Women held after immigration centre protest

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The Independent Online

Four women have been detained by police after a group of mothers at an immigration removal centre protested at being separated from their children.

Officers were called to the Yarl's Wood centre in Bedfordshire yesterday, where more than 80 women were said to be on hunger strike in protest against their detention and conditions.

Bedfordshire Police detained four women for offences under the Immigration Act last night following the disturbance, they said today.

They were taken to Greyfriars Police Station in Bedford at about 7.30pm and will be handed over to the UK Border Agency later today.

They have not been arrested or charged with any criminal offences, a spokeswoman said.

The remaining detainees were dealt with on site by resident staff, she added.

Yesterday detainees said a number of protesters were separated from everyone else and kept in a hallway for several hours after asking to speak to officials about why they were being detained.

One detainee, who said she had been held at the centre for three months without her two young children, said 80 or so women spent more than six hours shut in a hallway.

The woman, who gave her name only as Aisha, said today: "We were taken back to the rooms at 8pm.

"Nobody came to see us and we didn't get to discuss our concerns. We were trying and asking but no one came to talk to us about it."

Some women did not want to leave the hallway until they had received answers but one tried unsuccessfully to escape through a window and ended up getting injured, she said.

Aisha, a 29-year-old Nigerian, added: "They shut us in with no water, no food and no toilet facilities."

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) said staff at the centre were liaising with case workers to resolve the concerns raised by the women.

David Wood, strategic director for criminality and detention, said: "This peaceful protest was resolved last night. Around 40 women at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre were raising issues around their detention and progress of their cases.

"They returned to their rooms without the need for staff intervention.

"The well-being of detainees is of paramount concern to the UKBA, which is why healthcare staff and independent monitors from the Independent Monitoring Board were at the scene to witness the women's protest.

"The demonstration remained passive at all times and there was no use of force. The detainees were integrated back into the centre at the earliest opportunity."

No one was thought to have been injured in the incident and Bedfordshire Police, who had been on hand at the perimeter fence of the compound, were stood down at 7.50pm.

It was not clear exactly how many of the women have been separated from their children.

Aisha's children, aged 10 and six, are being looked after by her sister in Kilburn, north-west London, and she can only see them once a fortnight when they come and visit her, she said.

She came to the UK in 1999 and was imprisoned in 2004 for using false documents to enrol at a university in London, she added.

She served six months behind bars and on her release was taken to Yarl's Wood.

A statement released by a group called Women behind the Wire Yarl's Wood IRC said the hunger strike began on Friday.

The group is calling for an end to the detention of children and their mothers, rape survivors and other torture victims; an end to the detention of physically or mentally sick people and pregnant women for long periods of time; enough time and resources for residents who need to present their cases; access to appropriate medical treatment and care; access to edible and well-cooked food; and phones with good mobile connections including camera and recording facilities to back up cases.

The group said it also wanted to stop the forceful removal and deportation of detainees and detention for asylum seekers and torture victims.

Mr Wood said: "All detainees are treated with dignity and respect, with access to legal advice and healthcare facilities.

"We only remove those who both the UKBA and the independent courts deem to have no legal right to be here."

Yarl's Wood opened in 2001 and has become the UK's main removal centre for women and families.