On the 21st February 2018 over 100 women participated in a hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre over “inhumane” conditions and indefinite detention. Yarl’s Wood is a detention centre for asylum seekers and immigrants who are being held whilst the government wishes to establish their identities or facilitate their migration claims. They are not there due to criminal convictions. Currently, there are 410 women and their families being held. These women have complained that the conditions they have been subjected to have left them “breaking down psychologically. As we celebrate International Women’s Day this month, The Gryphon discusses the “inhumane” conditions endured by the women detained in Yarls Wood and how there is still much to be done to achieve equality for all women in the UK.
These women are participating in the hunger strike for a number of reasons. Firstly, they feel that there has been a violation of Habeus Corpus, which is a recourse in law through which a person can report an unlawful detention. Secondly, it is the fact that the majority of detainees were not detained by a judge, but rather a person who profits vocationally through the number of people they remove. The conflict of interest here in the face of liberty is shocking. Another legal issue to highlight is that the detention can be perceived to violate the policy introduced in 2016 that no one should be detained if they are “at risk or vulnerable.”
A spokesperson from the home office has stated that “any detainees who choose to refuse food and fluid are monitored closely”, but the harrowing conditions detailed by the detainees suggest the opposite. To make matters worse, the Home Office is now threatening even faster deportation if the women continue to protest; and even the HM Inspectorate of Prisons has raised concerns over the legal definition of torture.
The complex issue of immigration has left many of the women questioning the ability of the Home Office. Surely they would want to install a system that ran as smoothly and as quickly as possible? Yet one Algerian woman has been detained for three months, despite being brought to this country when she was only eleven years old. Many are being detained against their will, having their life put on hold indefinitely, because their parents failed to complete necessary paperwork. Where is the justice, liberty or purpose in this? When seeking help from a psychological nurse in the centre, women have been unhelpfully advised to speak to a solicitor. The length of uncertainty has caused one woman to “give up thinking about the outside world.” The UK is the only country in the EU with no time limit on the length of detention, a statistic we should surely be looking to rectify.
“…this painfully highlights that society has not progressed as much as liberal contemporaries may like to believe; that, in fact, we have simply heightened injustices in another oppressed group…”
Complaints have not only been lodged regarding the mental wellbeing of detainees but also regarding their physical health. A detainee from Kenya reportedly developed stomach problems due to the food provided for her in the centre. No other food was made available and as a result, she lost 10kg in weight. She was even allegedly made to walk across the centre to report to the Home Office as part of monthly protocol despite having severe diarrhoea. This detainee has claimed that her health issues were left untreated. Even more worrying is the fact that Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, has been trying to get a visit for a year now, and has only just succeeded in hearing the issues first hand from the detainees.
The issues that the women are protesting through hunger strikes are ones of basic human rights. These protests are even more poignant when considering that they are occurring at the exact same time Britain is celebrating 100 years since women over 30 (and who were married to/property owners themselves) were granted the vote. And for even this historic victory, the Suffragettes went through the gruelling torture of hunger strikes to highlight the injustice of their cause to the public.
The parallels between the tribulations of the Suffragettes and the current ordeals afflicting the women of Yarl’s Wood are clear. During the early 1900s, the government force-fed imprisoned Suffragettes by forcing tubes down their throats and pouring liquids such as raw eggs and milk through them, leading to permanent damage. This painfully highlights that society has not progressed as much as liberal contemporaries may like to believe; that, in fact, we have simply heightened injustices in another oppressed group. While remembering the historic achievement for women’s rights, and celebrating International Women’s day, it is crucial for everyone to reflect upon the current injustices of present day and remember that there is still a very long way to go. Moreover, if the feminism that we preach is not intrinsically intersectional, then it is merely another form of oppression.
To help support the Yarls Wood hunger strike, many people kept a 24 hour fast on the 8th of March (International Women’s Day) to support the women on the strike.
There is also the Freedom Fast website where anyone can ‘take a pledge’ to show support.