The UK prides itself as being a loyal defender of human rights. Birthplace of the Magna Carta, there remains a kind of blind trust in the fundamentally democratic nature of our political system, and in the practices of our government, which many still assume are conducted with default fairness and justice. Secretly, concealed in the folds of the English countryside, lies testament to the contrary; huge concrete jails concealing the faces of thousands of innocent detainees, who have fled persecution in their home countries, and are being doubly traumatised by their treatment upon arrival in the UK.

Yarl’s Wood detention centre houses over 400 women, many of whom are imprisoned indefinitely, whilst awaiting immigration clearance.  This was the site of the #SetHerFree demonstration on Saturday, where over 1000 people came together to protest the cruel, inhumane abuse of women inside, which has been categorically silenced in both the media and in politics for too long.

Many of the women detained come to the UK as victims of rape and sexual violence, fleeing political climates that directly threaten their lives. A report by Women for Refugee Women found evidence of routine abuse at Yarl’s Wood, with 33 out of the 38 women interviewed disclosing repeated instances of male guards making sexual advances towards them, watching them dressing, showering and going to the toilet. The actions of staff at Yarl’s Wood, run by outsourcing group Serco, violates Home Office Policy, but the fall out for Serco and the individuals involved has been relatively insignificant.    

Immigration is cast a ‘complex issue’, demanding ‘harsh but fair’ policy and tough border control. A ferociously racist right wing media continues to frame immigration in a discourse of fear and instability, scapegoating refugees and asylum seekers as economic migrants desperate to reap the benefits of the UK’s welfare system. Lives are discussed interchangeably with talk of statistics and policy, and stories from inside centres like Yarl’s Wood are erased and misrepresented in public consciousness and in political debate. Asylum seekers are criminalised, considered exceptions to the remit of protection of the rule of law, their lives and freedoms suspended.   

On Saturday, the women inside Yarl’s Wood were active participants in the demonstration on the other side of the barbed wire. As the fences were breached, women hammered bottles, flew flags made from dresses, and held up signs reading ‘freedom’, ‘we are humans’ and ‘we want to live life’, to the tiny cracks in their windows.

Numerous campaigners addressed the sea of protestors about the realities for women inside and the change necessary, but it was Maimuna Jawo, a Gambian refugee detained in Yarl’s Wood for five months, whose words truly resonated as she spoke to the crowd about the need for asylum seekers and refugees to be at the front of this struggle, with organisations and others behind them ensuring that they can fight. 

Politicians co-opt the rhetoric of democracy and moral righteousness to justify their actions, while legitimising the racist abuse of thousands of people in centres like Yarl’s Wood in the name of control and protection.

Tracing the perimeters of Yarl’s Wood on the walk back, there was consensus about the need for sustained and integrated collective action which holds policy makers and companies like Serco accountable.  Join Movement for Justice and Women for Refugee Women at Yarl’s Wood for the next demonstration on August 8th, and sign the petition to #SetHerFree.


Words and photographs Charlotte Cheeseman