abuse at the hands of the Harmondsworth staff.
Statements from the protestors were posted on Indymedia. In one of the testimonies, Alimamy Koroma, a former unaccompanied minor fleeing torture and violence in Sierra Leone, said that, ‘We are tired of inhumane treatment… It is a peaceful protest in the courtyard… The food is disgusting. The medical facilities are appalling. Some people have mental problems and should not be kept with the others and some are going crazy because they lock them up too long in detention. We are not treated like human beings. The fast track system is unjust and unfair, it is not practical because it gives decisions in five days and two days to appeal. People cannot prepare their cases in such short time.’
On Saturday 5 April, it is alleged that between 5 and 6am, around fifty police officers in riot gear entered Harmondsworth to break the detainees’ hunger strike. They allegedly took about thirty detainees away to different institutions, and the majority of the strikers were put into solitary confinement. One detainee, who managed to contact supporters made allegations of violent treatment at the hands of the police. Many of the detainees remain on hunger strike.
On Wednesday 16 April, a demonstration was held in solidarity with the actions of the Harmondsworth detainees outside the London headquarters of Kalyx, the private company that runs the removal centre.
Protests also broke out in Yarl’s Wood removal centre near Bedford on Wednesday 9 April, when a mother who was to be taken to the airport took sanctuary in the church with her baby and refused to leave. She was joined by up to fourteen other mothers who refused to let the woman be removed from the church. An article in the Independent on 11 April reported that the day after the initial protest, a pregnant Nigerian woman who was said to have led the protest was allegedly separated from her 6-year-old and placed in solitary confinement. This incident sparked further protest, with at least fifteen people gathering outside the staff office demanding to know where the woman had been taken. Several of the women taking part proceeded to remove their clothes as a statement of disgust at the ongoing imprisonment of their children.
The women are arguing that detaining their children for long periods of time is inhumane, and that the cramped conditions, combined with inadequate medical facilities, is causing them ill health. One of the naked protestors, Mercy Guobatia, 22, from Nigeria, said that, ‘I took my clothes off because they treat us like animals. We are claiming asylum, we’re not animals. They treat us as if we’ve done something terrible.’ She said that her two daughters, aged six months and two years, had been suffering from diarrhoea and been vomiting since being held at the removal centre.
Seven of the mothers, including Mercy, have been on hunger strike since 10 April. Another Nigerian woman, Joanne Becky Izilien, said that, ‘I am concerned about the way my children are being treated. We are not even allowed to take anything from the dining room, not even a cup of water. The hygiene at Yarl’s Wood is terrible. There are no nursing places and they are asking parents to wash baby bottles in the toilet sink.’