I’ve spent more than half my life venting righteous anger at demos, and am well-practised at spotting the protest-stereotypes. I know the public school socialist workers who rant in faltering mockney, and the wonderful, indomitable veteran granarchists in their sensible shoes and tie-dye. Of course, they were all present at Yarl’s Wood yesterday and gloriously defiant, but this was first a protest of people who had directly experienced the pain and the injustice they were there to fight against.
Yarl’s Wood is a detention centre, where some of the world’s most vulnerable people are held in a faceless secure institution, behind two 20’ fences topped with barbed wire. They have not been convicted of committing any crime, and yet their freedom depends upon convincing a bureaucrat in Croydon that they have been raped, tortured or persecuted. Women for Refugee Women, the inspiring organisation behind the demonstration, empower women who have sought sanctuary in the UK to speak out about their own experiences.
About nine months ago I listened with horror to the news that Operation Mare Nostrum was due to be scrapped. Apparently it was costing too much to save lives. This was immediately followed by a moving tribute to Nicholas Winton, the man behind the Czech arm of the Kindertransport, the means by which so many Jewish children were rescued from Nazi Germany.
The irony of this was painfully apparent; 75 years on it seems the British Government has abandoned the notion of universal human rights in an attempt to pander to the baying tabloid press. Far from being ‘flooded,’ the UK takes in a tiny proportion of the world’s refugees, the vast majority of whom are supported by countries with far fewer resources.
It seems those who have been born outside of Europe, often in countries where European nations have had a hand in stirring conflict, do not deserve compassion. It is as if they are not fully human. Yarl’s Wood is monument to state racism and stupidity.
Being disbelieved and made to feel responsible for actions committed against you is something familiar to many women. Ultimately, I might expect this, but on fleeing from a persecutor, I would not expect to be imprisoned. I am ashamed to live in a country that routinely compounds the trauma of refugees by imprisoning and subjecting them to treatment that is otherwise reserved for convicted criminals.
As we processed to Yarls’ Wood itself, the spectacle of demonstrators in the bucolic Bedfordshire countryside was as jarring as the emotions evoked. Loitering at the edge, feeling a bit awkward and not quite clapping in time, there was a sudden cheer from the crowd. Unable to fully open the small mirrored windows, the women detained in Yarl’s Wood shouted encouragement and waved whatever they had to hand to show us they were there. At once I knew why I was there, and I felt privileged to be so. There in a field in Bedfordshire, removed from the dinner party discussions of lawyers and the paper-pushers sitting in Croydon, nothing was more important than to show these women that they hadn’t been forgotten.
I don’t want to dwell on the stories that have brought the women detained at Yarl’s Wood to the UK, they are not mine to tell. The women at Yarl’s Wood are not faceless victims, word-fodder for bleeding heart journos, they are powerful and courageous women.
Were the UK to recognise and learn from their resilience and tenacity, we would not only be a more tolerant nation, but also a stronger one.
The sting at the end of this bittersweet day was when we all began to drift home; meandering back to cars and coaches, chatting about the election and the fight for social justice. Absent-mindedly letting our hands touch, my girlfriend and I glanced back at the dwindling crowd. We tried to make sense of the guilt and gratitude we felt, because we were free to go home.