Savannah Sevenzo (UG Education Officer)
Why Sussex Uni students went to protest at Yarl’s Wood
On the 3rd of December, Sussex students with friends from Brighton and LGSM (Lesbians and Gays support the migrants) took a coach to protest at Yarl’s Wood detention centre. We went to support the Movement for Justice campaign to shut down Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres across the country.
Yarl’s Wood detention centre, located in Bedfordshire, is a place where over 400 people are locked up because of their immigration status and held indefinitely whilst the Home Office process their asylum claims.
The people in detention at Yarl’s Wood are vulnerable people, most of whom have fled their home countries due to the existing high risks of war and/or political violence. Sadly, the majority of people imprisoned at Yarl’s Wood are women. Many people held in detention are survivors of sexual assault, and are also at high risk of deportation at any given moment. Some are mothers who are separated from their young children whilst in detention and denied contact with them.
Equally problematic is that people can be put in detention at any time without warning and are locked up indefinitely without clarity as to when they'll be released. This arbitrary exercise of state authority is not based on anything they have done but purely on the grounds of where they were born and the documentation or lack of documentation that they hold. The phenomenon of detention is fundamentally racist; the vast majority of people subjected to it are people of colour from the global south.
Inside Yarl’s Wood, people often suffer gross abuse from guards such as being locked indefinitely in rooms or in corridors. There have also been reports of inappropriate sexual violence and abuse towards those detained. In the past few weeks we learned that there has been an outbreak of Tuberculosis, which is a highly contagious disease that puts all people locked inside are at increasing risk of infection.
We went to the centre to stand in solidarity with survivors of detention and those still locked up in the centre. In doing so we hear their stories, we learn of their journey and their plight and we bring back our drive for change to our campuses. The protest was imperative in order to show those unjustly locked inside that there are people outside who care about the injustice they are facing and are willing to do something to stop it. Unlike most other demonstrations, which often take place at a distance from the events you are protesting about, the Yarl’s Wood demo has a visceral immediacy that cannot be overlooked given the permanent anger it leaves in your heart.
Amongst roughly 2000 other bodies, Sussex students who went to the demo stood face to face with the state sanctioned violence of the centre, threatening it with their voices, love and solidarity. During the demo, we heard from people inside Yarl’s Wood, via a telephone line amplified with a megaphone.
One woman called Mabel, who has been inside the centre for two years now, called on us to continue the struggle and never give up hope, emphasising that her own determination, hope, and strength remain unbreakable despite the daily oppression she faces trapped in the centre. Her spirit and that of other speakers inspired us and brought us to tears.
After the demo ended with the falling of dusk we walked back to the coaches, leaving behind clouds of coloured smoke, artwork and placards stacked up against the fences. While we were waiting for the coach to drive off, a policeman boarded it, claiming to search for someone responsible for some graffiti that had been left on the property of the detention centre. We all sat still in silence until the policeman left.
Afterwards we discussed the absurdity of the fact that our art is considered illegal yet locking people up against their will who have committed no crimes is not.Then we went back to our lives and our studies, leaving people in the centre imprisoned, deprived of freedom, life, recognition of their humanity. The fact that Yarl’s Wood continues to exist is concrete proof that the state we live in is not a free one, nor is it one that operates on principles of fairness, justice, or even the most basic obligations the U.K. has under international human rights law.
Without direct experience of such events, it is easy to see this reality masked by the seeming peace of ordinary life in the U.K where many of us enjoy freedom to live in relative comfort and safety. However, this is a false peace based on the racist misogynistic oppression of others,endorsed by the state and masked by the media. Now that we are aware of it there is a chip in our hearts programmed to fight, to change things. We cannot accept this normality any longer.
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