Opelo Kgari was brought to UK from Botswana as a child 14 years ago
The hunger strike at immigration detention centre Yarl's Wood began almost two weeks ago. It has been painfully effective in raising awareness about the awful conditions and treatment migrants and refugees are subjected to by the Home Office in the UK.
Until yesterday, Opelo Kgari, who had been detained at the centre for five weeks, was one of 120 women using the strike to fight for her rights. The 27-year-old freelance photographer was born in Botswana but spent her formative years in the UK, from the age of 13. Days after being interviewed by The Independent about her plight, Opelo was crying in the back of a van on her way to Heathrow airport. She and her mother, 55-year-old Florence, were told they would be deported on a flight leaving at 8.15pm on Saturday evening.
Thankfully, after a public outcry, immigration minister Caroline Noke was contacted by Opelo's MP Ruth Smeeth who put a halt to the deportation at the eleventh hour. But it had already been a traumatic experience – the pair were not given any time to collect their things, with Florence calling the situation “cruel and inhumane”. Success stories like this one are relatively rare and only made possible thanks to the tireless work of activists such as the SOAS Detainee Support (SDS) group.
Meanwhile, a letter released yesterday by Detained Voices, suggests that the women who have been bravely refusing food are leaving themselves open to punishment. Part of the letter, allegedly written to a detainee on hunger strike, reads: “The fact that you are currently refusing food and/or fluid: may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner.”
The detainee it was addressed to wrote in a blog post that the letter left them “very upset” and “threatened and patronised”. She felt as though “we/I am being punished for hunger striking and protesting”. At present, she writes she is so hungry that she is “eating snow” and terrified of being sent back to Uganda, where she could face mistreatment for coming out as gay.
In a statement, SDS said that immigration lawyers who had seen the document “suggest it may be illegal”. They are looking to provide support to strikers to challenge it.
The statement went on: “Since Monday 26th February, hunger strikers have reported being told verbally that their immigration cases will be prejudiced by their protest, and have been threatened with removal to prison. This letter, received by several of the strikers, is the first written evidence of this victimisation.”
To support the Yarl’s Wood strikers, SDS has suggested the following actions:
- Sign the Petition – calling on the Home Office to grant the demands of Yarl’s Wood strikers.
- Send a letter to your MP outlining what the strikers are calling for. Use this template, use the Write to Them website.
- Tweet Solidarity photos – tweet, retweet and share photos holding signs of support for Yarl’s Wood strikers, and share using hashtag #HUNGERFORFREEDOM