by Hannah Swirsky
On 21 February more than a hundred women detained at the infamous Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre went on hunger strike to protest against their detention. The ongoing strike is aimed at publicising the poor treatment they receive within the Bedfordshire immigration centre, which is predominately for women and families who face deportation. Those striking have highlighted the numerous problems they are encounter inside the centre, such as inadequate healthcare, hostility by guards, and lack of notice given prior to their deportation. Having heard testimonies from women who have been detained, it is clear that the way they are currently treated throws into question Britain’s image as a country which champions human rights.
Last week (6 March), Dianne Abbott MP asked an urgent question in the House of Commons regarding Yarl’s Wood. While Immigration Minister Caroline Noakes MP took a clear stance in defending Government policy on immigration detention, boldly stating that “the Government are committed to protecting the welfare and dignity of those in detention”, statements from MPs on both sides of the House showed cross-party opposition to such a policy.
During the debate, Abbott brought attention to a letter from the Home Office which has been given to all those on hunger strike, in which the Home Office warned protesters that their hunger strike “may, in fact, lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner”. As rightly suggested by David Lammy MP, this threat could be seen as an act of cruel and inhuman or degrading punishment, which violates the UK’s obligations under Article 3 of the UK Human Rights Act.
A number of MPs went on to voice concerns that many of those detained should not be there. Last year Women for Refugee Women found that, of those interviewed, 85% of Yarl’s Wood detainees said they were survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence. Indeed, another demand of the strikers is that the Home Office stops detaining victims of rape, torture and trafficking, which runs counter to the Government’s own “adults at risk” policy.
The strike also raises questions about the UK system of indefinite detention as a whole. The UK is the only country in Europe which systematically locks people away for immigration purposes for an indefinite period of time. As an ex-detainee and member of Freed Voices described, “when you are in prison you are counting your days down, but in detention you are counting them up and up”. Furthermore, many of those detained are eventually released back in to the community, rendering the whole system of detention near obsolete. Instead, Detention Action’s report on alternatives to detention makes clear the workable policies which would allow detainees to remain in their communities. However, while alternatives to detention are a long term goal, we desperately need to introduce a time limit. René Cassin has long campaigned alongside others, and as part of the Detention Forum, for the introduction of a time limit #Time4aTimeLimit.
From a Jewish perspective, there is poignant piece of text within the Torah which should inform our attitudes to those who come to our country seeking shelter: “When a stranger dwells among you in your land do no taunt him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be as a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33). Like our ancestors were in Egypt, these women are strangers in our land, having come to the UK to seek a better life, often fleeing violence and persecution. As well as a legal obligation to ensure the human rights of those detained are upheld, we have a moral obligation to treat all persons with compassion.
This ongoing hunger strike has gained notable attention and, as the strike continues, we hope that the Government will finally address the needs of these women and move towards ending the policy of indefinite detention as a whole.
Hannah Swirsky is René Cassin’s newly-appointed Campaigns Officer