On Saturday 12 March, Movement for Justice by Any Means Necessary organised a demonstration calling for the closure of Yarlswood detention centre. Duncan Thomas reports.
Yarlswood detention centre has long been emblematic of the cruelty and injustice of the British immigration system. The 350 or so women inside may be called “residents” on the centre’s surreal website, but the isolation of the facility, the huge fences that surround it, and the conditions within it make the reality plain: these survivors of rape and torture are prisoners, and Yarlswood is a prison.
The shortest detentions last less than a week; the longest so far is over five hundred days. But all are indefinite, and nobody knows how long they they will be locked up. A third of the women there are grabbed from their homes at night, adding to the trauma and sense of insecurity that continues once inside.
When activists first started calling for Yarlswood’s closure over a decade ago, twenty people attended their rallies. On Saturday, 2,000 marched. Everyone I spoke to said the same thing: this is the year we close it down.
And so it is that a place designed to make refugees invisible, to erase them from society and consciousness, has become a rallying point and symbol of their struggle. Hoping to facilitate the silent, surgical removal of human beings, the British state has instead revealed the extent of its disdain, creating in the process a site of solidarity and resistance.
As we massed on the hill beside the centre, the detainees came to the windows of their rooms and led the chants: “shut down Yarlswood”, “no detention, “fuck the fence”. They waved t-shirts and bedsheets covered in slogans: “We are not animals”, “Shut it down now”, “Officers don’t knock”.
The last in particular resonates with the frequent reports of sexual abuse by staff, with another banner reading “Yarlswood officers in relationships with vulnerable detainees”. Half of the women inside report feeling unsafe, with a fifth specifically stating that they feel at risk in their bedrooms.
The interaction with those inside lent the march its vibrancy and sense of purpose. At times it felt like a festival; at others, like a prison break. We danced and sang in the sunshine and mud; we kicked the dirt off our boots on the fence separating us from them, wishing we could kick harder.
Many on the demo had been detainees themselves. One woman I spoke to told me “when I was inside, these marches kept me going. It’s important to know that there are people who support you, who will fight for you.”
There are more people now than ever before. This march was big; the next one will be bigger.