DEMONSTRATE: Release the Yarl’s Wood Freedom Fighters – women imprisoned without charge or sentence!
Shut Down Yarl’s Wood – End ‘Fast Track’ – Stop deportations
Sanctuary Now! For women escaping violence, rape, forced marriage and persecution. Expand Asylum to Women who face persecution because of being women!
Join and Build the Independent, Integrated, Youth-lead
Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights Movement.
The Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre is the central battle ground in Britain for the rights of asylum seekers and the rights of women. On Monday 15th October, under the leadership of the Movement for Justice (MFJ), Britain’s leading civil rights and immigrant rights organisation, more than 200 women detainees at Yarl’s Wood began an escalating series of direct actions to win freedom for women asylum seekers, to stop their deportations and to gain basic democratic rights for anyone who is placed in detention.
The women are fighting by every means necessary and they are winning. The women have successfully employed a range of tactics – from petitioning, to filing legal claims to win asylum for those who are eligible to receive it, to demonstrating and physically resisting the attempts of United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) thugs to drag them out of the detention centre, to an isolation unit or in order to deport them. To date the women’s action has won the release of some of the detainees, including some of the most vulnerable women who were being denied the care and support they need to survive.
Individual leaders in Yarl’s Wood successfully stopped their own deportations by getting the pilots and passengers of planes they are forced to board to refuse to fly until the asylum seeker being deported is removed from the plane. Five MFJ women at the forefront of the struggle have been removed from Yarl’s Wood and placed in prison. Traditionally, the leaders of militant actions in detention centres who are deemed to be too dangerous to keep at a detention centre are sent to prison for a cooling off period and then released. Since the women who are in jail committed no crime they will almost certainly be released. If any of the women in jail are charged with ‘inciting a riot’ because they participated in a peaceful mass protest – to demand that the UKBA return a woman who was dragged naked through the halls of Yarl’s Wood by five or six of their officers, screaming loudly that they stop – then those women’s cases would do more to publicise the brutality of Yarl’s Wood and the desperation of the women asylum seekers to stop themselves from being deported than any thing the movement has been able to do.
The second mass peaceful demonstration the women held at Yarl’s Wood occurred on Wednesday 17th October. This mass action was organised in parallel with an MFJ demonstration at the UKBA HQ in Croydon, to get Serco, (the private company that runs the detention centre) and the UKBA to accept and negotiate over the list of demands that the women had voted for at regular MFJ meetings, and again unanimously on 15th October. It culminated with 200 women attempting to march on the UKBA office in Yarl’s Wood. At this point both Serco and the UKBA refused to hold a meeting with the women’s elected representatives to discuss the demands, and have taken steps to prevent MFJ leaders from publicising the horror that the women will face if they are deported and the terrible conditions within Yarl’s Wood. This will change if the struggle continues.
The struggle of the women at Yarl’s Wood began with one brave young Ugandan lesbian and MFJ leader, L, who began circulating a petition among the women housed at Yarl’s Wood demanding that the UKBA stop trying to weasel out of its responsibility to grant asylum to her and LGBT people from Uganda and other virulently anti-gay countries. The petition and the actions of the MFJ succeeded in getting L released from the detention centre. L’s success led to a small group of lesbian detainees jointly circulating a similar petition and asking to become a part of the MFJ. Soon a much larger group of both gay and straight women from different nations banded together, demanding not only asylum for themselves, but also for a set of political demands. The list of demands expanded as more women were drawn into regular and increasingly frequent MFJ meetings.
To begin with the leading MFJ organisers had to come up with a plan to drive out the UKBA snitch who resided with detainees, and used anti-gay bully tactics to divide and harass women. The only advantage of the snitch/self-proclaimed “preacher” was that she was allowed to convene regular ad hoc prayer meetings. Once the snitch was forced out, the MFJ leaders in Yarl’s Wood were able to convene their own “bible studies” which advanced the building of the movement in Yarl’s Wood in 3 important ways.
First the meetings, which could be convened whenever a group of women could assemble in a safe place, provided women from different areas of the centre the opportunity to discuss, propose changes and vote on their demands. This process was repeated over and over again as the group grew, until everyone who wanted to unite and fight were able to compile a single set of demands that had the unanimous vote of more than 120 women at the 15th October mass protest.
Second it gave the women an opportunity to talk and hear about what horrors each of them would face if they were deported. Detention centres tend to be places in which people from India or Pakistan do not ordinarily socialise with women from Uganda or Nigeria. Overcoming language, cultural, religious and other differences can seem insuperable. Depression, atomisation and anxiety make it very difficult for many people to socialise with anyone else. The unity achieved through the building of the movement has moralised and immeasurably strengthened the people who are fighting.
Third and most importantly, the frequent MFJ meetings made clear to everyone who attended how wretched the conditions of life are for women all over the world, and the racist, callous disregard of the UKBA for the women. Women who had been living in isolation, excluded from political discourse, assumed to have the views of their husbands, were able to think and talk and make critical assessments of the balance of power between the women in Yarl’s Wood and their captors, which would determine the course of the struggle. Women came forward to translate for those who don’t speak English. For many, being held in detention against their will provided more freedom than living in oppressive families and communities that assumes the inferiority of women.
Straight women learned about the torture and terror that their lesbian sister detainees from Uganda, Cameroon etc had already had to bear, and that there was a high probability that they would be killed if they were returned to their countries of origin. They also learned about the callous, cynical and racist policies of the UKBA that routinely orders the deportation of lesbians, because they claim that the women have not provided enough evidence that they are gay. The kinds of proof that the UKBA demands from the women – such as pictures of them with former girlfriends in Uganda, evidence of very public displays of their activities in the LGBT communities in Africa or Britain, statements from family members verifying the asylum seekers’ sexuality – are exactly the kinds of evidence that people who come from countries where gay sexuality is outlawed and where sympathetic family members can be jailed, tortured or murdered, would be certain not to possess.
Similarly, women from Nigeria etc who had been taken by human traffickers and sold as sex slaves, and who knew that their slave-masters were waiting for their return to to enslave them again, reported that the UKBA said that while it believed that they had been trafficked, they could safely be returned to the countries they came from because they had successfully escaped from captivity in Britain. This obviously completely cynical and dishonest justification by the UKBA for returning the women to a life of slavery means that the women who have been trafficked have no legal right to asylum. The UKBA also blithely returns women who escaped from regions where genital mutilation is the norm, telling them that they – and where applicable, their daughters – will miraculously be endowed with wealth and power and find a safe oasis to live in. Women are routinely returned to Pakistan, Morocco etc. having escaped forced marriage or formed relationships with men that their families oppose, to face the threat of ‘honour’ killings or a life of rape and abuse. The bottom line for the UKBA is that the torture, maiming, enslavement, subjugation and murder of women because they are women does not put women into a distinct social and political category that would entitle them to receive asylum in Britain.
As the struggle has evolved in Yarl’s Wood it has moved from the fight of a few brave women for their freedom and the grant of their legal rights, to a movement dedicated to winning equality and freedom for every woman who cannot safely return to the country of her birth. The women at Yarl’s Wood will not stop fighting until the sexist and racist policies of the UKBA are overturned. A few years ago it seemed like it would be impossible for LGBT people to win the right to asylum in Britain. It will not be easy to win the fight to gain the same opportunity for women from certain nations to receive asylum, but losing this fight is simply not an option.
It has been vital for the morale and the safety of the movement in Yarl’s Wood that the MFJ is building a movement outside of the detention centre to support and publicise the efforts of the women in Yarl’s Wood. Winning a struggle of this magnitude will require the new civil rights and immigrant rights movement to grow. The strongest and most determined support for the plight of women asylum seekers will come from the Asian, black and immigrant communities of Britain.
Join MFJ… We march today, we march tomorrow, and we keep marching to build a new Britain: diverse, integrated and equal. We aim to win. We tell the truth about racism, sexism, anti-gay bigotry and inequalities in our society. We believe every human being is entitled to a job, education, food, shelter and the necessities of life, to live in dignity proud of who we are, able to fulfill our aspirations.
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