What happens in immigration detention stays in immigration detention

This is a story of whistleblowers in the land where there are no whistles and ears are forbidden. That land is called “immigration detention”. In different places, it goes by different names. Yarl’s Wood in England. Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros, or CIE, in Spain. The names change, but the structures and situations are the same. “Immigration detention” is a country, and it’s global.

In September, there was yet another story about systematic sexual predation at Yarl’s Wood. This time it was Tanja’s story, an account that only made it to the public because of the tenacity, perseverance and creativity of Tanja, who just kept on pushing. Yarl’s Wood is a designed community in which staff preys upon the most vulnerable, typically young women fleeing sexual violence. Remember, the Yarl’s Wood prison population is almost 90% women, while men make up almost half the staff. The police yet again said they would conduct an investigation. The real story here is the story of the story, the fact that Tanja could get the story out at all. And that story continues.

Since Tanja’s story broke, all hell has broken loose, and by hell is meant silence. First it was Sirah Jeng, a 59-year-old Gambian, who said she could corroborate Tanja’s story. Her reward? In November she was informed, with barely any notice, that she should get ready for imminent deportation … hours before her scheduled appointment with investigating police. That was November.

This month, Afolashade Lamidi, 40-year-old Nigerian, also confirmed parts of Tanja’s accounts, and then some. And she received the same treatment as Sirah Jeng. She was promised the opportunity of forced return to Nigeria.

This is in so many ways a common story. In Spain this month, Aramis Manukyan, known by his friends and now the world as Alik, was “found dead in his cell.” Alik was a 42-year-old Armenian, a father of a 7-year-old daughter. Found dead in his cell was immediately translated into suicide, despite various testimonies to the contrary. Prisoners reported from different floors that they could her Alik’s cries, but no matter. He committed suicide.

After much pressure from the usual suspects like SOS Racismo, Cerramos los CIE (Close the CIE) and Migra Studium, the police, yet again, say they would conduct an investigation. And that’s when the two key witnesses were deported.

For every Tanja and every Alik there are tens, hundreds, thousands of neighbors and friends, prisoners all. There are witnesses in prison, and they are not the kings or queens in the land of the blind. They are the witnesses in the land of the blinded. They are the whistleblowers in the land where whistles are prohibited and hearing is a crime. Remember, what happens in immigration detention stays, or dies, in immigration detention.

 

(Photo Credit: Guy Corbishley / Demotix / Corbis / The Guardian)

Jakadrien Turner: there was no mistake

 

Jakadrien Turner walks with grandmother Lorene Turner and mother Johnisa Turner

Jakadrien Turner is a United States citizen. She is fifteen years old. She speaks no Spanish. She is African American. Last year, she responded to the death of her grandfather and the divorce of her parents by running away from her home in Dallas. Her grandmother immediately started to search for her.

At some point, Jakadrien Turner was picked up by police in Houston, apparently for theft of some sort. She gave police a false name. Remember, Jakadrien was fourteen years old at the time. The name she gave turned out to be that of a Colombian undocumented resident.

And so, Jakadrien Turner, at the age of fourteen, speaking no Spanish and with no contacts in Colombia, was deported. Yes, she was.

Today, finally, Jakadrien Turner was returned to the United States and to her grandmother, Lorene Turner’s, custody.

The news media and the blogs all agree that Jakadrien Turner was “mistakenly deported”. From Colorlines to Feministing to CNN to local Texas media, they all say the same thing. Mistakenly deported.

There was no mistake.

A system that puts children in prison for life, a system that deports unaccompanied minors, a system that treats women and girls of color as just so much opportunity for private-prison profit and for abuse, that system always was designed to deport Jakadrien Turner.

This is the immigration system, which imprisons and deports thousands of United States citizens, and does so ferociously. There was no mistake. The immigration system did what it does, what it is designed to do. It deported a fourteen-year-old African American girl, this time named Jakadrien Turner, who spoke no Spanish, who had no contacts, who was unaccompanied, and is and was a United States citizen.

Deal with it. Occupy the immigration prison system. There was no mistake.

 

(Photo Credit:  AP Photo/Mike Fuentes)

Women indignadas carry Tahrir Square and Spring, and occupy prison

Occupy, along with Indignados and Spring, is spreading, to new places, and so takes different, local and yet global forms.

In Nigeria this week, in response to fuel prices and, even more, to astronomical unemployment and crushing hopelessness among young people, protests, and more, have punctuated the landscape. Occupy Nigeria. Labor unions, women’s groups, farmers’ groups and others have joined, and to a certain extent followed, the lead of their younger comrades. In Kano, for example, the youth have established what they call “Tahrir Square”. Elsewhere, some say that an “Arab Spring” is coming to Sudan, to Zimbabwe, to a theater of engagement near you.

In Haiti, as in Chile as in the United Kingdom as in Spain, students are protesting the inequality of education and the crushing hopelessness it produces. As various forces attempt to privatize a university opening in Limonade, the students of the University of Haiti, l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti, have declared themselves indignés. Indignados.

We are all, or almost all, moving towards our own Tahrir Square; we are all, or almost all, indignés, indignados. Language, concepts, actions not only exceed the borders they cross, they redefine notions of nationhood, identity. Or such is the dream and hope. Indignados articulate with Zapatistas articulate with Arab Spring and Tahrir Square articulate with indigenous movements and keep sending out new feelers, new shoots, new threads that somehow link new and old into something possible, something happening right now.

And so in northern Venezuela this week, 800 women and 150 children occupied the Yare prison complex. They came to visit their loved ones, who suffer overcrowding and overly long waits for trials, as so many do in so many prisons around the world.  Then, they simply refused to leave. They `self-kidnapped.’ They invaded and occupied the prison space with their indignation.

950 women and children looked at armed guards and said, “Nope, we’re not moving.” They invented Spring, the beginning of a kind of liberation.

You want to know what this Spring could mean? Ask the many immigrant women in US immigrant detention centers, women like Julie, who are told they have no right to legal representation, no right to due process, because, well, they’re not in `prison’. They’re in `detention.’ And so they sit, watched, and often sexually harassed and worse, by guards. Most of the detention centers are privately owned. Profit flows from the time women, mostly women of color, sit and wait.

Many of the women live with mental health illnesses. Actually, many are in crisis. Many of the women struggle with the consequences and scars of domestic violence. Many of the women know they are in `detention’ because their English `failed’ them, and because, though they lived in neighborhoods in which English was a second language, somehow the police only spoke English. Who’s failing whom here?

This week, the young women and men of Nigeria have urged us to occupy and liberate public policy. The young women and men of Haiti have urged us to occupy and liberate education. And the young women and children of Venezuela have called on us to occupy prison.

Occupy prison. We have been occupied by the global prison for far too long. Follow the lead of the women and children of Venezuela. Occupy prison. It’s time.

(Photo Credit: Fernando Llano/AP)

The austerity of childbirth … in shackles

Austerity preys on women and children. So does State extravagance.

In Greece, women in labor were turned away from public hospitals in Athens, Thessalonika, Rhodes and Rethymnon. Why? They didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have insurance, and they didn’t have cash on hand. Because they couldn’t pay for their hospital visits, up front, they were turned away. It’s the new “health system”, the “unified medical care system”, also known as the “integrated unified hospital treatment”, under the new austerity. In this brave new world, women must pay in advance and then receive the childbirth allowance. The childbirth allowance is 600 Euros. The cost of childbirth is listed at 950 Euros, for `normal’, and 1500 Euros, for caesarean section. If a woman doesn’t have the full freight, she must just go. Even if she does have the money, in the end she bears the difference, anywhere from 350 to 900 Euros. Women bear the difference … literally.

Women’s groups, in particular the Women’s Initiative Against Debt and Austerity Measures and the Independent Women’s Movement, broke the news and mobilized public opinion. Greeks were outraged. The Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity was shocked and announced that, from here on, no woman would be turned away. However, she still must pay the difference.

This is the new face of Greece, the face of austerity. In the United States, this would be business as usual. As one Greek noted, “They turned us into America, where you are finished if you don’t have any good insurance!”. Another agreed, “I am touched, we are becoming America. Giving birth for free in public hospitals? Impossible. Wipe out childbirth allowance NOW as well.”

Welcome to the United States of America.

In the United States, if a woman prisoner is in labor, many states will spare no expense. They will buy the best shackles available. In 36 states, women prisoners in childbirth are handcuffed to beds and delivery tables, are shackled, are refused family in the birthing room, and are denied access to their newborns.

Florida is one of those states. A bill is currently in the legislature that would “create uniform and humane rules for the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women”. Gruesome as that phrase is, in Florida, and in the United States, it’s progress. Illinois passed a similar bill earlier this month.

For undocumented immigrant women prisoners, predictably, the situation is worse.

The line from shackling women prisoners in childbirth across the United States to refusing to treat women in childbirth in Greece is a direct line. In both instances, rational human beings decided that this course of action made sense. It makes sense to shackle women in childbirth? It makes sense to turn away a woman in childbirth? No, it does not.

Austerity and prison are parts of the new global unified medical care system, which is part of the global unified political economy. And in that `unification’, women bear the difference … literally.

(Photo Credit: Alkis Konstantinidis / The Daily Beast)

In the United States, when the police attack, “it’s the women’s fault”

 

Many have watched the video of Lt. John Pike, of the University of California Davis police department, casually spray a line of seated, peaceful protesters, and many have expressed horror. Many have expressed horror as well at the decision by the University President Linda Katehi to call in the police in the first place.

The horror is real and well deserved, as are the condemnations. But the surprise and shock are something else altogether. The violence committed was absolutely ordinary. Ask people of color across the United States. In particular, ask immigrant women of color.

Violence by police officers, by detention center staff, by the State, against immigrant women of color happens every day. The United States has declared war on immigrant women of color, and like so many wars of recent years, the war is identified as a form of peace making. Thus, the United States is `really’ waging peace against immigrant women of color. If they have scars, if they suffer trauma, if they lose their children or their partners, if they are sexually abused … it’s the women’s fault. They shouldn’t have opposed the peace process.

Institutional violence against women of color immigrants is ordinary. It happens every day in immigrant detention centers, like T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center in Taylor, Texas. Sara, Kimberly and Raquel `Doe’ are three asylum seekers currently suing Hutto’s owner/operator, Corrections Corporation of America, CCA, for the sexual violence and abuse they suffered while `guests of the system.’ They are part of a fast growing sisterhood, a nation of Does.

Police and State violence against women of color immigrants happens every day on the streets. Ask Susana Ramirez, who never had trouble with the law in either the US or Mexico, until one night she was stopped for … basically for nothing. She changed lanes without signaling. Next thing, her daughters were whisked away, and Ramirez faced deportation. Threatened in Durango, Ramirez was threatened in Illinois. She is part of a fast growing sisterhood as well, of women of color immigrants who face, and often face down, the culture of fear and intimidation.

State violence against women of color immigrants happens every day, when families are split up by ICE, when children are taken away and lost into the so-called foster care system. Those children are disappeared, kidnapped, and their parents are left to search for them. In the first six months of 2011, 46,000 parents of US-born citizens were deported. What happened to their children? What is happening to their children?

Sometimes, the mothers, like Clara and Josefina, sisters, are taken away, and the children, effectively, vanish. Other times, the mothers are US-citizen partners to men who are deported and are left stranded. That the children are US citizens is irrelevant to the State. Where once nations recognized citoyens du sang, citizens of blood, now they create immigrants of blood. Citizenship doesn’t matter: it’s what in your bones, in your blood, in your DNA.

Some say the brutality of the immigration detention system is inhumane. It’s worse than inhumane. It’s humanity-to-come, the promised land. Militarized police, militarized borders, increased sexual violence and abuse against immigrant women of color, increased and intensified systemic racist and sexist violence directed at immigrant women of color … and for what? To keep the nation safe, free and democratic. Behind those words is the real promise: this is what humanity will look like.

In Davis, police and University have committed violence casually and even comfortably. In so doing, they are not alone and they are not exceptional. In fact, they’re quite ordinary, and therein is the horror.

 

(Image Credit: PBS Frontline)

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame

Last week, five women from Bessemer and Birmingham met outside the Hugo L. Black U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. They look like a pretty diverse handful of women. They stood there, alone, with their children and their placards, and explained that they are all U.S. citizens, that their children are U.S. citizens, and that their partners are undocumented residents. They appealed to the better conscience and the better consciousness, not to mention the common sense, of the State and of the Court to overturn HB56. They explained that without their partners’ income, they would face desperate times: “If you don’t want to pay for our kids, repeal HB56.”

Quite a few women in Alabama are expressing similar concerns. Lana and Jamie Boatwright run a tomato farm on Chandler Mountain, in Alabama. The tomatoes are ready for picking, but the workers have fled, mostly to Florida where the fieldwork is better and, thus far, the laws are less hostile.

And it’s not just farmers who are suffering, already, from the culture of the law. Contractors, already squeezed by a deep and long recession, now can’t find workers. Teachers, school nurses and school systems report that the children are beginning to disappear. Foley Elementary School, with a 20% Latina/o population, already reports absences, withdrawals, and, even more, a climate of fear, sorrow, pain and suffering, trauma. Those are children. Not that it should matter but it needs to be said, those are children who are mostly U.S. citizens. What is the name for that curriculum, the one these children experience and study?

And the mothers are gathering and organizing, as they do. Mothers who are undocumented residents, like Trini, Erica Suarez, and so many others, are organizing power of attorney for their kids, should “the worst” occur. Mothers with proper papers or with citizenship, women like Rosa Toussaint Ortiz, are agreeing to take care of the children, should “the worst” occur. And activists, women like Monica Hernandez and Helen Rivas, promise to continue to take care of the women, men, children, not to forget, to continue the struggle.

The situation is shameful.

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame, and it has a familiar ring to it. What is the name of the shameful system that is emerging in Alabama? First, terrorize a racially or ethnically identified minority population. The terror did not begin with the passage of the law. The terror began with the first mention of its possibility. Then criminalize that population. Then put the “newly minted” criminals in prisons, and if those prisons could be private, as they will be in Alabama, all the better. Then, and here’s the kicker, when businesses, and in particular when farmers and contractors “discover” that the labor well has gone dry, provide them with prisoners, at rock bottom prices, of course. That’s what John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, suggested. The State is looking into short- and long-term solutions to the labor problem and is feeling “optimistic.”

Optimistic?

What is the name of that system of shame that Alabama is dutifully re-enacting? Some call it slavery, and perhaps they’re right. What would you call that shame, that shameful system, which haunts the United States?

 

(Photo Credit: al.com)

 

As of 11 March 2011, there were 1030 children in immigration detention in Australia

Today, May 26, 2011, is national Sorry Day in Australia. On May 26, 1997, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families was presented to the Australian Parliament. This report is better known as the Bringing Them Home Report. The report focused on the Stolen Generation, on the abuse of Aboriginal children, families, communities. Ever since 1997, many Australians have marked the event with a National Sorry Day. Of course, Sorry Day alone is not enough.

The Australian Human Rights Commission today issued a report, entitled 2011 Immigration Detention at Villawood: Summary of observations from visit to immigration detention facilities at Villawood.

Villawood is a private prison, run by Serco Australia. Comprised of two sections – Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) and Sydney Immigration Residential Housing (IRH) – Villawood is the jewel in the Australian immigrant detention crown.

The Australian Human Rights Commission “has raised concerns” about Villawood for over a decade.

According to the Commission Report, “As of 11 March 2011 there were 6819 people, including 1030 children, in immigration detention in Australia – 4304 on the mainland and 2515 on Christmas Island. More than half of those people had been detained for longer than six months, and more than 750 people had been detained for longer than a year.” Fifteen percent of those prisoners are children.

The section entitled “Children in Detention” begins: “As of 11 March 2011, there were 1030 children in immigration detention in Australia. The Commission has repeatedly raised concerns about the mandatory detention of children, the high number of children in immigration detention facilities, and the long periods of time many children are spending in detention.  These concerns were reinforced by the Commission’s visit to Sydney IRH.”

In March, the Sydney IRH housed 27 people. Eight were children, three girls and five boys. Thirty percent of the Villawood `residents’ were children. The youngest child was four months old, and the oldest was 16. One was unaccompanied; one had been born in prison.

As it has done, repeatedly, for over a decade, the Commission raised concerns about the detention of children. These include:

•            Child asylum seekers continue to be subjected to mandatory detention.

•            Many children are held in immigration detention facilities, such as Sydney IRH. These are closed detention facilities. Call them what you like, they’re prisons.

•            Many children spend long periods of time in immigration prisons. In Sydney IRH, all eight children had spent more than three months in detention. Seven had been in for more than six months. Three had spent more than a year behind bars.

•            There is no judicial oversight for the immigration detention of children.

•            There is no written policy at Sydney IRH identifying the delegated legal guardian for detained unaccompanied minors.

•            There is no written policy regarding the care and supervision of unaccompanied minors detained at Sydney IRH.

•            There are no independent observers for interviews with unaccompanied minors detained at Sydney IRH.

•            There is no Memorandum of Understanding between DIAC and the New South Wales Department of Community Services regarding the welfare and protection of children in immigration detention at Sydney IRH or elsewhere in NSW.

Australia has a policy of immigrant `detention’ as a last resort, and for as limited a time as possible. This has been the official national, Federal policy since 2008. And yet, families with children and unaccompanied minors are sent to prison rather than community-based alternatives. There is no plan for community alternatives. The Commission is concerned.

Today, in Australia, is national Sorry Day. Tomorrow begins national Reconciliation Week. Meanwhile, new Stolen Generations pile up behind bars in immigrant prisons. Sorry.

 

(Photo Credit: Australian Human Rights Commission)

 

I’m a human. I know the fear

The governor of Texas recently declared a state of legislative emergency. The emergency is sanctuary. Cities in Texas are declaring themselves `sanctuary cities’ or are acting as such, and that somehow threatens Texas.

The Texas House of Representatives leapt to action and dutifully passed a bill, HB 12, that would effectively outlaw sanctuary zones. The moment the bill passed, House Representative Ana Hernandez Luna requested to speak to the body, as a matter of personal privilege.

Representative Luna explained that she, her sister, and her parents had come to Texas from Mexico. The family overstayed their visa and lived in the shadows until the 1986 amnesty was signed, by Ronald Reagan. In the intervening twenty-five years, Ana Hernandez Luna attended and successfully completed grade school, college, law school, and was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 27.

Representative Luna began her remarks by articulating the new version of W.E.B. DuBois’ color-line: “I’m not an alien. I’m not a problem that must be handled. I’m a human.”

She then described the new, and not so new, world order: the politics of fear: “I remember the constant fear my family lived with each day.”

And then Ana Hernandez Luna found it difficult, impossible, to simply speak the words. Tears began to flow, as she struggled to speak: “The fear my parents experienced each day as their two little girls went to school – not knowing the there would an immigration raid that day – and they wouldn’t be able to pick up their daughters from school – and not knowing who would take care of them if that were to occur . . . . The daily task of going to the grocery store to buy groceries might seem a simple task to you, but to us it was a death sentence, that one of my parents may be deported. . . . I know the fear.”

The Texas Senate managed to gut the bill, but the fear persists. Twenty-five years after receiving amnesty, after twenty-five years of steady work and accomplishment, Ana Hernandez Luna still lives, immediately and viscerally, with the knowledge of the fear and with the fear itself.

The politics, and the politicians, of fear dream of a world without sanctuary. Some say that when it comes to prison reform, to addressing mass incarceration, money trumps civil rights. When it comes to children, whose access to `civil rights’ is already tenuous, fear trumps sanctuary. It’s a war zone.

Seven years ago, Else Temesgen and her daughter Betty, who was seven at the time, fled to the United Kingdom. Else was fleeing, first, an abusive husband and, second, a situation of certain separation. Else is Eritrean-born, and her daughter is Ethiopian-born, and so, if the two had returned to Ethiopia, the mother would have been deported. They arrived in England and immediately applied for asylum.

The two were detained in a variety of centers before, finally, receiving asylum. Else describes Yarl’s Wood as “very horrible.” Asylum only came because of the intervention of a prominent local politician. Otherwise, they would still be in the shadowlands of immigrant detention … or worse. They know the fear.

The politics of fear sows only tears. Twenty-five years after coming out of the shadows, Ana Hernandez Luna lives with the knowledge of fear, a shared knowledge, a knowledge whose borders are expanding, and weeps. Twenty-five years from now, how will Betty tell the story of her sojourn in Yarl’s Wood?

What exactly is the nation-State that would be threatened by sanctuary? Sanctuary is not an emergency. If anything, sanctuary is holy. Sanctuary is a time and space in which the human can be recognized and sustained. “I’m a human.”

Sanctuary haunts the State of fear.

 

(Video Credit: YouTube / Texas Impact)

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)

The Parable of Yarl’s Wood

You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall and like the heat of the desert.  — Isaiah 25: 4-5

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”… “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  — Matthew 25: 35-40.

Once, providing asylum to those who needed it was considered a sacred act. In the Book of Numbers, God ordered Moses to create “cities of refuge” or “cities of asylum,” for those fleeing unjust punishment. International conventions written following the Holocaust and World War II confer refugee status on people who face persecution, abuse, torture, or death in their own countries. And even today, the immigration laws of most Western countries have provisions for granting asylum to such refugees—in theory at least. In practice, it’s a different story. In the United States, refugees seeking protection have often found themselves in prison instead. In the United Kingdom, the situation is just as bad or worse.

The United Kingdom has eleven `immigration removal centres.” Seven are privately run. Six are run by G4S, the world’s largest security provider. The seventh, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, is run by Serco. Of the seven prisons, two house women. Tinsley House holds 5 females. Yarl’s Wood has 405 `bed spaces’, which divide into 284 single female bed spaces; 121 family bed spaces. Serco has responsibility for practically all the women and children who apply for asylum.

On February 5, at least 50 women prisoners at Yarl’s Wood went on a hunger strike, which they suspended on March 19. They may resume the hunger strike on April 9.

The women were protesting the Detained Fast Track Asylum System, which discriminates against those fleeing sexual and domestic violence. It is estimated that over 70% of the women at Yarl’s Wood are rape survivors. They were also protesting the length of time many had been detained. One woman who spoke little or no English had been at Yarl’s Wood for two years. Generally, they were protesting degrading and humiliating treatment.

According to Nigerian asylum seeker Mojirola Daniels, on February 8 about 70 women were herded into a long airless hallway and then locked down. They were denied access to toilets, water, anything. There was no heat. Women suffered hypothermia. Blood, urine, faeces covered the floor. Some women passed out. Others were beaten. Finally, hours later, the women were allowed to leave, in pairs: “We were about 70 which consist many Nigerians, Chinese, Jamaicans, Zimbabweans and some nationals that I do not remember. I have been traumatised and victimised because of this experience. I can never believe this can happen in the UK and I am still in shock.”

Another woman reported: “One of the managers told the women they would regret what they have done; she called the Chinese women monkeys, and the Black women black monkeys. Four other women have been locked in other rooms for three hours, and have been told by room mates that their belongings have been packed. They are worried they face immediate removal even though their cases are still being considered. Fifteen women have been locked up in “Kingfisher”, the punishment wing.”

Hunger striker Aisha and non-participant Victoria agree on the conditions in Yarl’s Wood.

35 year old Jamaican asylum seeker Denise McNeil was identified as a `ringleader’, moved to another prison, and placed in solitary. Gladys Obiyan from Nigeria, Sheree Wilson and Shellyann Stupart from Jamaica, and Aminata Camara from suffered a similar fate. Others were suddenly `repatriated’. Leila, an Iranian prisoner, had been at Yarl’s Wood for 20 months, 15 days. After taking part in the hunger strikes and other protests she was placed in solitary: “I want to kill myself, I cannot live here”. Women do try to kill themselves at Yarl’s Wood.

The women are suing Serco. Their lawyers noted: “Serco guards intervened, and according to accounts from our clients “kettled” protestors inside and outside the building, injured some and locked the “ringleaders” in isolation for more than two weeks.”

There will be investigations and trials; poems, plays, and performance pieces; testimony and more. Perhaps the fast-track asylum system will be slowed down. Perhaps detention for women who have been tortured and rape will come to an end. Perhaps no more children will be sent to immigration removal centres. One can hope for these changes.

But asylum will not come until we have cities of refuge: Asylum is a sacred responsibility, not only around Passover or Easter or any other holiday. The building of cities of refuge begins with the end of automatic asylum seeker incarceration. The end of automatic asylum seeker incarceration begins in practice. End the practice of shame and isolation of women asylum seekers now. Walk with the women hunger strikers, the innocent prisoners of Yarl’s Wood, for they are the architects and the carpenters of the cities of refuge to come.

[In a very slightly different form, this was posted at Solitary Watch. Thanks to Solitary Watch, and Jean Casella in particular, for the invitation, editing, and for their great work and labor.]

 

(Video Credit: visionontv / YouTube)