Guest Post by Dan Moshenberg

Editors’ note: Today’s guest post is by Dan Moshenberg, who directs the Women’s Studies Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is co-convener of the Women In and Beyond the Global Project, and coordinator of www.womeninandbeyond.org. His teaching and research focus in part on women in the global prison system, and it was from his email alerts and blog posts that we learned of the events unfolding at Yarl’s Wood immigrant detention center for women, north of London.

The guest post that Dan generously agreed to write for Solitary Watch arrived, appropriately, between the Passover and Easter holidays. The idea of refuge is a vital part of both the Jewish and Christian traditions: The Israelites fled persecution in ancient Egypt (in an Exodus marked by Passover); and Jesus, too, was a refugee, whose family fled his birthplace to escape a murderous ruler. In both traditions, the granting of asylum is considered a righteous act—though it’s one we all too seldom see practiced today.

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

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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 UK has eleven “immigration removal centres.” Seven of them 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, and Yarl’s Wood has 405 “bed spaces,” which divide into 284 single female bed spaces and 121 family bed spaces. Serco has responsibility for practically all the women and children who apply for asylum in the UK.

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 make short work of asylum claims, limits appeals, and discriminates against those fleeing sexual and domestic violence. It is estimated that over 70 percent of the women at Yarl’s Wood are rape survivors. The women 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, a few days after the strike began, 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 of 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.” The accounts of hunger striker Aisha and non-participant Victoria both confirm what happened to the protesters.

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.” Kingfisher is an isolation ward. The UK Border Agency’s response to the women’s desperation was to place them in solitary confinement–or worse–while the Home Office denied that the hunger strike was even taking place.

Thirty-five-year-old Jamaican asylum seeker Denise McNeil was identified as a “ringleader,” moved to another prison, and placed in solitary confinement. 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 now 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.”

In the wake of this brutality, there will be investigations and reports; hearings and settlements; poems, plays, and performance pieces; testimony and more. (This does, at least, seem to be a bigger story in the UK than it would likely be in the U.S., with more news coverage and more  protests in response.) Perhaps the fast-track asylum system will be slowed down. Perhaps detention for women who have been tortured and raped will come to an end. Perhaps no more children will be sent to immigration removal centres. One can hope for these changes.

But true asylum will not come until we turn our cities into 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 incarceration for asylum seekers, and this 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.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Videos: Voices from Yarl’s Wood

“The thing we are hungry for is for justice to be done in this place.”

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