On a fine winter’s day, the first fine day after weeks of storms and rain, I went for a walk in the country. I found myself in a typical English rural landscape, driving down hedge-lined lanes that grew progressively narrower. A couple of dead badgers lay whitening on the edges of the road.
At the gate of a farm the road turned abruptly into mud track. Three men were digging a ditch at the entrance to the farm. I got out and asked them if I could get up the track. They spoke no English, their accents from some new-entrant country to the EU I couldn’t identify. I gestured up the track and one of them said, “No,” and shook his head. There was no way through. I decided to start my walk, not knowing if it was a public footpath and whether someone might come running out the farm to stop me. But the hired workers at least didn’t seem to care what I did, so I strode up the dirt track, a hedgerow along one side, a field of brassicas on the other.
Another hedgerow led off the track in the direction of a patch of woodland and I followed it, tramping through a semi-flooded field then jumping a ditch into a woodland. The ditch all around it suggested the wood could be an old one. Later I saw a map from 1886 where the wood had exactly the same boundaries as today.
I walk deeper in and see it is a typical oak-ash English woodland. It’s an okay place to walk. Ditches running with water cut through the wood. Jackdaws circle overhead. The farmer has thrown away some rubbish because the public never comes here – I’m trespassing. But it’s still a nice wood – mossy logs and crackling leaf litter and everything.
But there’s something else in this wood. I turn around. What the hell is that? It looks like a concentration camp. Oh yes, this is Yarl’s Wood.
Yarl’s Wood is not a typical English wood. Next to it is Yarl’s Wood detention centre, a prison where people can be kept for years without trial. We’re meant to call it an immigration removal centre, but many of the people here are failed asylum seekers. Many came to this country fleeing persecution or war, in fear of their lives, and this is what they got from us.
How can I feel so certain a lot of them shouldn’t be in Yarl’s Wood? Partly because I don’t agree with this imprisonment of desperate people at all. Partly because a few years back the UK government put de facto caps on the number of refugees they would take so as to score points with the Daily Mail and other right wing papers. This political attempt to drive down numbers of refugees means that asylum cases in the UK can’t genuinely be considered on merit. We want to turn them away. We’ve got persecuted lesbians who can’t prove they’re lesbians – what proof is there? Are they meant to lunge at their gaolers? Torture victims who can’t prove they didn’t stumble and fall in a forge one day and melt holes in their arms that way. Political refugees who can’t explain their fear because the Home Office doesn’t want to know what’s really going on in their home country.
A few years ago under a different management company after a riot sparked by someone being physically restrained by staff, someone, maybe an inmate, burned down part of Yarl’s Wood. Well you would wouldn’t you? It’s run by Serco now, for profit. The inmates aren’t citizens so they don’t really have rights, like the right to a trial before imprisonment. Sexual abuse allegations here won’t go away, maybe because they insist on putting male staff in charge of vulnerable women who’ve already been abused. Here we have women who have been raped with no access to trauma counselling because admitting they were raped in wartime or as punishment for being lesbian might mean we’d have to keep them. And we don’t want to do that. Or the Home Office and the Daily Express don’t want to.
In one study over 90% of women asylum seekers imprisoned under this system said they felt depression. What a surprise. One in five have tried to kill themselves. Up to a third are placed on suicide watch. In 2010 some women here went on hunger strike in protest at their treatment. Children are imprisoned here too even though the High Court has said it’s unlawful. They are transported here in caged prison vans. A 2009 report said that “In a large majority of cases, children reported that officers’ behaviour had been aggressive, rude and, on a few occasions, violent.”
This is too depressing. This isn’t what I want to find in an English wood. I go back to my walk. This is Yarl’s Wood, but the water still flows down the ditches, the jackdaws still circle overhead. And look, there’s a pheasant pen, the type of fence you expect to find in an English wood.
I wish it were just a wood and not a prison for abused foreigners we don’t care about.
As I walked away from Yarl’s Wood a slightly odd thing happened. A military helicopter flew low overhead and headed away from me down the boundary between the wood and the detention centre. A cloud of jackdaws rose up from the wood again as the terrifying noise struck. The chopper ignited a certain amount of paranoia in me: were they looking for me? Had they spotted me in the woods and called in air support? That was crazy talk, but this is a crazy place: a hidden hell in an English wood.
If our citizens, traumatised by war or persecution found themselves in a land far away, and we heard they were locked up in a detention centre, would we say nothing? Would we shrug and wave it away? Would we say that they should never have run from their torturers? That they should have stayed and suffered? And if the majority of the people in there had white skin instead of black, would it bother us more to see them behind the barbed wire?
The clouds were tinged pink over the detention centre as I walked away. It was a beautiful day to be walking in the country.
Back at the car the men were still digging their ditch. Again I was half expecting someone to run out of the farm and demand to know what I had been doing. But no-one did, and the ditch-diggers ignored me.
As I drove away down the narrow lanes, a kestrel swooped low across the road.
First published on Ceasefire, reproduced with kind permission of the author.