Migrants: We are all children of migrants

 

Saturday, 5th of March 2011.

Yarl’s Wood continues.

The women behind the fences are saying something about their children, but it is difficult to hear what exactly.  They seem to be shouting something about their right to stay with their children.  Perhaps they are referring to the effects of recent policy changes.

In October, a case was brought forth on behalf of two single mothers and their children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers after dawn raids on their homes earlier in the year. In December 2010, in response, the government `signaled’ its intention to bring to an end children’s detention. This included closure of the ‘family unit’ at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre and the suspension of children’s detention in any immigration facility over the Christmas period.

In January 2011, a court decision established that the detention of some families, including children in Yarl’s Wood, was unlawful. This decision required the government to bring to an immediate end the detention of children in immigration removal centers. The immediate response from the Home Office was that the detention of families ‘would be kept to a minimum’, while officials drew up ‘alternative arrangements’ to ‘protect the welfare of children without undermining immigration law’.

We demonstrated outside Yarl’s Wood partly to denounce the government’s ‘skillful’ use of publicity about ‘ending the detention of children’ as a way of avoiding talking about the brutal and inhumane detention regime in general. But even among some of the civil society groups that have specifically supported the end of children detention, suspicions remain concerning the government’s version of  “alternatives” to child detention. While the plan does not include any concrete improvement in terms of early access to legal aid for refugee applicants, it does mention the establishment of ‘new family conferences’. These would ‘draw in lawyers, social workers and others’, with the aim of providing ‘realistic advice to people who had been refused refugee status on what their options were’. For those who would not accept voluntary repatriation “it would be necessary to detain them in ‘secure accommodation’ for periods of around 72 hours to ensure that their departure could be enforced’.

Migrant Rights Network argues that the ideas of ‘family conferences’ and a new ‘independent family review panel’ is dangerous.  It is quite easy to imagine that the large-scale detention of families with young children will be simply reproduced in a new form.  Furthermore, these family conferences risk turning exactly those social workers and other experts who should support migrants’ children and vulnerable adults’ welfare in their communities, into immigration control functions. Those who used to work for migrants in our communities will be absorbed into the machine of control and detention, ultimately ‘advocating’ ‘voluntary’ return and deportation.

The rhetoric of the UK government around the economic recession legitimizes increasingly restrictive policies against migrants. This then naturalizes chauvinistic and militaristic approaches towards the ‘management’ of immigration as part of the ‘big society’ discourse about having to ‘share’ the consequences of the economic downturn. Of course, `they’ must pay more than `us’. The politics of racism and gender discrimination are fully at play in this era of mobility restrictions and economic austerity.

Walking back from the fences we discuss the contradiction of today’s migration politics and how grassroots groups should respond to it in practice. Yes, we will probably have to support migrant’s individual demands for regularization but cannot afford to support the whole policy/ing logic based on the continuous differentiation of migrants, the production of multiple divisions, between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the more and the ‘less vulnerable’, those who ‘deserve’ integration and those who do not, or simply the right to access that which seems to become an ever increasingly ‘precious good’, conceded by national governments in Europe,  that is, the status of ‘legality’.

Many women currently detained in Yarl’s Wood have worked and toiled in this county already for many years. They are fluent in English. They have kids here. Here they have built their lives. This makes us particularly angry and astonished in front of the injustice of their detention, but it does not change the unconditionality of our claim: freedom of movement for all. Everyone, independent off period of stay and status, whether escaping poverty or war, environmental disaster or political persecution, gender or racial oppression, has the right to freedom of movement, and freedom to stay and search for a new life. After all, as we would remind the small group of police engaged in their performance of ‘protecting’ the prison from us, we are all the children of migrants.

 

(Photo Credit: womenagainstrape.net)

We can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them

 


Saturday, 5th of March 2011

It is wet and foggy in the fields of Bedfordshire and our shoes fill with mud as we walk away from the group of policemen that have followed us in a circle along the fences of Yarl’s Wood migrants’ detention centre. This Saturday, the 5th March, as women demonstrate in London at the start of International Women’s Week, a group of migrant rights, no border and feminist activists travel to Bedford to bring our solidarity to the migrant women (and men) detained in Yarl’s Wood. We manage to reach the women locked in one of the units. At a distance, we can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them. We cannot hear exactly what they say but one message arising across the barbed wires is simple, loud and clear: ‘freedom, we want freedom’.

Yarl’s Wood is one of the seven privately run ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ in the UK, detaining ‘irregular migrants’ on behalf of the UK Border Agency. Initially the building accommodated 900 people in two blocks, making it the largest immigration prison in Europe. In February 2002 the capacity of the centre was reduced after one of the buildings was burnt down during a protest organized by detainees against staff harassment. At present the centre is composed of 4 units ‘hosting’ about 400 people.

In February of last year, the situation in the removal centre again exploded. The horrible conditions of detention were denounced by migrant detainees as some women decided to start a hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite and abusive imprisonment. In an attempt to end their protest, the management subjected many of the women to violent attacks and various forms of punishment. At that time six women detainees, accused of being ‘ring-leaders’, were moved into isolation and prisons.

On the 25th January, after almost a year in Holloway prison, Denise McNeil, one of the `leaders’, was granted bail at an immigration court. Two women still remain in jail without charge: Aminata Camara and Sheree Wilson. Activists from the campaign to Free the Yarl’s Wood 3, including members of No One is Illegal, No Borders, Crossroads Women’s Centre, Communities of Resistance, Stop Deportation Network and members of the RMT, filled the court for Denise’s bail hearing. They provided an important support and will keep campaigning ‘for Sheree and Aminata and all the people in Yarl’s Wood until the centre will be closed’. (For updates, see Free the Yarl’s Wood 3 campaign Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Free-Denise-Now/174533002581566 and Twitter feed: @freedenisenow. Also see the NCADC site: http://www.ncadc.org.uk/campaigns/DeniseMcNeil.html).

The reasons for the detention of people in centers like Yarl’s Wood are multiple, and sometimes quite different. One of the activists involved in the campaign to support the hunger strikers explained to me that many of the women who end up in detention have already served a prison sentence, often for a minor offence, such as using fake documents to travel or work. Rather than being released, these women are transferred back to detention as a ‘second punishment’ where they wait for their immigration case to be cleared and eventually granted status or deported. They are trapped in an indefinite space of juridical and existential limbo, from one prison to the other, on the grounds that their migration case is still ‘pending’: they cannot be returned to their country of origin (on complex juridical or humanitarian grounds), and yet their status as asylum seekers is not recognized either.

Denise has just been released on bail, and her status, as well as her future stay in the UK, remains uncertain. However, her case shows how important the external support of migrants’ rights activists to sustain legal individual cases can be by helping access legal advice and to build publicity around their otherwise invisible stories.  While it may appear only a small achievement, these forms of solidarity provide the migrant women with encouragement and help instill confidence as they engage in the hard battles for freedom of movement and the right to stay in a country where they have worked and toiled for many years. In many cases the women are ‘caught’ by the UK Border Agency after many years of residence in the country, where they have probably built a family, found work and made a home. This is a typical story for the women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

 

(Photo Credit: Open Democracy / IndyMedia.UK)