Free AG NOW. Amnesty for ALL immigrants – and shut down ALL detention centres. Stop mass deportation charter flights. Build the independent, integrated movement.
In Yarl’s Wood detention centre new battles in the fight for women’s rights and immigrant rights have been opening up, with women taking all means necessary, encouraged and more confident having seen the government’s hostile environment immigration policy exposed and vulnerable, and having been part of the struggles that made it vulnerable through months of collective action inside Yarl’s Wood.
In Yarl’s Wood on Wednesday 30 May 2018, women gathered in Dove unit to defend Nigerian and Ghanaian women whom they knew to be the latest targets for a mass deportation charter flight. This action to stop deportations took place in the context of the Government’s wider, self-inflicted crisis over its anti-immigrant policies. It takes the fight to end detention and the whole hostile environment to a higher level and asserts the importance of immigrant leadership in this fight.
Acting on MFJ’s method and leadership detainee’s had discussed methods of immigrant-rights struggle for weeks before. In the weeks and days before the flight they wrote up statements for release that showed the outside world by example who they are and why they are fighting so no one suffers deportation. These formed the basis of a challenge put to the Nigerian High Commission not to collude in the deportations, and MFJ held a public rally outside the High Commission. The process of talking to each other brought the women closer together and stronger, built a level of trust, and meant they were already acting assertively to stop their deportations. By the 30th it was possible to mobilise a collective defence against deportation by gathering and staying together. Many of those recently released kept their connection by constantly calling in to support, and ensure the women could sustain their stand.
The Home Office tactic for carrying out deportations from detention centres has been increasingly to catch people unawares. On top of the deportation itself this has the additional effect of terrifying everyone else. Every one of the women who fought the 30 May charter flight could recount the despair they’ve witnessed week after week, of other women seized in the dead of night, taken out by numerable male guards naked or in their nightie, called to health care on some rouse and never seen again, sometimes not even knowing they were due to be ‘removed’ that day. Whether sick or elderly – no-one is spared.
Women’s collective resistance buys time for AG to challenge unlawful removal
On Wednesday 30 May that surprise tactic was used to grab women early in the morning, while alone. Around 13 were facing a charter flight that day. After seeing the guards take a number of their friends in quick succession, the other women were angry but did not give way to despondency. Instead they used their anger, adjusted their plan, and acted to save the last women the guards were after, AG. Women from both units acted fast, grouped up on the corridor where everything was happening and initiated a protest, refusing to move.
This bought time for AG, the last ‘deportee’. Five guards had got into the room she was in, and surrounded her, they bullied her, but they did not dare take her out past the women in the corridor. She was able to hold out for several hours and use that precious time to convey everything to MFJ outside, her husband and her solicitor. The guards threatened her and the rest of the women, but they would not be moved. AG knew she was not due to be on this flight, she had an outstanding legal claim, and asserted that throughout, this was an unlawful removal.
The officers routinely refuse to engage with any reasoning from would-be deportees, instead focusing heavily on repeating demands for compliance, until they wear down their target to a numb and compliant state. They refused to talk to AG’s solicitor. But the fact that AG herself had a belief in her rights, and could also hear the women in the corridor supporting her loudly, meant she could not be bullied or mentally broken down.
Women across the centre started to take action passing on updates to each other and the outside world; those who could get there increased the numbers occupying the Dove unit corridor where the guards had AG, while others made protests around the centre disrupting the efforts of Serco to shut things down.
Around lunchtime more guards came to push back the women, out of the way. At least ten guards assaulted AG; they held her down, twisted her arms and neck. They handcuffed her and dragged her through the corridors face down with only a sheet over her body and face. They brought her to a room in the solitary confinement ‘Kingfisher’ unit, they threw her in the room facedown with her hands still cuffed so that she landed on her chest which is still in a lot of pain, they gave her some clothes to put on and took her phone away from her. After some time they came with riot shields, entered the room and brought her to a van and then to the coach. All the time AG maintained that this was an unlawful removal, that her case was ongoing.
She was driven all the way to Birmingham Airport where finally someone took her off the coach – they HAD made a mistake and she should not have been there. She was driven back to Yarl’s Wood and returned to solitary confinement, not to her room. She was threatened with criminal charges and that she would be moved to Scotland, something that would make it impossible for her husband and friends to visit her. When authorities actions get too out-of-control and they face exposure for their brutality it is not unusual for them to try to hide the problem.
AG suffered physical and traumatic injuries, but was not taken to hospital. If the authorities try to press charges against AG, for her having defended herself against an unlawful deportation; or try to move her away from her family & friends it would publicise to the widest extent the real brutality of Yarl’s Wood, further than anything the movement has yet been able to do.
The racism and inhumanity of charter flights resisted and exposed by an integrated movement
The women who gathered to support this self-defence were from many countries. They rejected the divisions of country, ethnicity, religion and origin that are actively encouraged in detention. The whole process of immigration detention is dehumanizing, and the attitudes towards detainees are wholesale racial stereotyping. Every prison and detention centre has an Independent Monitoring Board (IMB), which claim independence but are really in place to sustain the system by mollifying incidents; they consequentially serve the interests of the authorities, not the detainees. An IMB member who appeared after AG was gone expressed this in a deeply offensive way. She complained to detainees present about the suffering of the guards, and when she got challenged by detainees that it was AG who had been assaulted not the other way around, she justified the guards violence saying “…in the past black people are known to resist removal and they are violent and that is why they have a lot of officers to use force…”.
There is no way to accept or forget the experience of guards rounding on women and men to deport, the way a hunter rounds on their prey. At every stage it is inhuman and torturous, the moments of physical violence, of verbal threats and bullying, and the moments of numbness when those ‘captured’ are locked in empty rooms to wait. This is the reality of deportations, and especially mass charter flights. Once separated from the main units, the women went through hours of waiting, until time to be forced onto the bus and on to the plane. Eventually they were dropped off in ‘cargo’ at an airport in Lagos, left to find their own way.
Detention Centres will be shut down because detainees will never stop fighting back.
Even after seeing others being taken out, those that remained did not give up; they got stronger in their anger facing injustice. The bullying officers sounded more desperate once they could not induce fear. The women stayed united, regrouped and grew in number, their actions spoke for many thousands including Yarl’s Woods’ former detainees.
Yarl’s Wood can be shut down, and it will be a victory for the action of generations of women and men in Yarl’s Wood. The most likely way that gets decided is because Yarl’s Wood is an unmanageable hellhole whose crimes cannot be hidden from public view any longer, and that risks another exposure of the government to vulnerability. The parliamentary inquiries and commissioned reports already list every humane and economic reason for ending detention; they only result in occasional tinkering. But as Yarl’s Wood detainees are bolder and speaking out, the movement for immigrant rights and women’s rights strengthens, whereas the detention policy gets more overreaching and is at more risk of implosion.
The deportations carried out on Wednesday 30 May can only be a Pyrrhic victory for the Home Office, as long as the movement learns the lesson the women did on that day – not to ever give up in the face of adversity. Almost everyone they went for was deported, but AG was saved and in the process they exposed their weaknesses, guards showed they are the animals, they went to extremes that compound the exposure of the system as a racist and cruel, and the women detained implemented a method of collective mass action that crossed ordinary boundaries of ethnicity and tradition. Current and former detainees have greater political confidence, and are building the movement more than ever. MFJ exists to develop the leaders of and for the oppressed and exploited. With a correct method and commitment to organisation we can win.