A short piece about a protest I attended outside Yarl's Wood detention centre, in Bedfordshire.
Flat land, torn with ploughing and roughly covered in short, sharp scrub, with sudden bursts of fat, ripe, ruby-red rosehips drooping from scraggly post-autumn bushes. Sometimes there was a hedgerow of bare hawthorn bush decorated with rich, purple- red haws. We walked around a rusted fence and over ditches to a tall, dark green metal wall with fencing clad over the top, with Yarl’s Wood detention centre within its perimeter.
As soon as I saw their hands reaching out and waving through the tiny amount the window could be cracked open, I shed some tears and held back some unexpected sobs. Those symmetrical square windows were the only contact the detainees could have with the two thousand odd people who wanted to reach out and assure them that they were on their side. Outside the window the detainees waved, swirled whatever clothing they could, and held up notes. In some you could see the full image of a woman looking out, and occasionally a Yarl’s Wood employee loom in the room. One window had a note pasted to it, that read, in large green letters, ‘TB.’
We get to hear from the women trapped inside by a phone hooked up to speakers; a woman waves a reusable shopping bag or laundry bag out the window and claims that this bag held everything she was allowed to take with her. She is understandably angry, desperate for freedom. Another woman, audibly distressed, says she is not getting the correct medication she needs. Another says that outbreaks of tuberculosis and other diseases spreading through the centre, as the medical facilities are sub-standard. Another says that they don’t have access to sanitary products (a speaker from ‘Movement for Justice by any Means Necessary’ says that the detention centre stopped outside organisations from bringing sanitary products, which they defined as ‘consumables’) a Polish woman says she was punched in the throat, slapped in the face, and her legs were twisted. A woman from Trinidad says she lived in Britain for sixteen years, struggling with the ridiculous bureaucratic systems for applying for the right to work, and that she eventually worked with ‘Crisis,’ helping homeless people. Some women who aren’t in Dove block, the block facing the demonstration, are locked into their rooms in other blocks, but manage to call in to say thank you for fighting for us. We hear from Mabel, a woman who has been in the detention centre for two years, who is not allowed to see her seven year old daughter. Women cry for help from the windows.
The detention centre system in the U.K. is a disgusting anomaly within our culture. The public recoils at horrors in Guantanamo, at war crimes the world over; people continually condemn regimes such as Kim Jung Un’s and rejoice in Fidel Castro’s death, while detention centres exist within out midst, where people are interrogated, tortured, raped, abused, denied their freedom, their human rights, their ability to see their loved ones, basic feeds of the outside world like television; these people suffer in prison-like circumstances, unsentenced, simply for making it to the U.K with hopes of escaping troubles the world over, as many are seeking asylum, or of simply beginning a new phase of life, which white British people afford themselves easily the world over. Many of the detainees originate from ex-British colonies, which would have been flooded with immigration from Europe and America years ago, but as soon as that flow threatens to reverse, it is condemnable, disgusting and a crime.
At four thirty, I had to turn my back on the detention centre, leaving many innocent people trapped in their block. I had the basic right to be able to make my way home, a right you don’t always realise just how much of a luxury it is, as it appears basic, boring, and universal. And yet across the United Kingdom, detainees, who want to work, study, and live in the U.K., wait for their fate to be decided for them, while the little money and possessions are confiscated and their families await for verdict.
Just before leaving, the police boarded every bus ‘looking for someone.’ The protest had a slight police presence, just a few police liaison officers, but officers swarmed the roads and blocked either end for public access. Whether or not it was intended, their intrusion into the busses waiting to leave left an unwarranted affirmation of power and control. We could leave but for the grace of their mercy; those in the detention facility were not given such rights.
During the journey back, the coach overtakes a large red van with ‘chevaux/ horses/ pferde’ written on the back in white. In a small compartment lit up within the van, a horse turns its large, beautiful head to look through its window, out at us.