By demeaning refugees, Tories have caused the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike | Ash Sarkar | Opinion

Last week, 120 detainees at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre began an indefinite hunger strike in protest at the conditions of their detention. The following day, on the BBC’s Question Time, I challenged the Conservative party chairman and former immigration minister, Brandon Lewis, on his government’s record of detaining vulnerable people.

Lewis has taken a prominent stand on the dissemination of false information, supporting a Downing Street initiative to tackle “fake news” and announcing, with more than a little fanfare, a Tory “respect pledge” to clean up political debate. So it was alarming to hear him deny basic facts when I challenged him on his government’s record of detaining vulnerable people. He stated: “We do not have refugees in detention centres … The people in detention centres are people who are illegally in this country, and are there for a period of time until they [go] back to their home country.” When I pointed out that the Home Office does indeed detain asylum seekers while their cases are being processed – at the end of 2017, 59% of all adult immigration detainees were asylum detainees – Lewis answered: “Asylum seekers are not refugees.”

The distinction Lewis tried to impose between people detained in centres such as Yarl’s Wood and refugees is utterly misleading. Until they have their refugee status confirmed by the government, potential refugees are classed as asylum seekers while their applications are being processed. The idea that everyone who ends up detained in a centre will be sent back to their home country is patently wrong.

The government’s own data shows that the majority of people in immigration detention are not subsequently removed from the UK. When I approached the MP for Tottenham, north London, David Lammy, for comment, he excoriated Lewis for giving this impression. Lammy said: “It is wrong for the government to claim that only illegal immigrants are detained in immigration detention centres when more than half of those detained in detention centres for months or even years are released back into the community. Many of those detained have done nothing wrong, and there are individuals with leave to remain, pending cases, and even EEA nationals in detention.”

This week I spoke to a detainee on hunger strike who would prefer to remain nameless. She is from Zimbabwe, and had been living and working in the UK for over a decade before being detained at Yarl’s Wood a few weeks ago. Some of her fellow detainees had been locked up for over a year. Describing the conditions, she said: “We are proper prisoners here.” Men from the Yarl’s Wood family unit (who have also joined the hunger strike) face particularly restrictive measures; they are unable to move freely within the confines of the complex without being accompanied by two Serco workers.

Shortly before we spoke, the hunger strikers had assembled in front of the facility’s health centre to protest against inadequate care. I was told that, when treating people with physical and mental health difficulties, the G4S medical staff running the centre were “operating as an extension of the Home Office”, asking invasive questions about immigration status during medical consultations. As a result, detainees were intensely mistrustful of the quality of treatment available.

Conditions in Yarl’s Wood have been described by an independent watchdog as “difficult” and “disturbing”: a detainee from Kenya reported having lost 10kg because of untreated stomach problems. In 2015, there was an average of more than one suicide attempt every day by detainees in immigration removal centres across the UK. The latest research suggests survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are routinely being detained at Yarl’s Wood. This flies in the face of the government’s own “adults at risk” policy, which states that vulnerable people likely to be retraumatised by the experience of detention should not be locked up.

Such policy breaches are the result of the institutionalised dehumanisation of migrants in our political culture. Lewis’s insistence on using the term “illegal” rather than “undocumented” immigrants on Question Time deeply wounded the detainee I talked to. She spoke of her bewilderment at being demonised as “illegal” when she had spent years in this country paying tax and contributing to the economy, all while having no recourse to public funds. “We are not thieves,” she said. “We are not criminals. In my 16 years in this country, I have never had anything to do with the police. We are not just statistics – we are human beings.”

It is up to us to push for a transformation in political culture in which the basic human dignity of migrants is unequivocally respected. And perhaps that change is coming. Last week the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and the shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, were given rare access to Yarl’s Wood, and met detainees. Abbott said: “These women were clearly desperate. Indefinite detention, with no release date, is just wrong.” Lammy told me: “As the son of immigrants I proudly stand in solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers.” Abbott last year vowed to end indefinite immigration intention. This is a political opportunity to end the incarceration of vulnerable people, and the criminalisation of migration overall.

Lewis’s comments on Question Time were not just factually wrong: they expose the moral stain at the heart of this government’s “hostile environment” immigration strategy. We are not splitting hairs over whom we detain, or how they are processed. We are deciding who we are as a country – and judging ourselves by the measure of how we treat the most vulnerable among us.

Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media



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