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Yarl’s Wood
Photography Peter Yeung

Standing up for the ‘invisible’ at UK detention centres

We caught up with campaigners outside Yarl’s Wood demanding that the people detained inside are released

The guards have confiscated all the toilet roll from the women in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. They know that a protest is coming, just beyond the tall steel fence that surrounds the building, and they want to make sure that there aren’t any “projectiles” around. Yet, one wonders how much damage could be done with flimsy pieces of tissue.

This is one of the more banal ways in which the lives of those awaiting deportation in centres all over the UK are controlled. “Your life is in other people’s hands. They decide when you eat and when you sleep,” says Antonia Bright, from Movement for Justice, who are running the demonstration. The group want to be noticed, dressed in yellow and fluorescent pink.

In order to visit friends or family at Yarl’s Wood you must travel to a remote part of Bedfordshire, be searched and fingerprinted. Visitors are only allowed to go as far as a designated room. It is isolating: “Detention is like a black hole. It’s like you disappear,” says Bright.

But on Saturday, at sites all over the UK and abroad, demonstrators were determined to let the inmates know that they could be seen. At Yarl’s Wood the cry went up: “No human is illegal,” as they carried multicoloured flags and makeshift signs around the outskirts of the complex: an odd mix of brutalist architecture and buildings that look like nursing homes.

At dusk, yellow, purple and green smoke rose from the flares held high by the defiant women of Sisters Uncut. Darkness fell and candles were lit in circles. The protesters dressed themselves in fairy lights and each raised a sparkler towards the windows of the women inside. Through the narrow gap that the window safety latches would allow, the inmates pressed their faces and hands, singing back to their visitors.

Such scenes were replicated outside centres in Heathrow, the Midlands, Scotland, Northern Ireland and all across Europe. As a grassroots movement, the fight against detention can be fractured and inconsistent, with spates of action taking place sporadically. With all of them happening at the same time, this was the chance to bring it all together.

After the extensive press coverage of the Mediterranean crossing and the growing awareness of the refugee crisis, the organisers wanted to show people another harsh reality of migration control. In the UK, this is much closer to home.

“You get a lot of people going off to the refugee camps because they think the conditions are awful,” says Lotte Lewis, one of the event coordinators. However, many don’t realise that “on their doorstep, there’s a detention centre and the conditions are really awful there as well,” she says. “It’s just in a different form. It’s prison, but without a time limit.” And for many, the uncertainty is what makes the experience the hardest.

This week will mark the two year anniversary that Mabel Gawanas will have been shut inside the Bedfordshire detention centre. Labour and the SNP have been calling for a time limit of 28 days to be imposed on the imprisonment, but so far their efforts have led nowhere. Gawanas has been here so long that the other women have started calling her the “Queen of Yarl’s Wood”.

Originally from Namibia, the 42-year-old has a daughter who was born in the UK. She has just turned seven. But for the last two years, Gawanas has had to make do with only being able to talk to her on the phone or when her father is able to bring her all the way from London.

Like many others in detention, Gawanas has mental health problems. Yet, from within Yarl’s Wood, she says she is unable to get the specialist psychiatric care for borderline personality disorder and posttraumatic stress that her doctor has recommended.

They have prescribed her antidepressants and sleeping pills, but she says she still can’t sleep at night: “I cry when I am alone. I allow my body to feel feel pain. And in the morning I show a brave face, a smiling face,” she tells Dazed.

Since many in detention are applying for asylum, they are likely to have experienced traumatic events. The process of being detained without a finite end, critics claim, is compounding that trauma.

“People see detention as something that is happening to other people. It’s not other people, it’s us”

This view has been supported by a report that came out at the beginning of this year, commissioned by the Home Office itself. Stephen Shaw’s report observed: “The indefinite nature of detention was almost universally raised as making people more vulnerable and for its impact on mental health.”

When Gawanas was very young her mother set herself on fire and died. After that, her childhood was tormented with beatings and sexual abuse. There is legal recourse for victims of torture, through something called rule 35. But according to Movement for Justice, many who have medical evidence that they have been tortured are still held in detention.

After speaking to the press about her difficult past, Gawanas says she has received threats from people linked to her abusers in Namibia. She is desperate not to return: “(They) have told me that if I come back, they will deal with me,” she says. “They are sending me back where there is no hope.”

These are words that seem bound to repeat themselves. Incarceration has become more and more heavily relied upon as a means of controlling immigration.“There has been massive growth in detention that began under Tony Blair,” Bright says. “It’s kind of like a monster, in the way it has grown.” She argues that imprisonment further underlines the idea that immigrants are to blame for domestic problems, by presenting them as criminals.

This criminalisation can be one of the most hurtful aspects of detention. Kingsley Newuh, from Cameroon, had just finished his masters degree in international development when they raided his house. “I live in a very quiet neighbourhood (...) the neighbours came out and were just watching,” he says.

Newuh is fluent in English and had a job. He was reporting to the Home Office every two weeks after having problems renewing his visa. But they still took him to the police station and handcuffed him. He then spent three months in detention at Morton Hall, in Lincoln, before he was able to prove that he should be allowed to stay.

Newuh’s story demonstrates how detention is not just happening to outsiders, but to people who have lived here for years. Sometimes those detained do not know anyone in the country to which the government is trying to deport them. “People see detention as something that is happening to other people,” says Bright. “It’s not other people, it’s us. It’s our communities being detained”.

And Gawanas’ community is fighting back. Opposite the fence outside Yarl’s Wood, two figures are holding a giant white sign that is rocking slightly in the breeze. They will stand like this for hours. In large yellow letters read the words “Set Mabel Free”. They are waiting alongside her for that to happen, but who knows how long it will be.