At Yarl's Wood, the attitude towards asylum seekers from Calais has changed

This weekend, frustration surrounding the new arrival of refugees came to a head. We were determined to make sure our voices were heard as loudly as David Cameron's

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The Independent Online

This weekend, frustration surrounding the new arrival of migrants from Calais came to a head at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Over 500 people descended upon the area, outnumbering the 400 female asylum seekers within, and the anger was palpable. As they filed against the 8 metre high fence surrounding the compound, banging and kicking against the steel, their noise created a deafening roar audible to the refugees. These refugees then appeared at the windows, waving toilet paper and cardboard, upon which they had scrawled the message: ‘We are not animals’.

I’d been at a similar protest in June, but this time the atmosphere had changed. It might sound like this was an aggressive campaign, but in fact it was a supportive one: more people than ever before turned up to express their concern about the government’s tactics in Calais. Ex-detainees joined organisers and well-wishers to let refugees inside Yarl’s Wood know that the British people weren’t all thinking what Cameron's choice of language about those in Calais might suggest.

Hands strained out towards the crowds from the windows of the detention centre, and phone calls were made to the women inside as microphones were held against phone speakers to broadcast messages from within. Protesters were united in one aim: to give these women a platform for themselves.

Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre is one of ten in the UK that detains asylum seekers until their immigration status has been processed – in other words, it’s a likely destination for those who make it here from Calais. This centre has developed a notorious reputation over the years as one in which women, who have already fled persecution in their home countries, allegedly face further sexual violence, racial discrimination and neglect. Lest we forget, almost nine in ten of the detainees at the centre are women - many pregnant, or travelling with young children - but around half of the staff are male. These women are not swarms of greedy, welfare-grabbing insects; they are people who pursue protection, rather than money - and according to reports gathered by Women For Refugee Women earlier this year, they are treated like animals.

What was so visible about the solidarity protest this weekend was the diversity of its members. Small children banged against the fence with sticks, elderly couples with dogs walked around its perimeter and young people waved and shouted to those inside.

 

And the current presence at Yarl’s Wood is just one element of a larger movement in the UK of ordinary Brits who have become increasingly frustrated by Cameron’s hard line rhetoric and policy against asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Volunteers number in their thousands, many of whom routinely travel between here and Calais to deliver necessary items and supplies.

By demonstrating our presence to those who are trapped behind expensive fences populated by dogs, we hope to dispel the myth that British people see migrants as vermin to be kept out. The Tories may be happy to turn their backs at best and turn up their noses at worst, but the growing numbers at these demonstrations – and the collective feeling behind it – signifies that something is changing in the UK. Behind the right-wing headlines and the manufactured panic is a surge of people who see the current immigration issue for what it really is. We must never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, this is a humanitarian – and a human – concern.

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