More than 100 women are detained indefinitely in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC). Last month they began a hunger strike, to protest the Home Office’s policies and treatment of detainees.
The strike, which has continued since February 21, has reignited an ongoing debate and the UK’s immigration detention system. Here’s everything you need to know.
Why Are They Striking?
Previously people have protested about the dentention centre. Image credit: iDJ Photography / Flickr
The women on strike produced a handwritten statement of the reasons for their protest. These were the Home Office’s policies of:
- Detaining people who came to the UK as minors
- Detaining survivors of torture and asylum seekers
- Detaining people without placing any time limit on their detention (and the fact that the UK is the only EU country to do this).
One of the hunger strikers explained:
Even though many of us have health issues […] we want the public to know what we face and make sure there is a change in policy.
Detainee on Hunger Strike
At its core, immigration detention is very much a human rights issue.
We all have a right to liberty, which is protected under Article 5 of the Human Rights Convention. This means that the State cannot take away a person’s freedom arbitrarily (i.e. without good reason). Article 5 applies to everyone in the UK regardless of where they come from, and can be enforced through the UK’s Human Rights Act.
However, the right to liberty is “qualified”, which means it can be limited in certain circumstances – where it is “necessary” in order to protect a “legitimate interest”. For instance, the Home Office may keep people in immigration detention when they overstay their visa and lose their right to remain in the UK legally.
Taking away a person’s freedom also affects their privacy and ability to have a family life. Our right to both of these things is protected by Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention, which prevents the State from interfering in our lives and keeping families apart. This right is also qualified, and can be limited in certain circumstances.
What Does The Law Say?
A previous protest at Yarl’s Wood. Image Credit: iDJ Photograph / Flickr
The lawfulness of the Home Office’s use of immigration detention has been challenged on several occasions – in particular because the UK is the only EU where there is no legal time limit on how long a person can be detained, as the women on hunger strike have highlighted. This means that throughout the time a person is detained, they don’t know whether they will be detained for a further two weeks or two years.
In 2015, a report published by a Cross-Party Parliamentary Inquiry found that the UK immigration detention system was “expensive, inefficient and unjust,” and recommended imposing a time limit of 28 days.
In March 2016, the House of Lords voted in favour of an amendment to the Immigration Act (2016) which would have meant that a person could not be placed in immigration detention for longer than 28 days – unless the Home Office apply for an extension on the basis that “exceptional circumstances” require it.
Although in May 2016 the Human Rights Court ruled that the UK’s decision not to adopt a time limit was not in itself illegal, pressure has continued to build in recent months for the government to impose the 28-day time limit.
Protecting the Vulnerable
There are concerns over vulnerable women. Image Credit: Josh Bean / Unsplash
Another issue raised by the hunger strikers is the Home Office’s detention of vulnerable individuals, including pregnant women, people with disabilities, and survivors of rape, human trafficking and torture.
Under Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention, everyone in the UK has a right not to be subjected to torture and in human or degrading treatment or punishment. Unlike Article 1 and Article 8, this is an “absolute” right – there are no circumstances in which a breach of it can be lawful.
This means that the State has an obligation, when holding people in detention, not to abuse them or treat them in a degrading way. The UK also has an obligation, under the UN Convention Against Torture (“UNCAT”) to help survivors of torture to rehabilitate. Many survivors, experts and activists have argued that detention directly prevents rehabilitation, as it brings back traumatic experiences.
The Strike Goes On…
Image Credit: iDJ Photography / Flickr
After 3 days of striking, on February 24, the women on strike stated that the Home Office had failed to respond to their protest. They issued a list of demands, including:
- An end to indefinite detention, and a return to the plan for a “28 day limit”
- Respect for Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention
- Respect for the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers
- An end to the detention of vulnerable people, such as people with disabilities and survivors of rape, torture and trafficking
- An end to the employment of detainees for menial work for £1 an hour during their detention.
On February 26, the group of women stated that in response to the Home Office’s inaction since they began their hunger strike, they would intensify it. They announced that they would not only refuse to eat, but also refuse to participate in any work or use any of the facilities at Yarl’s Wood.
And What’s The Official Response?
Image Credit: Policy Exchange / Flickr
The hunger strike began two days before Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, and Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti visited Yarl’s Wood. It had taken Abbott more than a year to persuade the Home Office to grant her access. Abbott said of the women she met at the centre:
These women were clearly desperate. Indefinite detention, with no release date, is just wrong.
Diane Abbott MP
On February 27, at the House of Lords, Lord Paddick asked the government “what steps they are taking to respond to the hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.”
Baroness Williams of Trafford suggested that while some detainees may be protesting, others may be refusing food for “dietary and religious reasons.” In response to further questions about the detention system, she stressed that the aim of the detention centre is “swift removal,” and also noted that the government was “working with NGOs on the definition of torture.”
In March some of the hunger strikers were also given letters from the Home Office stating that their strike would not lead to their removal directions being deferred, and could result in their removal from the UK being accelerated.
One protestor responded saying:
I feel I am being threatened and patronised because of the protest […] What happened to human rights, freedom of speech and expression?
A spokesperson for Serco, the company contracted by the Home Office to manage the centre, added: “There is not a hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood.
“There [was] an increased number of people who chose not to attend meals in the two days prior to Ms Abbott’s visit but that has subsided now.”