Last Wednesday, a group of women of colour and politically dissident sisters started a hunger strike inside Yarl’s Wood Detention Center. A century after some women took to the streets to claim the right to vote and were victorious, hundreds of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees – many of whom are survivors of rape and torture – are seizing their right to freedom and dignity in the UK.
The strikers denounce how they are being stripped of their humanity by being detained without a time limit. In their open letter, our sisters express their concerns and demands. They make clear how the laws that should protect them or guarantee them the minimum for survival are not working or being used appropriately. The British government and its officials who operate the Home Office have breached Article 8, and have rendered the European Convention of Human Rights inoperative for refugee and migrant women. They have promoted low-level work for £1 per hour, not respecting the self-determination of detainees, and forcing them to work. They have orchestrated deportation charter flights and kidnapped people from their beds at night and arrested them in raids, without the opportunity to say goodbye to their family and children.
“In the name of the law, the Home Office has assumed a fascist rhetoric disguised as internal security”
This institution has assumed a role of selecting which lives matter and which ones don’t. This same institution is the one that in the name of the law perpetuates social injustice, racism, colonialism, sexual violence and mental intimidation as subtle acts of torture and dehumanisation. This same institution is the one that in the name of the law, has assumed a fascist rhetoric disguised as internal security, selecting those who are deserving of citizenship or not. This same institution, through its immigration detention centres, neutralises and makes invisible the communities of immigrants of colour both inside and outside its borders.
It is painful to hear that sisters inside the Yarl’s Wood are experiencing stress and anguish due to the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will have to wait for their case to be processed, and whilst having their freedom acutely constrained. It is painful to know that before those open cries that cry out for justice; our sisters have no other choice but to go on a hunger strike.
“Two and a half years ago, I also had to go on a hunger strike outside the British Embassy in Mexico for five days”
Sisters, I know in my own flesh what it is to live in that uncertainty and pain: how it is to be dehumanised by the Home Office. Two and a half years ago, I also had to go on a hunger strike and camp outside the British Embassy in Mexico for five days to fight for my human right to family to be recognised. The Home Office twice refused me a spousal visa to enter the United Kingdom. When my applications were twice denied over the course of 14 months, twice I was left hopeless. I was also denied the right to see my small children grow up. Because I am a woman of colour, who doesn’t speak English, and because I emigrated for family reasons and I am married to a black British man, my documentation was not processed properly and the Home Office did not look me in the face. The Home Office do not look us in the face because we are the proximity of pain and death. The administrators of the law know that today, the hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood shows the world what the United Kingdom wants to hide: an immigration system based on racist policies.
“I know that those 120 hunger strikers in Yarls’ Wood are not alone; they know they are not alone”
For us, people of colour, going on hunger strike is the last resort we have when we are exhausted; when we have lost hope in institutions and we know that we deserve justice. To go on a hunger strike is to venture into the realm of doubt, because we do not know if we will win. But, the collective courage with which we take direct action to stand up against any sentence demanding our just life, is a victory. I know that those 120 hunger strikers in Yarls’ Wood are not alone; they know they are not alone. In the same spirit of the movements that fight for justice knowing that no human is illegal, the words of the African-American novelist and social critic James Baldwin addressed to Angela Davis whilst in prison are a necessary encouragement in this moment of resistance:
“Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name. If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own – which it is – and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”