[Image description: A billboard advertizing the opening of a Byron, photoshopped to include an Immigration Removal van. It reads: “Byron / Exploitation / Immigration Raids / UKBA Collusion / Coming soon”]
On July 4, Byron Burgers called in undocumented workers from 15 UK stores for a “training session” which was actually a UKBA raid. Home Office officials detained and deported “dozens” of people. It’s being widely ignored in English media; that link is to Spanish media. Most of the people detained and deported were Latinx.
Byron is a microcosm of Theresa May’s “hostile environment”: a UK chain company can exploit undocumented migrant workers as long as they rat them out to the Home Office if they’re caught illegally employing them. Byron benefits from cheap labor and precarious workers; the UKBA benefits from companies like Byron ratting out their employees — everyone wins, except the workers, who are apparently disposable. Employers are becoming border guards, along with landlords, neighbors, teachers, and universities. It’s unacceptable.
[Image description: “No Human Is Illegal” cardboard sign held up against Yarl’s Wood detention center gates, among many hands and tops of heads, with pink smoke billowing in the background]
Content note: discussion of institutional racism and non-graphic mentions sexual & gendered violence
“Shut down Yarl’s Wood!”
On Saturday, over 1,000 protestors surrounded the Yarl’s Wood immigration and removal center (IRC) in protest of the UK government’s practice of indefinitely detaining and deporting asylum-seekers. The protest also highlighted broader injustices with the UK’s racist and xenophobic immigration policies, state-sanctioned gendered violence, and for-profit prisons and IRCs.
The protest was led by Movement for Justice and decentralized Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants chapters, with support from Sisters Uncut (also decentralized), the No Borders movement, trade unions, and student activist groups. Protestors and organizations traveled by train and coach to Bedford from London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield, and Brighton. The 2,000+ crowd was mostly young women and femmes, but also included babies and children, elders, men and mascs, and gender-variant people.
Today we march to surround Yarl’s Wood IRC and join detainees in building a movement to end detention, to fight for real equality and freedom for ALL, and to build a Britain capable of fulfilling it’s promise of justice, opportunity and dignity. The breadth of national support for this demonstration is enormous. Everyone making this journey through the farmlands of Bedfordshire to Yarl’s Wood, organising talks and fundraisers to make today happen, is playing a part in a new movement in Britain – one in which people with and without citizenship, of any gender or sexual identity, religion or nationality can stand up as leaders to the whole society.
The grounds at Yarl’s Wood are bleak and muddy. There aren’t any trees visible from the detention center; only gnarly barbed plants without any flowers or leaves, and tall yellow grass. We marched across a large field to amass outside the large beige building where the women are held.
Choice signs from protestors included: “Theresa May, No Way”; “Victim-Blaming, Racist Media: We See You”; “Borders Are Bullshit”; and “No Human Is Illegal”. Some protestors were condemning IRCs because they lock up innocent people seeking asylum and protection (“Protection Not Persecution”). Other intersecting messages of anti-capitalism, feminism, housing, and queer issues, were also represented.
Protestors kicked against the imposing sheet-metal fence, rattling it. People also beat drums, blew whistles, clapped, and screamed their voices hoarse. The high energy was sustained for several hours, only tapering as the sun went down.
The policing was light, considering the size of the protest: a discouraging reminder that the action did little to disrupt or threaten operations at Yarl’s Wood. The purpose of the demonstration was to show solidarity with the women inside, and to draw attention the violence of detention centers and UK immigration policies.
Edit: But we mustn’t underestimate the impact that the women inside are able to have on the disruption of operations, more than outside protestors ever could; this was a coordinated effort between those inside and out to resist the immigration/imprisonment/deportation system at large, not just a solidarity demo (thanks for pointing this out, MFJ).
Ex-detainees give speeches
Former detainees of Yarl’s Wood and other IRCs in the UK gave impassioned speeches. It was an all-too-rare moment where those affected by the immigration system were given a platform to speak about their experiences with it. Their speeches reflected the experiences of the former Yarl’s Wood (then-)child detainee I interviewed last year.
[Full transcript at the end of article]
“We love you!”
The women inside pushed hand-made banners out the small cracks of their windows with distressing messages: “Yarl’s Wood officers in relationships with vulnerable women”, “We are not animals”, “Help me! I’m 63 years old”, and “Shoplifting = 1 year IRC”; these are especially concerning considering that they were the messages made by the detainees with limited resources and probably at the risk of disciplinary action. They also threw out paper into the yard, waved t-shirts, and waved their hands through the small openings.
The women detained inside banged on the windows and led chants of “Shut it down!”. They screamed out that no human should be locked up like they are, and called out, “Thank you!” and “We love you!” to the protestors. We waved back. Some people shouted their solidarity and commended their strength. Tears marked my cheeks and I was left with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness as we prepared to leave; all we could promise in return was, “we’ll be back!”
Transcript of the speeches by former detainees and their supporters
MOVEMENT FOR JUSTICE SPEAKER: … the 30, 40 people, who protest with the people inside detention from Harmondsworth to Colnbrook. Today we’re over a thousand, more than a thousand. [cheers] From day one, there were from people, ex-detainees, coming to these demonstrations, and speaking back, to the people that are still struggling inside, because detention changes your life, and it makes it clear what Britain—the worst side of what Britain is about, and the side that we most need to fight back against. So every time it has been with people speaking out inside detention, and outside detention, and people who used to be in detention. People who live every day under the shadow of detention. This system is cruel. It is cold-hearted, it is brutal. But we—we are passionate people. We care what happens. We’re the ones that are gonna fight, and it’s gonna be on our shoulders to make Britain the kind of place it should be, to make Europe the kind of place it should be. It should have open borders; it should be letting people through. [cheers] There are two directions for Europe: we can go down the road of this brutal, racist, twisted system, or we could build a better society and a better future. And it’s gonna be the people who have the most desire and the most ambition and the most determination, the clearest, clearest plan, who are gonna be the side that will win, and that’s gonna be our side, our side! [cheers]
So, so we may have about 40 minutes or so before our coaches get desperate for us to return. But that is enough time to make our voices heard. I just want to to introduce some people to be able to speak, and give a message to the people inside, as well as to people out here: to keep fighting, and to keep that struggle strong. I want to introduce Lydia, who was only just freed from Yarl’s Wood in December of 2015. [cheers]
LYDIA: Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Yarl’s Wood is not an easy place to be, but my [muffled]. Alright, I have some friends there which I made and I left. They are still there. There are people in there in Yarl’s Wood who have spent more than two and a half years, no good food, the treatment we receive in Yarl’s Wood: they call us animals at times. Oh my god, it’s horrible. It’s the worst place to be. If I look at the window: few inches they can come out, they can’t do anything in Yarl’s Wood. They don’t even call us by name, at times they call us by room number, or the block number. Please, give us any way, any means we can help and support them to come out. I am…
PROTESTOR: Release them now!
LYDIA: I am one of them. Please, let us join hands together and free them. Yarl’s Wood has to be down. I am an asylum-seeker, I am not a criminal. They arrest me when I went to sign, without nothing, straight to the airport to deport me, but thank god for the women of [Movement For] Justice, I am here today, free. So please, please [cheers] Freedom is just all we need. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of anything. Right now I don’t even care what will happen to me, all is that, freedom is what I want. Freedom, they deserve it. Every individual needs it, freedom. So Aisha! The rest of you! Freedom! Freedom! [cheers]
MFJ: You know what? Every time we come back, we grow bigger? And every time we come back there are more ex-detainees to speak out. These walls are gonna come down, because detention is gonna become unmanageable. You can’t keep inside, locked up, people who want freedom who are ready to fight. These walls are gonna come down. I just want to introduce Azuka who’s also come out of Yarl’s Wood just last year and has been ever since continuing the connection with the people inside and fighting to support everyone and bring Yarl’s Wood to an end.
AZUKA: Hello, um, Yarl’s Wood is hell. Yarl’s Wood is hell. The people that were here together, when they saw me today they said, “What? Wow, is this you?” The woman who has just spoken now was arguing with somebody that said, “Is that she?” The person said, “Yes, she is the one.” I’m only telling you that Yarl’s Wood is hell, it is, because when I was inside there, a lot goes on. One of us had a hospital appointment—she was handcuffed to go for the appointment. So she refused, she refused them to handcuff her, she missed appointment; she missed three good appointments. So, we are inside there, we fought, with Movement For Justice, they encourage us to speak out. And when we came out, most of us hundred of us here, we have been in there and out. And we have been working, fighting, fighting day and night for our freedom, and our sisters inside there. Eighteen years old are inside there. Pregnant women are inside there. Some women in there, their husbands died, inside there; they became widows inside there. Please, please, please, I am begging all of you, to stand with Movement For Justice, and all the organizations that are fighting; together, we can win. But single-handedly, we will not win. But if all of you here, stand by us, we will win. We will win this racist, evil deeds of Home Office. They treat us like animals, we are human being. There’s no illegal person on Earth, we are all legal. But they label us “illegal”, and they treat us—most of us because of when we, when we were going to sign, and we, we obey them, they said, “go and sign”, we obey them and sign, and they pick us up there and then bring us here, and then treat us like animals. You inside there, my sisters: fight! Continue to fight! Don’t give up! Don’t give up! Don’t give up! [cheers] We are fighting out here! We are fighting out here! Set her free! Set her free!
MFJ: … to have all people out of Yarl’s Wood, and some speakers who have come out of the other detention centers, and we want to see all the detention centers shut down. I just want to introduce Choogoday [sic], who’s been a leader and fighter in Movement For Justice, and been speaking out against Yarl’s Wood ever since release.
CHOOGODAY: Hello everybody! [cheers] Yes I was in station for three months last year, I was detained, I was illegal here, I was um, I put in my application and they said it was rejected but I had to put another one, I was [?] that, Please don’t ever, ever let this place open again. This place must shut down. Yarl’s Wood must shut down. It is hell! The treatment is horrible! The food is horrible! When you are sick, they treat you like as if you are pretending, they say you are lying! I was there for a while, I was very sick, and I was told I was pretending! I couldn’t [?], and I was told I was pretending. As if, they said “No you can’t go and see a doctor”, and they look at you and say “Ok, you have scabies”, I say “How do you know I have scabes?” There was no test for me to do to tell me what I had. I had a lot of infection there.
Please shut down Yarl’s Wood! It is not a place for anybody! Our mothers are there; our friends are there; our sisters are there; the young who have [?] are there. I want to talk about, children like Deborah, they shouldn’t be there, they’re just nineteen years old kids who are there. Release Deborah! Release Aisha! Release Edith! It should be shut down. People who have come there they have lost their children to immigration. They have lost them to, to Home Office. So people who are there have lost their children for one year. So people who are there have lost their kids; their kids are now in foster homes. Their kids are now adopted. And do you know what they do to you [when] they want to deport you? They inject you! If you refuse to go they inject you.
CHOOGODAY: … are not human. They inject us, if you resist deportation they inject you. That’s not good. And they deport you by force. Please we have come with our daughters who are there, our mothers who are there, who have lost their children. Some people have become mentally ill. I saw a little girl there, she has she suffered by herself, [?] Please release our girls, release our girls. Shut down Yarl’s Wood! [cheering]
PROTESTORS: Shut down Yarl’s Wood! Shut down Yarl’s Wood!
MFJ: There’s a reason why we call it a racist prison: because it is so racist that no matter what they see, even if they see that you are ill, they say that you’re lying. Every person in detention is treated like they must be a liar, because that is how the government wants us to view people who are Black, who are South Asian, who are from the Philippines, who are from China; this is how they want us to view the migrant community. They want us all to think that everyone is a liar, everyone is a cheat. It is a lie designed to divide and rule us, all of us. It’s a lie designed to divide the exploited, and get people to fight against each other. We reject that lie. We’re gonna stand together united, no matter what country, what language, what religion; what sexuality or what gender identity. We are together in this fight and we will not stop. [cheering] I want to introduce Jane.
Oh sorry. There’s one announcement that I need to make, for anyone who wanted to leave earlier if you have so far to go: there is a minibus that is gonna leave at four o’clock, and if you follow the guy in the orange jacket, down the front here, if you need to leave, he is gonna be heading off soon, so find him to be able to get a bus to Bedford station. Fourteen seats, for first come first served.
Um, I want to introduce Jane, who also has come out of Yarl’s Wood. And this is the thing, more than half the people that are detained get released at some point, but detention is designed to try and crush you, so that even when you come out you’re depressed, and yet, Movement For Justice and the fighters inside, they’re coming out more powerful, and being organizers of a movement. So this is Jane.
JANE: Hello, I thank you all who are here, supporting us. I was in Yarl’s Wood for two years, I’m Jane Surray [sic] from Uganda. We are detained there, I had my heart, my blood pressure was too high, 200 every day, 200. They took my blood test, they did what, I don’t know, because some of them, the doctors say that I was pretending, because I was fearing. Whatever, whatever, whatever they can say, but it was true.
I thank Movement For Justice, for the work they have done, fighting for us. I encourage all Ugandans, all Ugandans, to be strong! Everybody from each country, be strong! Victory, victory, victory! Come up! Come on! Yarl’s Wood people are detained: Mabel, Aisha, whoever is there, we are behind you! Be strong! We are behind you! Thank you very much, Jane from Uganda! [cheering]
MFJ: I’m gonna, I’m just gonna introduce… Like Jane said, victory, victory will be ours. I’m just gonna introduce Veronica, also who’s come out of Yarl’s Wood.
VERONICA: Hello everyone. [cheering] Hello everyone! [louder cheers] I believe all of us is excited to be here, this afternoon. You know there is something I used to tell people; I tell people that there’s some certain things in life that you cannot choose by yourself. Take for instance, you can’t choose your mom, can you? Can you say, this is the mother that I want to carry my pregnancy? Nobody can choose it. And if they share this bond, every [?] is entitled to life. If they share this bond, if it doesn’t cry, what does the medical person do? They begin to panic; they want the child to live. So why should anyone say, tell you, that you are not entitled to be on the surface of the Earth to live? Why should anyone tell you that you are not entitled to work? Why should anyone tell you that you are not entitled to be educated? Why should anyone tell you that you are not entitled to have a roof on top of your head? [cheering] I tell people, this land, the land that we all have, belongs to god, and it belongs to everyone. So it’s everyone, if you can move to anywhere, when god is making anyone they do not say, “Oh, this is the limit that I want you to go.” So if you are just, probably, maybe if you have the choice to make sure, to make, to choose where you want to be born, [?] I don’t have the choice but to tell people where I want to be born: I want to be born in Buckingham Palace, or White House. [laughing] But unfortunately, fortunately and unfortunately, I was born probably on the road, or I don’t know, in one village. But that does not mean that I should [be in?] my past. I need to move on, and take my future in my hand, so I am entitled to go anywhere that I’m supposed to be.
Last year, this Home Office, they called me, they were telling me, they told me that I entered here illegally; I never entered here illegally. I came here legally and my passport was stamped. And then they sent me a letter from nowhere, and told me that I entered here illegally, I said “No, I came here on this so-so-so dates of this year.” And they are not telling me, I say ok, come at the sign in. I go to sign in. And then one of these days I was just going there to sign, they told me that I have an interview. I said, “An interview? But nobody told me.” They say, “Yes, you don’t need to be, need to be phoned.” That is an insult. At least if somebody want to tell me to agree with you or to do anything, I should be phoned. But nobody told me. I was annoyed. I [met?] myself at Colnbrook. From Colnbrook through this, Yarl’s Wood. Before I know it, I’m just looking at myself, but, we continue to fight. And we will win, we will win. [cheering] I’m not for any man! Irrespective of your color, irrespective of your age, irrespective of whatever your gender, you are entitled to live your life. [cheering, whistle-blowing, banging against the compound fence]
MFJ: I want to introduce someone we’ve heard from before, a powerful speaker and advocate, who has also been released form Yarl’s Wood, this is Lorencia.
LORENCIA: Freedom! [cheering] I love Yarl’s Wood for one thing: it’s a battleground. Here you will learn a lot of skills. This is where women fight for their right, for their freedom. You fight and fight and fight until when the Home Office is tired of you, they will release you. So my sisters in there, I encourage you to keep fighting. Keep resisting. [cheers] Hold one another, we are out here for you. Look at the number of people who came here today. They left their job, their home, their comfortable bed, to come here and encourage you. I was there with you, I know how painful it is, but keep on fighting while we are fighting here. I keep encouraging you; and those who are outside, we have to keep encouraging them also. And I thank everyone that came in here. It is not easy to be in Yarl’s Wood. By the time you come out of Yarl’s Wood your mental status is gone. Look at them, with their small space where you only bring out your hand, this window that the women are suffering under [referring to the windows which only open 2 inches]. Imagine. But we keep fighting.
I remember what happened one day: a Chinese woman was very ill, in Yarl’s Wood here. The officers were doing one-to-one on this Chinese woman. She was here for a long time. At the time, she can’t walk again, almost dying. The women all of them hold their hands and call ambulance. When they called the ambulance, ambulance was coming to pick the woman up, and officers learned that ambulance was coming, they turned the ambulance back…
LORENCIA: Then they asked, “Who called the ambulance?” The women called the ambulance. oppressor, and the oppressee; that day women won because they gave the lady an attention, that was what [?] and other things. But I thank you for coming here today; I thank you very much and I appreciate it. God bless you all.
MFJ: I’m just gonna introduce Rosemary, who came down, organizing with the people with Leicester, who came out of Yarl’s Wood.
ROSEMARY: Hello everyone. Yeah, my name is Rosemary. I was in detention center for four months, and while I was inside, I was fighting, and now outside, I am excited to be here. I am a member of Movement For Justice, I am an asylum, and I came all the way from Leicester, and today I could tell you guys something that happened while I was inside. Last time you guys came I was inside; I was one of those people that was moving, waving my [?], whatever I could reach, but today I am outside. So I’m so, so excited, and the fight continues. But [cheers] But one thing I want to say; when you’re fighting a battle, you don’t know what to expect. Of course no battle is easy. Something happened last year during the deportation, I can’t remember the date, but it was sometime in November, we came up with a plan, because whenever you want to win, there must be unity in whatever you are doing. There must be collective effort, there must be sacrificial. You must sacrifice your time if you want to win, [cheers] in everything you are doing. And you want to determine, you want to determine to push, not matter the obstacles on the ways, of course when you’re fighting a battle there must be an obstacle. When we were doing this we were [?] for beaten, for beaten, from the officers but we didn’t care. And we didn’t care whether we were gonna win or lose, but all women were determined to fight.
We kept, I myself on that day I was not on the chartered flight, but I was determined to fight for myself too. We were in a room, with these guys that was to deport her to Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, so from one until nine we were there, I was there, I wasn’t going out to get something and come back, so at the end of the day when they were coming, when it was time for the deportation, because, they of course always pack our day, to take us. So when the first officer came in and said, “Call names, our names,” nobody spoke, we just kept quiet. “You guys you don’t want to talk,” we didn’t talk. So she went back, they came in again, they spoke, we didn’t talk. So what they did they went to bring the pastor, the man of god, because in there we have a pastor and we respect him a lot. So when he came, we appointed a spokesperson because you don’t talk collectively; for your voice to be heard you must get somebody to speak. So we had a spokesperson. And they led us to them, we said, “Pastor, if the one person from Home Office will come and tell us why they have to sign on our traveling document”—because that is a fraud, you don’t sign travel documents on behalf of anybody, it’s like me going to the bank to forge your signature—so we told the pastor, “Get one of them to come and tell us why they have to sign for on our behalf.” That was full fraud.
You know what happened? The pastor went back because what we were saying the truth. Nobody could come and tell us why. “If anybody comes to prove they have to do, we go back to Nigeria,” that what is what we told the man of god. And when this matter continued, we’re coming on ten o’clock. Those were the [?] left where we are, deported to Nigeria. But we were able to save about, maybe about fifteen to twenty that were in the room with us [cheering] so when we did, when they left, yeah when the coach left for the airport, I personally I went to room to room, getting some snacks, some biscuits, banana, whatever I could reach, all of us we were hiding together in the room. I would say something to them, all of them going to sleep tonight, together, “Nobody’s going to your room, you’re gonna sleep together in that room, if anything happens, just go ‘Oh!’ and we’re all out.” But obviously nothing happened, we won the battle. That is a battle for you. [cheering] We won. I told them one thing, I spoke, I didn’t speak for myself, I didn’t go there for pity, no, I told that because, because I know—some people would say that because my sister is now involved, my mother is not, I don’t want to come out. But I tell you one thing: that all of you have to unite. If you want to stop Immigration coming to terrorize you, if you want to Immigration coming to raid you, embarrass and intimidate you, all of you have to come out together, to be one, to determine to fight and stand. That was it. So thank all of you for coming. I am so happy that I am outside here, I was there, and I’m here now. Thank you very much! [cheering]
MFJ: I’m gonna introduce Sarah, who’s been working with some of the detainees, some of whom have been released, so she’s gonna tell us the news.
SARAH: Hi, I’m from an organization called the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, that started in 2000 when Yarl’s Wood was opened. And since then people have been visiting people inside, and there’s a long waiting list of women inside who want visitors. It’s the most amazing thing to do, I’m so glad; it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve got some cards with me if anyone wants to get involved. Imagine if everyone here became friends with one person in there: we would link them up with all the organizations that will help them, like Medical Justice, like the Helen Bamber Foundation, and make sure they don’t slip through the net. Some of them don’t have a friend in the country; you can be that friend. It’s amazing, it’s an absolutely brilliant experience.
You hear such awful stories, like the other day I was told by a woman that she’d gone for a blood test, she’d had this awful pain in her arm the rest of the day, and then at 5 o’clock—she’d had the blood test at about 10:45—she’d found they’d left the tourniquet on her arm; that’s G4S [subcontractor at Yarl’s Wood] healthcare. They are absolutely shameful, and they’re given the contract to look after those women in there, can you imagine how bad the healthcare is, G4S. Um, another terrible thing was, a woman was told, “You’re being released,” and then they said, “Oh sorry, we got, it was someone with a similar name, you’re not being released.” These people are messed around, they are at the mercy of the people in there. And they are people who, as we know, have already suffered awful experiences: FGM [female genital mutilation], rape, all sorts of horrible things from their countries and they’ve come here for safety and what do we do? We lock them up, we make them more traumatized. And when they’re released, their story isn’t over. And I’m here today with the first woman that I visited, and she was released in December, and since then she has made a life for herself: she’s got two voluntary jobs, she’s learning to ride a bike, she’s got a solicitor, she’s got a house. I’m so proud to be her friend, these women are an inspiration! [cheers] I’ll keep coming back, you’ll keep coming back, Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, make a friend in there, you’ll be amazing, thank you! [cheers]
MFJ: And as well Yarl’s Wood, of course, there are detention centers up and down the country because the UK has the most detention of anywhere in Europe. It’s the only place that keeps people indefinitely so that the Home Office can sit on their backsides and know that they’ve filled their beds, they’ve justified— they’ve shown they’re “tough on immigration”, and in the meantime people can rot inside these detention centers, all across the country. So I want to introduce someone who has come out of one of the men’s detention centers, is Morton Hall, where Ruben Ahmed died last year. So I want to introduce Kingsley.
KINGSLEY: Thank you. [leads chant] Shut it down, shut it down! Shut it down, shut it down!
In 2010 when I came to the UK, uh, when I passed through Birmingham airport, the only reason I have come here was because I thought this was one country where I was going to come to learn how to go and teach the governments in Africa how to be humane. I came here, I spent £12,000 at the University of Birmingham to study a Master’s degree in international politics, but then I was completely let down by the system because I realized, that the UK is [?] the current government, which coincidentally came from us in 2010, is the worst ever government you can think about. Now let me talk about two [?]. The first thing I want to point out is: when they call it “immigration”, it looks nice. But if you want to think about it, how it goes, how they do it, everything they do is similar to what was been done in South Africa: institutionalized racism. It is apartheid.
KINSGLEY: And then just think about it again. David Cameron, as a student, was campaigning, he went out marching, campaigning against Mandela being released from prison. Many people don’t know this, David Cameron was one of the people who supported Mandela’s detention. So David Cameron has not changed! He’s just covered himself with the position of Prime Minister. It’s something that he was supporting in South Africa, he’s doing it today. What is happening in the UK is just institutionalized racism because in South Africa if you didn’t have a pass, you go to prison. Today in the UK, if you don’t have a piece of paper—you know, racism has moved from the color of your skin to the color of your document. If you don’t have a red passport, you are liable for detention. That is what the paper tells you; you are liable to be detained. No trial, nothing! You are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.
Now this is the situation. I was working, I was editor of a magazine, I was living in a good house; the next thing I knew, they came in a raid, stood there, they knew where I was, I didn’t have any problems with them, I have never committed a crime, but the next thing I was in handcuffs, I was at the police station, and I found myself in a place that I never heard of—in Morton Hall. For three months they did everything to break me down psychologically; they almost succeeded, I will give you that. So I respect the women that have come out from this place. Each time I come here I just have flashbacks of what goes on in Morton Hall, because it is a horrible system. It is a place where you are sexually assaulted, because people come in and look at you, they treat you like you are a caged animal. You have women who come there at Morton Hall—we are men, and women just come in and open your door, they don’t even knock. So, I think if men are working at Yarl’s Wood, how do they do it?
PROTESTOR: They are the same!
KINGSLEY: Do they open the doors?
KINGSLEY: Women who have been in Yarl’s Wood, do the men just open the doors without knocking?
KINGSLEY: So tell me what, where on Earth can people’s dignity be so degraded? And what else makes people to be treated that way, other than the fact that they have a different color of passport? So if you are here today wondering what this is all about, stop calling it immigration; it’s not immigration, it is institutionalized racism. It is a new form of apartheid that the UK government has introduced. [cheers] And let me make another point again. When a British person goes to Cameroon, or goes to Nigeria, do you know what they call them? They call them “expatriates”. But when a Cameroonian comes to the UK do you know what they call him? An “immigrant”. So why is it that there are different [?] for people who move to different countries? Why is it that some people go to other countries and they are called “expatriates” and some people come to others and they are “immigrants”? There is no immigrant, because we are all humans, and we have moved from one country to another then you are an expatriate because if a British person can be an expatriate in Africa then a Cameroonian can be an expatriate here and Africans can be an expatriate. So we are all expatriates, here, seeking better lives because we have over two to three million victims [?] and do you know what? None of them is put in detention, none of them is being locked up. [cheers] So we have to tell this government to stop scapegoating immigrants, to stop scapegoating people because of the color of their passports, because it is another way—because they cannot do it again because of the color of their skin, they cannot do it openly—they’ve just shifted the posts.
So I want to say, thank you to everyone who has come here today, let us continue to fight, let us join Movement For Justice, sign up, let us push this and see that every detention center in the UK is shut down. Thank you very much. [cheers]
MFJ: I’ve got one quick announcement: just for those who came via the train, from Bedford Station, the coach may be due to leave at 4:30. [“Shut it down!” chants in background]
Ok I just want to introduce another speaker really quick, because we’ve had a struggle to get support, you know, to fund all the coaches and all that we need to be able to make a day like this happen. For the first time we had somewhat of a breakthrough with the trade unions, sponsoring some of the coaches and really supporting. We need to take this further and we need to spread this. so I just want to introduce the next speaker who’s from the Liverpool trade unions, Martin. [cheers]
MARTIN: I just wanted to say, first of all: I come from England, but I am 100% against Cameron and what he’s trying to do to people who are welcome! They are welcome in this country! [cheers] Not only are they welcome; we need you! We need you! [cheers] Because you are some of the best fighters on this planet, and we are all with you! So what is my message to the trade union movement, and anybody that supports the trade unions, from today? What is my message? We have five union branches in Liverpool that say, come down here, because, we say, we agree: shut it down! Shut it down! Shut this place down! [cheers] But that’s not enough. We’ve got to go, and if anybody here is in a trade union branch, take this message back from Martin Roth, who is representing the trade unions from Liverpool: every, every trade union, every trade union branch, must be the same, and they must get down here, and they must say, “Set them free! Set them free!”
PROTESTORS: Set them free! Set them free!
MARTIN: And I wanna, I wanna finish with this. What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do when we get back? Back to our places, back to our cities, back to our workplaces? We are gonna invite everybody that wants to come and speak to the hundreds and thousands of people that wanna know your story; they wanna listen to you, and they wanna fight with you! Thanks very much. And to finally say, let’s finish, with: shut this place down. Shut it down!
PROTESTORS: Shut it down! Shut it down!
MFJ: I have one last statement, one last speaker to speak, who’s from Movement For Justice, because we’ve got to build this fight beyond today and take it forward. So one last speaker, then we can continue the rally until we have to start getting on coaches.
TONY: Hi, it’s Tony from Movement For Justice. I want, I want everybody here to think back three or four years, would anybody three or four years ago, imagined that we would have a demonstration like this here today?
TONY: No. Three or four years back, people were saying, “It will take a lifetime to end detention. You can’t do it. It won’t be popular.” Nobody would say, “Shut it down”, they would say, “Set a time limit. Restrict the categories of people that could be kept in detention.” But they would say, “Don’t just ask to shut it down, that is a foolish idea, it’s politically impossible.” No— many, many groups were saying that. Now they’re saying, “Shut it down!” And they’re saying “Shut it down” because of what the people here have been doing over the last two, three years. And most of all, because of what the women in Yarl’s Wood have been doing over the last three or five years. That rising struggle has made it impossible to defend detention one moment longer. Nobody a year ago would have thought that by now two more detention centers would have been shut down; nobody. A year ago, people would expecting that Campsfield [House] near Oxford was going to be doubled in size; instead that whole plan had to be dropped. [cheers] In the last three months of last year, the number of people held in detention dropped by 25%. [cheers] The number of people who are being held in detention centers for over a year has dropped by something like 70%; that is because of this movement, it’s because of what people here are doing. Don’t believe anybody who says that the whole system can’t be shut down; it can, and it will. [cheers] And that will not be the end of the struggle, when we’ve shut them all down. We’re in a fight to end the whole immigration policy, a fight to open the borders, to allow freedom of movement, and to end the scapegoating of immigrants and refugees. And we don’t rest until we’ve won that whole struggle. This system of detention has been central to the scapegoating of immigrants. We can build our movement even stronger by closing this system down.
I’m gonna say one last thing, I spoke about this here last time: a detainee—we’re now finding more detainees fighting back, fighting on planes, and getting off planes. There’s one ex-detainee from Yarl’s Wood who didn’t feel that she wanted to speak; it’s her first demonstration since she got out, Fatmarta, but she got out for one simple reason: when they tried to deport her, back to Sierra Leone—this was the fifth time they tried to deport her—they got as far as Paris; and when they got to Paris, she delayed the flight for three hours; the other African passengers going back to Guinea Conakry, and Sierra Leone on that plane, stood up and supported her, they filmed the guards, and in the end Air fRance had to call the french police to order taskcorp off the plane. [cheering] And that’s what Martin means when he says, these are best and strongest fighters for freedom in this country now.
There’s another one who did something very similar in December 2013: she caused a demonstration on a plane, she delayed that plane for three hours. In the end, the Kenya Airways pilot was ordered by the airway to taxi down the runway until people sat down and put their seatbelts on; she’s back in Uganda, but she’s been fighting to two and a half years; she has never given up determination to win. And because she’s stayed in part of the movement, and because this movement has ended Fast Track, the system that she was deported under, we are now in a fight that we are going to win, to bring her back this year, to bring a new asylum claim, not in detention, in conditions of freedom, and she will establish her right to remain in Britain, as a lesbian, fighting to be the person she is. These are the [cheers] these are the fighters that can change the future direction of British society for the better! [cheers]
MFJ: [leading chant] Yarl’s Wood, shut it down! Yarl’s Wood, shut it down!
Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is a detention centre in Bedford, UK which mainly houses women and families awaiting immigration. Many detainees are taken to Yarl’s Wood after dawn raids on their homes, and the centre has a history of hunger strikes by detainees protesting negligence.
Last week I met with a former child detainee at Yarl’s Wood. She and her family came to the UK as asylum seekers in 2004, and in 2005 their application was refused and they were detained and threatened with deportation. She was 12 years old. By resisting and screaming on the plane, she was able to delay and ultimately avoid being deported, giving her mother time to appeal their case.
She talked to me about her experience in Yarl’s Wood as a child, seeking asylum in the UK, and living in London now as a black Asian woman. This interview was given on the condition of anonymity.
Morgan Potts: Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with me. Can you tell me about your family’s decision to seek asylum in the UK?
XX: I was born in UAE [United Arab Emirates]. Because my dad owned a shipping business, we moved around quite a bit. We lived in different parts of the Middle East, stayed in Saudi Arabia briefly, and then my dad wanted to focus on developing his business from his home town, Assab in Eritrea. I was really young when we went there.
In Assab we went through some issues with local government. My dad got taken away. I think he went through a few different prisons. We don’t really talk about it. But he got taken away and my mum decided the best thing to do was to come to the UK, to flee here as asylum seekers.
In Eritrea, the government arbitrarily incarcerates whoever they want. Because of the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea during times of war, if they suspect that you’re doing anything treasonous they’ll incarcerate you. My dad was taken on the accusations of him being some sort of spy, or conspiring something, because of the fact that he had the cargo business and communicated with a lot of people in different regions.
Officers came into our house one night, messed some shit up and threw stuff around, took a bunch of papers and took my dad away. I wasn’t sure where he went; when we try to speak to him about it now he doesn’t like to talk about it very much. They took him away and I remember my relatives and family friends saying, “You can’t stay here, what are you going to do here, they’ve taken your dad, what are they going to do to the kids, who’s going to support you?” It was basically not safe. We had to leave.
Some family friends put my mum into contact with this man in the UK who is known for processing and flying people to the UK. During the raid they took all the documents in my dad’s house, which included all the business papers, birth certificates, passports, everything, but the guy managed to set up fake passports to fly us into the UK. When we got to the UK we applied for asylum.
MP: What’s it like to come to the UK as an asylum seeker?
XX: We came here in 2004. It was me, my older brother, and my mum. When you come in as asylum seekers what they do first is take your interview in Croyden, and then they ship you to different hotels or accommodation while you wait to get your actual accommodation. Our temporary accommodation was in Margate; we spent about three months there. It was all a strange experience because you had no money on you so you had to eat whatever was provided to you, and sometimes the food wasn’t good or if you came in too late to get the food you’d miss out. From there we got taken to Swansea.
But a year after we moved to Wales everyone went through this panic. The asylum seeker community was essentially worried because they heard rumors—not rumors, but they’ve actually known people to have gotten a visit from the law enforcement, taking them away to detention centres for deportation.
A lot of people would send their kids to sleep at their friends’ houses or someone else they know from the community out of fear of getting a visit in the middle of the night from these police officers that essentially would just take you away from your community and your home, to send you back to a country that you didn’t want to go back to.
MP: What was it like when you were taken into police custody?
XX: We’d been living in Swansea for about a year and a half, and I’d settled into school and the community. When we came here and applied for asylum, our case included my mum, my brother, and me. Because my mum is Filipino, regardless of where we were born and what nationality my dad is, they just gave us whatever nationality our mum has because we’re her dependents. So we were assigned Filipino nationality, and had we been deported we would have been deported to the Philippines.
There was that fear, that panic in the air, and everyone was hyper-aware that they might get this visit. One night when I was in Year 8—just going about my daily routine, coming back from school, going to sleep, preparing for the next day—at 3am we got like this really loud knock on the door: “Police, open up! Police, open up! Police open up!” I remember being so scared. It was I think seven police officers, and they came in and they sat my mum down in the living room and said, “We’ve been sent here to deport you because your papers have been refused.”
My mum was crying for a good while but once she got herself together she said, “Okay guys, pack your stuff, we have to go”. So we go through the whole house, packing everything into suitcases. The police officers were following around the house to make sure we didn’t run away or anything. I remember having to leave so many things, things that I really loved and cared about but couldn’t take because they wouldn’t fit in the suitcases.
They escorted us into this one big van that had cages all around the inside, so you couldn’t see the driver. There were two or three rows of seats, and you’d sit down and police officers would sit right next to you on either side. There was also a police car which accompanied the van. And being a child I remember being so afraid. We haven’t really committed a crime, so why are we getting this sort of treatment?
MP: Why was your application for asylum refused?
XX: Our case failed because they reasoned that we can’t go back to Eritrea but we could go back to the Philippines. My mum was trying to express that we had no one in the Philippines, and we hadn’t been there in ages. But because we were seeking asylum on grounds that were not political, they didn’t see it as a priority. So the case failed.
My mum appealed that case, and it just continued to fail, but we had a bad solicitor at the time. When we came here we had no idea who to contact for legal advice and could barely afford a solicitor, so we just went through hearsay, but we had no idea what was going on. We had a really bad solicitor who would deliberately hold on to information so that the case failed and we would have to pay to have them try to reopen the case. Instead of submitting your appeal on time, they would rather prolong it and try to make it more difficult to try to get as much money out of you as possible. And this is at a time when you have no money anyway. We didn’t have clear communication with our solicitors, so we didn’t know whether our appeal was successful or not; it was unexpected when the police officers came to us and said, “Your asylum application has been declined and we have to deport you.” We got taken to this detention centre in Bedford, Yarl’s Wood.
MP: Tell me about your first impression of Yarl’s Wood.
XX: After the four hour drive we get to Yarl’s Wood, and all I see are cages. As soon as you drive up to it, you see these massive steel gates all around the compound. It was a long drive and we were quite exhausted, but I finally accepted that I’m not going back home and I’m leaving my friends. I don’t remember if I had a mobile phone or not, and they may have taken our phones away from us, but essentially you can’t even say goodbye to your friends and people around you, or your neighbors that you play with every day. It was just awful.
Being 12 and knowing that there was this panic about having this visit, when it finally happened to us it felt like “It’s over, I’m leaving the UK and I’m leaving all my friends and I don’t know where I’m going. The worst has happened.”
First they process you, they ask you to give in your mobile phones which were already turned off, take off all your jewelry, and deposit your valuables. There was a lot of waiting around; you’d have to wait for hours in this small room with a TV. I don’t even know why we were waiting, but you sit there and wait for ages. I remember having the worst minestrone soup.
It definitely felt like prison. Every door you’d pass through was unlocked to let you in, then locked behind you.
Once you get processed they show you a room. I had to share a room with my brother which was essentially two single beds, and my mum was in the room right next door, and there was a door that connected them. Even the windows had bars. When you’d look out you could see barbed wire all around the outskirts and even more gated fences. It was just awful being there.
MP: How long were you in detention?
XX: I stayed there for about three or four weeks leading up to Christmas. We got out the week before Christmas.
MP: What was it like being detained as a child?
XX: It was horrible. In our case, the flight to the Philippines was once a week, and they would try to send us back every weekend. They would take you to the airport and they would try and put you on a plane and send you back home.
But I knew that in order for me to stay here I’d have to resist, I’d have to fight. I felt like our case wasn’t heard properly, and they were trying to send us away and oppress us from speaking out against it. I had to resist. I was the youngest—my brother’s two years older than me—and here I am this 12 year old girl that was fighting three police officers just to not be on a plane, I’d shout and scream and kick and fight and they’d have to actually carry me up to a plane because I didn’t want to leave—I didn’t want to leave a place where I finally felt like I’d found home. It was awful, it was awful.
But aside from the difficult part of “oh shit” every weekend when we were threatened with deportation, there were awful things in there. At that point within the ward there was this one week where a certain part of the ward was closed off, and we all wondered why is it closed off, and it turns out that the woman that was staying there killed herself. For us young children to hear that someone in the same position as ourselves had just killed themselves, it was so much to stomach. It was awful. Being a child and feeling like, they had a playground that you could play at, being a child and going out to play in a place where you can’t actually leave and go farther than you wanted to. It was awful, the whole experience.
The last point of contact that we had with my father then, at that point was—my dad knew that if he needed to reach us that we’d be in the UK, and after we spoke to our solicitors they said that my dad was on the way to the UK—through some kind of communication channel between my dad and a few people, the Eritrean community is quite close—they had spoken to my dad and said they were trying to get him to come to the UK. So we knew that if we left the UK to the Philippines we wouldn’t be sure how to get in touch with our dad.
MP: Can you tell me more about what it was like inside Yarl’s Wood?
XX: They had different wards. It was a really big place, it actually looked like something of a palace or a mansion. The walls at Yarl’s Wood were blueish, and the bedsheets were blue. It was like a hospital with black bars. In our ward, you’d have a long lobby, and there’d be rooms on both sides. From what I remember there were a few floors. The facilities were okay. They’d have a laundry room, the commissary place, the canteen, religious rooms, and a playground.
When you first get there they give you a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a little bit of shampoo, stuff like that, and you could request more as you needed it. The rooms were okay. They had single beds, and a small TV in each room. The TV was weird because it was pre-recorded so certain programs would just loop over and over again. There was one music video by Kanye West and the guy from Maroon 5, what is that song called? Anyway the video is this black and white cartoon child that gets into this taxi which flies away, and I remember watching this on loop in a fucking caged room. So every time I watch it now I remember back to when I was in prison. It’s so intense being a child in there. Now when I see certain videos that they played on that TV I think, “I fucking hate this video.”
They had one room that was made up to be like a school. There was one teacher that would teach for a few hours, I think it was every week day. You’d sit there and she’d do English, and bit of maths, and a little bit of science. There were a lot of kids, but I made friends with about ten. Some of them were 14 or 15 from Angola, some of them were my age and they were Jamaican but they lived in Scotland. It was a mix girls and boys, a lot of siblings. In “class” it was a big deal that we finish our homework but they were about to throw us out of the country so what’s the point.
Then there were little babies. I remember this one little kid, probably under a year old, his name was Michael. He had really bad eczema, and it was to do with what he ate, I think he couldn’t eat breaded chicken; if he had any of that he would just get a really bad allergic reaction all over his body. I remember his mum complaining about wanting something, I think it was bottled milk, or any sort of food that she could give to her child so he wouldn’t get that reaction, and she couldn’t get it for weeks. She’d have to keep going down to the main office and arguing with the people there, and there was no way of getting what she needed for her child. You’d see the boy and he’d be sick, and he’d cry because his skin was just massively dotted and itchy and red. You’d see mothers that would have little children that can’t get things like milk because they don’t have any commissary money. They can’t get certain things that they need for their children and they have to apply and wait for days or weeks to get it, and their child just has to go without until that gets processed.
MP: Can you elaborate on the commissary?
XX: I think you could use your money that was deposited when you’re first processed to buy commissary money for yourself.Then you get access to things like, sweets and stuff, but most importantly phone cards which my mum used to talk to solicitors with. You’d buy basic things like a toothbrush, but mainly a lot of the money would go on phone cards which you’d use to call your solicitor. Which begs the question of what happens if you don’t have money to contact your solicitors?
I remember just being a child and really wanting sweets every now and then because they wouldn’t give you sweets, the food that they would give you was quite plain, so yeah when you get the chance you go and get sweets.
MP: What else stands out in your memories of Yarl’s Wood?
XX: The person that killed themselves was this woman, I think she was in her late 20s. I’m not sure if we knew her or not but I remember when I found out I was shocked because I felt like I knew her. I felt like there was some sort of connection, maybe because she was new and I spoke to her when she came? But I remember when I heard the news it hit a really strong chord in me.
A lot of times you’d have people fighting with officers there and you’d see people get restrained. Sometimes officers would have to break into certain rooms. I remember there was a lot of force between people that worked there and people that stayed there, maybe because some people would be trying to commit suicide, or people fighting for just other reasons but I just remember a lot of that, I’m not sure, it’s quite hazy for me. There had been quite a few attempts where people tried to kill themselves, and the officers had to break in or use force to stop them.
I think, aside from the fact that you saw how it affected your family, the most difficult part of it was knowing that there wasn’t much you can do. This is the government against you; it’s like the law is against you. You’re the criminal at this point, so whatever it is that you do, you know they’ll bring six or seven police officers if it has to come to that, essentially it’s this young child against all these people.
MP: Can you tell me about resisting at the airport?
XX: The security that would come with us to the airport were different to the security in house. In house the people were generally okay: they would try and just do their job, be as plain as possible. Some of them were quite friendly, others were a bit mean. The security guards, the escorts that took us to the airports, they tried to be as cold as possible. We were cuffed in the van and on the plane, and uncuffed to use the toilet. We were generally cuffed while being transported.
Before being taken on to the plane, I met a Nigerian man in the immigration holding room at the airport who saw me crying and told me, “If you really want to stay then fight for it”.
I think it was three or four men and two women, in suits. In terms of the physical act of restraining, it was quite tough. They actually carried me, one holding me on each sides and one person who just grabbed my legs, walking up the steps to the plane. Then when I was on the plane seat they tried and put my seatbelt on and I’d have to fight and push and shove and get the seatbelt off and scream and shout just to the point where the air hostess was just like, “We can’t have this on the plane, if she’s not gonna calm down we can’t have it”.
I remember one of the comments when I was resisting, “Oh great, she ruined my holiday”. I’m out here trying to not get taken to some country that I haven’t been to in so long, and your biggest worry is that I ruined your little trip to the Philippines. There was no empathy. You could really feel that they were frustrated with the fact that we ruined their holiday. Our suffering is very small to them. It’s really weird because you’d go through all of that, resisting and fighting these people, and you’d get put back in the same caged van and have to sit with them for two hours to the detention centre again.
I remember thinking that it was the worst thing because the only sense of freedom or being outside is that commute from the detention centre to the airport. That’s the only time I get to step outside and sense some sort of freedom. Walking around in one of the small rooms in immigration at the airport I was like, this is freest I’ve felt since being taken to the detention centre. You feel the open air of the airport and the plane, and although I am fighting, it felt weird because I remember feeling like I’m finally outside. You go through that, get put on a plane, resist, fight, get taken right back to the car, and it’s back to prison again, it’s back to being entrapped.
MP: You were able to put off, and ultimately totally avoid, being flown to the Philippines because you made a big scene on the plane essentially?
XX: Yeah, essentially. Knowing that is what I have to do in order to avoid it, I was just like fuck it, I’m not going on this plane I don’t want to go, I felt like that was the thing that I had to do, and I did it and it worked. They were like we can’t have this on the plane, she can’t be screaming for the whole of the journey. Yeah that worked.
I think back and it’s like three guards—three big, really tall men—and they’d have to restrain me, here I’m this 12 year old girl that’s fighting to stay here.
MP: Were you scared?
XX: The fear came when the van pulled up to the plane, because what they would do is put us on first, and then they let the rest of the passengers come on. That fear when you stop next to the plane, you’re like, fuck, this is it. That’s as far as the fear gets. Then after that it’s like no, this is what you have to do to survive, this is what you have to do to fight. At that point, I think, courage and that anger and that power just comes to you naturally.
MP: Did your mother or your brother also resist?
XX: No, it was just me. I think my mum was very tired at the time. The whole experience took everything out of her. A lot of the mothers didn’t really eat because of the stress. We’d have lunch and I could see my mum not eating and I could see that there was so much on her chest and on her soul.
I really didn’t want to go back to the Philippines because essentially we really had nothing there for us. The last time I was in the Philippines I was really young, maybe six? There was tension between my uncles and my mum, especially because my mum married an Eritrean man. Her attitude was like, “If they can’t accept my kids and my husband then I don’t need to be there.”
I think that’s what gives you that power to fight because if you don’t, what’s going to happen when we get to the other end where we know no one? They’re not going to set you up in a house, or into an apartment or accommodation, they’re pretty much going to drop you in the airport probably and say “Okay, go make your way”. And for me it was just like, I can’t have that. If we were deported there, we’d get to the Philippines and struggle just to find a way to survive. We already didn’t have much money, and in the Philippines you pay for everything: rent, school, transportation, everything gets paid for. To go from being an asylum seeker with not much in the UK to the Philippines where you have nothing… At that time I couldn’t understand what was worrying my mum so much, but now that I’m older I can see that that’s a daunting thing to be sent back to a country that you haven’t been to for ages, with no money, and essentially no one to call. I can see why she didn’t eat, I can see why she couldn’t sleep.
MP: How did you find the strength to fight?
XX: I think back and I don’t even know how I resisted or what came over me to do that. A lot of the kids there felt a certain way, there was some sort of “we’ve got to fight” in them. But it sucks because some of the people that you meet there go and never come back. And then you’re just like, “Man that could be me”. I was there for 2 weeks before there was actual fighting. The first flight that they take you on, if you resist they say fine. The next time, they bring guards. You resist another time, they bring more guards, and it goes on like that. I remember thinking that I have to fight because there are people that I want to see—there are friends that I have made in the detention centre, I want them to know that I’m okay and that I’ve made it back. I want to be one of the ones that comes back. It was so much as a child to make friends and just have them go away; it was so much for me.
MP: Why were you eventually released from detention?
XX: That went on for three weeks, just constantly dreading the next time they try and send you away. During the third week my mum’s solicitor managed to communicate that my dad is in the country and about to process an application. They decided that since the cases are linked and my dad was in the UK, it didn’t make sense to send us away anymore.
They released us and dropped us off at the nearest station. We had nine suitcases between the three of us. They helped with our stuff and paid for our tickets but then we were left to make our own way home.
It was just so awful because after experiencing that you realise that these people really don’t care; you have no country that you belong to, and even the place where you think you’ve found safety treats you like shit. It was a really bad experience. How does this kind of thing happen to people, how do we get treated this way? There was no consideration for the fact that you’re already afraid, having fled a very difficult situation; getting treated like that is just horrible, but then they don’t think about the social element of being a child, your friends and the connection that you’ve made with people, being uprooted and taken to a place that looks like prison. I watch Orange Is The New Black and I think, “This prison looks a little bit better than what we’d been going through.”
Then there was the issue of getting into contact with my dad. We knew he was here, but you can’t just phone up the Home Office and be like “Hey, give me my dad’s number”, so it was a whole issue of trying to find people who knew where he was. When you come in as an asylum seeker they can send you to anywhere in the UK.
MP: What’s your immigration status now?
XX: Ultimately our application was successful. My dad really went through a bunch of shit, he really doesn’t want to speak to us about it, but I think after applying for asylum he was approved quite quickly because of the extent of the evidence. He had a lot of scars and stuff showing the things that he went through, and a bunch of health checks. Eritrea is known for that kind of treatment.
After we got into contact with him, we weren’t automatically granted refugee status as a family; we had to reapply to get it extended to us as well, and to prove that we’re all related, that he is indeed our father. They interviewed us separately and then referenced our stories against all the files they had previously, and it was a whole complex process. But our case was approved. We all got refugee status around 2008 and now I’ve applied for British citizenship.
MP: What was it like when you returned to Swansea?
XX: Going back to Swansea was in itself a weird experience, because if you imagine just disappearing somewhere for three weeks, then having to explain to people where you’ve been, but it’s such a sensitive subject that you’re almost ashamed to talk about it. It was embarrassing to have been detained. I didn’t know what to tell people when they asked so I said there was a family emergency back home. People knew, teachers knew, and I felt different and weird. There was no one I could talk to about it; I told one classmate because she implied that she’d be detained too, but she immediately said she was kidding and made fun of me. I missed a lot of stuff at school and it was difficult to catch up. Our house had been cleaned out like they were getting it ready for the next asylum seeking family. But it was almost Christmas and I was so happy to be back home.
In Swansea, there is this joke where they keep making fun of you for being an asylum seeker or being an immigrant. The town was a bit racist in general, but you’d get made fun of by Bengali kids that immigrated there too; there was a hierarchy and they’d make fun of you for being an asylum seeker. People bullied me and said things like, “You came here in a banana boat”.
MP: How do you identify, and what has been your experience of racism and xenophobia in the UK?
XX: I identify as black and Asian, and I’m very passionate about black women’s issues and social justice. I’m one of a few black girls at a large finance firm; an Italian guy coworker wrongly assumed that I work in reception. There’s no black culture at my firm. I feel like my natural hair isn’t appropriate and I’m ashamed to wear it natural because it’s deemed ‘untidy’ by company standards.
I saw lots of Caribbean and Pakistani people detained; generally a lot of black people. Seeing the same disproportionate treatment of black people on the streets does a lot to your mentality. The black mindset is that the police are always ready to get us. When we first got to the UK I saw a black man shoved to the ground getting cuffed in Highbury. But London is better than anywhere else I’ve been; in Swansea even within the minority communities you’re excluded as an asylum seeker. London is the only place where you can blend in.
My family tries to be as British as possible. I feel like we’ve done our bit to integrate.
MP: What does it mean to be British?
XX: To be British is to go out and work and make your own money, to pay your taxes, handling your responsibilities and contributing to society. My mum is always expressing how grateful she is to the country; there are opportunities here to make money, get an education, and get a good finance job. No one wants to be sitting around on benefits; they would work if they felt comfortable with the language, if given the chance. They want to contribute. No one wants to be a slug all day.
MP: Tell me how you feel looking back on your experience.
XX: Looking back at the experience I feel angry. We get told that the police are your friends and here to protect you, but that’s a fallacy. I have a mistrust of authority; I don’t have much respect for police officers or the law.
I have no allegiance to any state or nation. It’s not the country that’s your home, it’s the people and community. I place my value in people now as opposed to countries.
Generally migrants could be treated a lot better. That coldness makes you feel like a criminal even if you haven’t committed a crime. They should treat children with more sensitivity. Children don’t belong in detention centres; it’s not okay for children to be exposed to conditions where people are committing suicide. There needs to be more humanity in the way these people are treated when it comes to being deported.
Though I feel stronger for it, it saddens me that someone would have to go through that. It’s empowering in a sense, but it leaves you a bit damaged. Childhood is supposed to be sweet.
About 250–300 people took direct action to block the Eurostar departure gates at St Pancras last Friday night in solidarity with the migrants and refugees in Calais and detention centers in the UK and across the EU.
Activists blocked the departure gates and passengers were stopped from boarding the train to Paris.
“This is what a border feels like!” #sorrynotsorry
Demands included: open the borders to all migrants and refugees; stop financing the racist killing of migrants and refugees; close down the detention centres; and stop deportations.
“No one in? No one out!”
Rallying cries included:
“No justice, no peace!”; “If they won’t give us justice, then we won’t give them peace!”
“Unemployment and inflation are not caused by immigration, bullshit! Come off it! The enemy is profit!”
“All your racist fucking borders we don’t need ’em, need ’em! Back up, back up, we want freedom, freedom!”
“No more borders, no more nations, no more racist immigration!”
“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!”
“Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down!”
Some activists covered themselves in fake blood (in memory of those 3000 migrants who have died in 2015 so far) and literally glued themselves to the ticket barriers and the support beams in the middle of the departure area.
The police instigated some shoving and aggressive language, threatening people with arrest. They pushed me and when I calmly told them “stop touching me, stop instigating conflict” they said they had the right to push us because they “fear for [their] safety”. They claimed they were being reasonable by “facilitating the protest” and implied that if we held our ground we would be roughed up.
Perhaps helpful information for future actions: police were comfortable pushing us when we were standing, but would not push us with their feet when we were sitting; in fact, if we edged closer to them they would step back to create space between us and them.
Trains to Paris were delayed and the passengers seemed split on whether they supported the action or were annoyed by the inconvenience. St Pancras staff was likewise divided between calmly expressing support and frantically trying to usher passengers toward the police, who would then try to push past the activists to get passengers toward the barriers. Eventually the police made it clear that if we didn’t leave, they would kettle us and make a mass arrest.
Aside from some pushing, the protest remained peaceful.
The Calais Solidarity Festival was organized by The London Latinx, Food Not Bombs, the London Action Resource Centre (LARC), Convoy For Calais, Refugee Youth, and others. From the first fundraiser’s facebook event page:
Calais Solidarity Festival, taking place in mid-late October (Date TBC) is aiming to work with people in Calais to transform the camps – which some refer to as “The Jungle” – into a celebratory festival to honour the people of Calais, their journeys, power and resistance. The festival will run a weekend full of music and art performances, capoeira and music workshops, hand-cooked meals, and other activities to be confirmed at a later date. We will also be delivering supplies (clothing, toiletries, first aid materials, etc) and non-perishable food.
The event was packed with at least 100 people, and raised over £400.