STOP PRESS: Since the 15 June protest outside Yarl’s Wood IRC the removal of nineteen year old twins has been suspended and nine people have been released -- seven women and a couple held in the “family” unit. 

Asylum Seekers, Immigrants, Rape Survivors, and Supporters Protest outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre

International Day of Action Sunday 15 June 2014

Over 50 women, children and men held a loud, lively and angry demonstration outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, organised by Women of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike, Legal Action for Women and  Payday Men’s network.  The protest was part of 15J international day of action to close detention centres which saw actions in Canada, France, Greece, Spain and the US. 

Yarl’s Wood is located in an isolated industrial estate in rural farmland outside Bedford, and has a history of courageous protests supported by public outcries about the despicable treatment of women and families detained there.  Women who speak out are targeted and often “disappeared” to other detention centres or prisons, or face other threats.  A few days before the protest, Serco staff threatened to isolate and move one woman who was organising for herself and others inside to talk to protesters outside.  Over 60 letters were subsequently posted to the centre’s director, calling on him to discipline the two managers involved.

Most demonstrators arrived by coach from London for the protest; some travelled from Bedford, Brighton and as far away as Liverpool.   They included nearly ten women who had previously been detained in Yarl’s Wood, including mothers fighting for family reunion and lesbian and bi-sexual women resisting deportation to homophobic countries.  After being turned away from the main gates by security guards, the coach drove up to the gates closest to the buildings housing women, where protesters unfurled a huge banner reading:  “Close down Yarl’s Wood and all detention centres”.


Women inside gathered together to take turns speaking to the protest by mobile phone.   Their moving testimonies were relayed by a PA system which enabled them to be heard and protesters to hear them.  Everyone listened intently to women’s descriptions of the heartless regime: windows that opened only an inch or not at all; “medical treatment” consisting of paracetemol and nothing else; women who are ill, wheelchair users and others with disabilities being kept locked up; the cruel and inhumane  detention of a woman who is seven months pregnant; women forced to call 999 when staff ignore serious medical conditions but then ambulance crews are turned away by Serco staff; sexual abuse, intimidation and threats by guards; private lawyers who steal their money and do no work, and legal aid lawyers who say nothing can be done. Fellow inmates had been dragged away screaming, forced back to face the rapists and other torturers they had fled -- sometimes unlawfully as they had ongoing legal cases.   

Women described detention as a second torture.   Delivered in both English and French, their testimonies were met with cries of “Shame on Serco! Shame on UKBA!”  A 19 year old young woman in the “family wing” fought back tears as she described how her vulnerable and depressed twin brother had not eaten for three weeks after they were arrested on their 19th birthday.  She called for support in resisting their deportation scheduled for Tuesday 17th June. People responded and the deportation was stopped.  

Spirits were lifted inside and out when support messages were read out from MP John McDonnell and detainees in Tacoma, Washington (USA) who went on a 1200 strong hunger strike, lasting nearly 60 days.  That strike resulted in a bill in Congress to improve conditions in detention and consider alternatives to it.  The protest heard about the hunger strike in Calais (France) by destitute asylum seekers facing gross state inhumanity.  There was also news of the victory in securing unlawful killing charges against three G4S guards who killed Jimmy Mubenga during a brutal deportation.  

The loudest cheers came as Verna Joseph (a woman who led the 2010 Yarl’s Wood hunger strike) spoke via mobile phone from London.  People roared in approval when she said “we need to shut down Yarl’s Wood and all detention centres. I know what it’s like in there and all the terrible things you suffer - when I won my status they kept me locked up, and if I didn’t go on hunger strike I would still be there now!  Believe in yourselves and never give up -– together we can shut it down”.  One detainee said that some women were supporting the international protest by refusing food!

Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape reported on their protests against government hypocrisy at the End Sexual Violence in Conflict Summit fronted by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie.  Home Office speakers had been disrupted by victims speaking out against the UK locking up victims of rape and other violence including trafficking who escape from conflict zones.  One protester managed to give Ms Jolie and Brad Pitt a leaflet about the Sunday protest, and asked them to visit the detention centre to hear first hand women’s experiences.  Ms Jolie said that she knew about Yarl’s Wood.

 Fifteen countries were represented at the UK protest, including All African Women’s Group (AAWG) members from Democratic Republic Congo, Eritrea, India, Jamaica, Lesotho, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda. 


As the demonstration drew to a close, protesters surged to the gates in anger, rattling them back and forth.  For over 10 minutes all that could be heard was the roar of barbed wire crashing against metal and cries of “Close it down!” 

Women of Colour GWS commenting on the protest said:  J15 actions are re-charging the movement to close detention centres and stop governments sending vulnerable women, children and men back to torture and other violence and extreme poverty. They are the real criminals, whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria to cover up how much they profit off arms dealing, war, and exploitation which forces millions to flee.  Britain alone owes $7.5 trillion in reparations for the transatlantic slave trade, and they are still looting our countries.   We have every right to be here and claim protection.”


A follow-up action was held on 24 June when women asylum seekers and supporters protested at a parliamentary committee, taping their mouths to highlight that none of the women in Yarl's Wood, who had reported sexual abuse by Serco guards, had been called to give evidence.  Committee chair Keith Vaz MP agreed the Committee would visit and hold an evidence session where ex-detainees can be heard. Women inside who want to speak to the Committee are now organising to protect themselves from reprisals by guards.     For more, listen to BBC Radio File on 4


Yarl’s Wood IRC, is one of 11 detention centres in the UK. Over 30,000 a year are detained indefinitely, whilst the government processes their asylum application.  Legal aid cuts mean that detainees have hardly any access to lawyers, making it almost impossible to get a fair hearing for their case. Many are refugees whose cases are put in the “Detained Fast Track” where they are denied resources, time and support to speak about the torture they’ve suffered.   Yarl’s Wood is run by SERCO, the private company, at the centre of allegations of sexual abuse of detained women. In the last few weeks a whistleblower
who worked for Serco has spoken to the Guardian about the abuse and mistreatment in Yarl’s Wood.

Other groups who supported included Corporate Watch, London Guantanamo Campaign, Migrant Artists Mutual Aid (MAMA), and SOAS Detainee Support