Migrants' Rights Network

Resisting the ‘hostile environment’: State violence and the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike

by FIDELIS CHEBE (CEO, Migrant Action)

In February, 120 people – mainly women – detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire embarked on a 3-day hunger strike that ended up lasting over a month. There was a staggering lack of interest by the mainstream media to cover the strike and expose the inhumane treatment of detainees at Yarl’s Wood. One detainee puts it rather poignantly:

My life is just in limbo, it’s the uncertainty as well. You don’t how long you’ll be locked up, you don’t when you’re getting out, you don’t know where you’re going, I can’t describe that feeling. “I feel like I have been kidnapped basically, I don’t know where I am going, I don’t know what’s going on.”  

Detention: an instrument of state and corporate violence 

The Yarl’s Wood hunger strike is a desperate cry for help within a detention estate that treats detainees not as humans but as ‘merchandise’ to be handled by private security outfits (Yarl’s Wood is run by security and logistics company Serco). Human and civil rights hardly find accommodation within the detention estate underpinned by profit-driven corporate governance. Such provision embeds structural violence and dehumanisation – to which detainee strikes and other forms of resistance are logical responses. In the words of a former Morton Hall detainee, “detention is very good business, these guys [private security companies] don’t care about human lives.” 

However privatised, however, immigration detention centres are state institutions. Detention should also be seen as a technology for state policing and management of migration. The growing weaponisation of detention is integral to the government’s policies designed to create a “hostile environment,” mainly but not exclusively for “irregular” migrants. These policy instruments are designed to act as a deterrents to any additional migration into the UK. In 2014, former immigration minister James Brokenshire summed up the rationale of the policy saying: “I want to send out a very clear message today to people on both sides of the Channel – Britain is no soft touch when it comes to illegal immigration.”

Detention enacts the government’s mind-set and policy with regard to migration and its determination to communicate its key message to current and prospective migrants. The collusion between state and corporate hostility creates an environment in which rights, dignity, justice are undermined and the voices of detainees are silenced, whilst routine abuses embed structural violence. Viewed in this context, the Yarl’s Wood hunger strike captures a deep yearning for a culture-change across the detention estate that recognises and prioritises the dignity, rights, humanity, equality and justice for detainees. The strike is a desperate appeal for a more human rights-led migration policy.

Social action and system change 

The strike manifests the detainees’ voice and should serve as a basis to advocate for system change. Although locked up in detention centres, detainees have clearly not lost their agency to challenge injustice and bring about transformation. However, the sustainability of detainee voices is inextricably linked to the mobilisation of public conscience and collective consciousness towards building a movement against the government’s “hostile environment” policies.

The urgency and relevance of social action and movement-building is highlighted today by the scandal of detention and deportation for children of the Windrush generation (we need only remember that Paulette Wilson, whose story kicked off the current wave of concern, was suddenly sent to Yarl’s Wood when her status was questioned by the Home Office). We must come together to protect rights, justice and dignity for all migrants, from the most vulnerable to the most apparently secure. In this context, more collaboration and coordination across human and civil rights, social justice, advocacy and grassroots-based organisations is vital if we are to stem the tide of state hostility whilst nurturing solidarity and increasing integration. 

Migrant Action’s work and vision is rooted in social justice, advocacy, migrant rights, solidarity, integration and system change. As such we will continue to advocate for a welcoming environment in which migrant rights and dignity are safeguarded and in which solidarity and shared humanity constitute core values of social policy and public discourse. 

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