More than 100 women in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre have gone on hunger strike over “inhumane” conditions at the facility.
Around 120 female detainees began their protest on Wednesday, urging the Home Office to end “offensive” practices which they said leave people “breaking down psychologically” after being detained for immigration reasons.
Women taking part in the strike told The Independent they had “given up thinking about the outside world” due to uncertainty over being locked up indefinitely, saying the centre was “failing” to meet their health needs. One said she was “struggling to find a reason to go on”.
It comes as the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, prepares to visit the centre on Friday. She has been trying to gain access for more than a year amid mounting concerns that women are being unnecessarily detained there and held in unfair conditions.
In a joint statement, the women on hunger strike said they believed the Home Office was “overwhelmed”, saying it was “not fit for purpose” and accusing it of operating in a “rogue manner”.
“The Home Office... continues to detain victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The healthcare system does not meet the needs of most detainees. Ailments are left to become [very serious] before being dealt with if at all,” it states.
Asylum seekers and other migrants are sent to Yarl’s Wood and other immigration detention centres when the Government wishes to establish their identities or facilitate their immigration claims, not because they have committed criminal offences.
The centre holds adult women and adult family groups who are subject to immigration control. The latest figures show 410 people are detained there.
One Algerian woman taking part in the strike, who was detained three months ago after living in the UK since the age of 11, told The Independent she felt she was being “broken down” by the system.
She said: “Every day I wake up and I have to think of a reason to go on. I’ve given up thinking about the outside – I’ve given up thinking about it. I feel like I’m in someone’s dungeon and no one is letting me out.
“I might as well be blindfolded in a van going 100 miles an hour in a direction I don’t know. The indefinite detention causes people so much stress. People are breaking down psychologically. We have no fight left. They break you down. It’s inhumane.
“And there’s no psychological help. I’ve tried speaking to a psychological nurse in the centre about issues I have, and he advised me to speak to my solicitor about it.”
Another detainee from Kenya said she had developed stomach problems due to the food provided in the centre, but had been told there was no alternative so had stopped eating and subsequently lost 10kg.
She said at one point she was forced to walk across the centre to report to the Home Office as monthly protocol, despite suffering from severe diarrhoea which was not being treated. “Is my health less important than the immigration matter?” the woman asked.
In a handwritten document, the women on hunger strike accuse the Home Office of violating habeus corpus, as the majority of detainees are not detained by a judge. They also highlight that the Government “refuses to accept that rape is torture”, as rape victims are detained despite a policy stating victims of torture must not be detained for immigration reasons.
The document also highlights that the UK is the only country in the EU with no time limit on detention, and accuses the Home Office of “incompetent and untimely manner in handling cases”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Detention and removal are essential parts of effective immigration controls, especially in support for the removal of those with no lawful basis to stay in the UK.
“We take the welfare of our detainees very seriously and any detainees who choose to refuse food and fluid are closely monitored by on site healthcare professionals.”
Commenting on the strike, Ms Abbott said: “This is very disturbing news. I have been trying to get in to Yarl’s Wood for over a year and am finally being allowed to visit tomorrow. I intend to speak to the women there and hear first-hand their experiences and their concerns.”
The hunger strike comes after research in November found the Government was routinely detaining victims of sexual violence in Yarl’s Wood in breach of its own policy, introduced in 2016, that it should not detain “at risk” or vulnerable people.
The research, by charity Women for Refugee Women, revealed that 85 per cent of women who had sought asylum and been detained after the new policy came into force were survivors of rape or other gender-based violence, including forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution.
A watchdog report published later in November found the majority of women held at the controversial detention centre were later released into the community, raising concerns as to why they were ever detained.
HM Inspectorate of Prisons also raised concerns over the continued detention of women who had been tortured and two responses where the Home Office had refused, without explanation, to accept that rape came within the legal definition of torture.