Why women in Yarl's Wood went on hunger strike (transcript)


M: Some of the hunger strikers said there were meetings of about 20 women who discussed organising it and that they organised across the wings because Avocet started, and women from Bunting and Dove who were working for SERCO selling food noticed no one was eating.  So they joined in. Were you involved in this process and if so how?

S: Yes, like I say when I got to SERCO I was confused, obviously you gonna be confused in that situation so I was trying to gather information of how to get bail, so when somebody told me then they were going to work in SERCO so I asked the officers that I would like to work because it's proper depressing just sitting down on your bed doing nothing because that's the only thing you really get to do - you just sit down with...Anyway to keep a long story short I got a job serving in Avocet, that's how I get to know all the women in Avocet. So one of my friends there told me Sunday before the Monday [8 February 2010] of the protest that there will be a hunger strike for a few days and would I like to join in the protest because I heard about the hunger strike but I didn't know why they are doing hunger strike because I was part of the servers. I was serving food and sometimes people refused to eat and I always asked them 'why' but they don't say. So I really did not know from the beginning why there was hunger strike until I went to the planning and protest. That's how I know everything it's to do with the way we are been treated by at SERCO.

M: How did you overcome the language barrier?

S: Me I can communicate in English but there were loads of women there that are not communicating in English. They have problem speaking English. They can't speak English properly so what happens is we have to, we are acting like interpreter for each one of us. If I know somebody that speaks good English and they are Chinese. I know this person have problem communicating in English and Chinese. They now connect them or if somebody asks me then I tell them 'oh I know somebody who is Chinese', or this and you pass the information over. That's like we were the interpreter sometimes we advise them legal issue, like you can get this or you can do this, you can do that. That's why when I go to work there you got you go to for me to known what I have to do to get released. Because the information sometimes is there but you have to, even if you ask the officers they not gonna give you the information so sometimes you have to ask 'why that woman in detention' because she’s been there for a while so they know how the system works and they give you the information.

M: How many took part in the hunger strike?

S I think originally it's about 20 in Avocet but as it goes on they were turning to protest, I think it's about 70 something I'm not sure the exact but about 70.

M: What were your demands?

S: Our demands obviously to be released - that's our main problem there. That we should not be locked up because we are not criminals, we are not in here because of any offence or whatever. We are just being held because immigration just wishes to hold us - like me I'm being here because they are considering to deport me. They haven't even made the decision and they are holding me. So that's the first thing, and the second thing is we mention to the secretary that children, if the immigration I know, I  know the laws of this country, it operate that,  if it's a law they have to implement it, somebody have to act on the law – yeah.  Then you have to consider if you have children - they have to take the children into care and it's unfair on the child because the child didn't ask to be born to an immigrant mother. And most of these children they are British so that's the second one... The third one is:  A lot of people have families in this country, they have mums, aunts, sisters, brothers and their whole family is just to say they don't have a connection in the UK, and they are going to abscond - they are not going to know where they are, but they know they have family based in this country its a pretty different family, It's unfair and it's not right. The immigration will get your application and they just sit on it forever. It suits them but it’s us that suffer at the end of the day.

M: How did you all agree on the same demands?

S: Yeah what happen is, we have a meeting – and then we discuss about the problem. So if you have something extra to add, because we let everybody have a go - if I think I will just air my own issue and the people agree, it’s a valid issue yeah it's a problem in Yarl’s Wood then they will write it down.  Somebody else will come up with something that is bothering them or – how they are being mistreated, and so on, that's how, we make a list of all the problems of what we were going through in there and then we made a list they will go on the computer and type it up.

M: So you typed it up and then came out with the demands.

S: yes

M: According to the problems.

S: yeah

M: When you look at what was happening in Yarl's Wood can you say that most women faced the same problems?

S: Yeah we faced exactly the same problems the only difference is obviously people who doesn't have family here because some people they have just been here for like few years or some people they just arrived because sometimes they bring them from the airports and a lot of people they don't have children in this country even though they may have been here a long time they don't have children or family I know some of my friends they have been here 10 years but all of their family they are back home and immigration will use that against them that oh you don't have no children or you don't have no family so there’s no really family tie in this country for you to stay.

M: Were there difficulties agreeing on the demands?

S: No, it was really that easy because we were all, it’s like we got a feeling inside somebody just reached and they just oh yeah, yeah - it’s true it’s true, for example one of the problem it was me who raised this issue that why is that in Yarls Woods why is it called women’s detention centre and it’s all women but they have more men officer and they have to come to our room  and search our belongings and they touch our laundry and open the door to count us and we are women so why don't they employ more female officers and I mean we don't want to be locked in anyway but if we going to be locked in and we going to spend, some people spend a year or two there, why do they have to humiliate us and then let a man come in to our room, search us, open the door any how whatever but if it is a woman yeah it would be a bit bearable even though you don't like to be locked up but at least it’s a woman that is coming in to your room.

M: Yeah but when it comes to the issue you were addressing the issue of privacy?

S: Yeah that’s one of the things that I thought and everybody just say that yeah you are right yeah they just barge in and they say man sometimes I'm not dressed whatever so that’s why it was good we had the meeting because things just pop out and then people agree that’s how we agreed there’s somebody writing in the meeting writing all the issues all the all the problems that we said we have with Yarls Wood.

M: Did you feel these demands will get answered or get addressed?

S: Yeah we think that they might not be answered but at least they will take note. They know now that okay we have a problem because what we think is if we make a complaint then they will say wait a minute…, in Yarl’s Wood the way to complain is they'll say oh write a complaint and put it in the complaints box and since then you will be contacted within 48 hours but people are there they make complaints 6 weeks they just throw it in the bin that’s why we are frustrated that we need to do something to make sure that whatever we going to say we know for sure that they gonna hear us and there’s no way they going to pretend we don't know what your talking about we never read it or whatever.

M: How many days did you go without food or water?

S: For me I started February 8th I think some people started like February 3rd but I started February 8th we finished March 19th so it lasted about 6 weeks or something.

M: What did you do to help yourself and other women be motivated?

S: What we do is we meet up regularly and then we have one these support groups outside like Crossroad Women and NCDC John O ... they contact us regularly they send us information through the email and they will pass it round sometimes not all of the women can come because we have different weeks and the only way we can all gather and see each other is if we actually get out of your wing and then meet at like the computer room or art and craft room but not everybody comes there because the room is like 12 by 12 it can only accommodate 10-12 people at a time so not everybody can be there at one time so sometimes we haven't seen people for 2-3 days but the information that we get from Crossroads Women and John O we print it out and pass it round to somebody to give it to them whenever they see them.

M: Can I ask if anybody tried to stop any of the information that we sent in?

S: Yes, after the protest, the protest that we did after February 8th after the protest they changed their rules whereby if you want to print on the computer they have to actually read it and I mean they will read it right to your face and the officer will tell you have to read everything completely they will read it and then decide it will be up to the officer to decide whether it’s gonna be printed or not, and then they go on our computer to delete  everything that has been saved there because they realise after the protest that we had outside help; we were getting permission from outside because outside people somehow they knew about the protests that’s how they found out that something has been going on from us to outside.

M: So they would destroy the information that was written?

S: Yeah yeah they would delete it yeah

M: How did they get into your accounts though isn’t it password protected?

S: Its easy if you go to Tottenham Court road you can get, its called keystroke software you can get software whereby if the software is installed anything you press is saving it so they will just tell you to upload it and then it will just fill in the password, I actually didn’t get it but  because three people complained to me because I mean that’s my job that’s what I do I am a software engineer they were complaining to me that how come, then I told them that its called keystroke software. Because, what happened is they will go their inbox and they will open some mail that they don’t even know its there, the mails that’s suppose to be new mail but has been opened already, it happened several times after the protest.

M: So they bust in to everybody's email inboxes.

S: yeah

M: And you were saying that you thought they knew something about how you were organizing, how do you think they knew?

S: I think we have some snitch in there

M: Some snitch?

S: yeah people in there women like us in there, detainees, they been coming round for the meeting, like me, yeah my personal experience was that I was really disappointed my own wing you have about 200 hundred people there, they all sat and discuss everything there, and then they went to tell the officers  that I am the ring leader the one telling people to come and do the strike because they were thinking that it was going to fire on me because they didn’t know the type of person that I am, I want to be known anyway but they went to shop me to the officers. Even though they were saying yeah do it yeah yeah I’m going to come, and in the morning go round call everybody, and this person she was just egging me on and then gathering more information and then she go and tell the officers about me, and in the end it was only then in my wing that came with me nobody else with me

M: this person is she...

S: yeah she is still in there

M: Still inside?

S: Yeah she is still in there

M: Were there any women, you think might have been released because they collaborated with the authorities?

S: Yeah there was this Zimbabwean girl, she was Avocet and then she got found out because her room mate alerted us, stop what you are doing don’t discuss in front of her because she is telling the officers and they are knowing in advance all we are plan, what we are going to do. For example we were talking to women at Crossroads just sent us an email so they are knowing and we know that it may effect the people supporting us from outside because they are now knowing who we are contacting.  So this lady told us don’t discuss anything in front of her she is a snitch.  And then somebody I went there, but I was told that somebody went to confront her and then the SERCO found out this and move her to Bunting and after like few weeks she was released, and even she said on the BBC she was released because she helped SERCO out during the protest.

M: She was the one that was filmed on BBC news?

S: yeah yeah

M: And is she the one that then said that the guards are not racist, and everything is fine inside Yarls Woods etc? Is that right?

S: you know what, I mean it is, it is human behaviour, if you think that somebody might help you, then you try and be nice to them and you try and be their friend. You know  most women in Yarl’s Wood they are vulnerable people, they are also weak and to be in a position where you are locked up and you don’t know when you going to be out, it is proper depressing,  and affect your mind, so what they think is if I am nice to the officer, and some of them they don’t mind the officer is rude to them, or I like you sometime they don’t even mind even though they tell me I don’t like the officer but if they like me and if I sleep with them or something then they will help me, but I say no, the officers are SERCO they are not immigration they don’t have any influence, they are lying to you, but they don’t believe me because obviously I am one of them but I am just telling them that's how  the law goes,  they are just a staff of SERCO even SERCO manager unless immigration manager, they cannot just call your case or say oh ok this person she is my girlfriend deal with her, it doesn't work that way but a lot of the women  the officer make a pass at them and they just let them do what ever, because they think oh their case is with them.

M: When the strike began, how did the staff react? the SECO staff?

S:  Initially when the strike started, at 8.30pm they were denying it, like I said I was walking around at 8.30pm I was confused and I didn’t know what was going on because I never had the meeting with them the first meeting with them, and the officers they were telling me that. Oh they were complaining they say they wanted Nigerian, Ghanaian food, their country food, we cannot have everybody’s country’s food in here. I said yeah that is reasonable, but I don’t think they would stop eating just for that, they said trust me that is it.  But when I started to talk to the lady they said it was more than that and I had to come to the meeting, it was Sunday, and that is when I came and they said they are planning a protest so I said I need to come and that is when I knew what was really going on and what the detainees said about the protest because I wanted to be involved, Plus I wasn’t in the Avocet .I’m in Dove that is why I wasn't involved originally but I had to go to the meeting to find out really what the protest are what are they really doing,

When I went to the meeting and I realised, no, its not because of the food they are just trying to twist people minds, to change rally why people were on hunger strike, and to confuse and mislead people.

M: Were you subjected to any mistreatment from staff?

S: you mean physical?

M: yeah physical

S: me personally no…

M: What about other women? Did you know of anything that happened?

S: yeah

M: can you say what had happened to them?

S: yeah I know this lady, in Dove, and there was this other officer, proper intimidating like in your face, to one of the detainees, but she had to scream and they had to go and get the manager, she was that scared. There was another one who was new but what they said she was actually attacking the officers, that is what I hate, but I wasn't there, I'm sure it was a defence to it. Those are the ones that I heard about, but me personally I never experienced it.

M: On the 8th February, when women were all held in a kettle in that area, locked down, do you know what happened, were you in that..?

S: yeah

M: Can you say a little bit about what happened then?

S:  Yeah what happened was that if you make a complaint they never reply to you they don’t even get in touch with you to acknowledge you, they suppose to send you an acknowledgement letter within 48 hours, to say they received your complaint letter but nothing get done so you don’t know whether they received your complaint letter, that is why we said no, we are not going to write them anything because they would just  bin it,  so what we do is make a protest, so whatever we got to say we going to say it to their face, so they cannot deny they never heard us.  Then, the Avocet people they’ve already been talking to the officer we need to see in the immigration so on that day 8th of  February, we came out so we decided that we all going to speak with one voice and  that we all going to gather in group and talk to immigration at one time,  so we decided that to come down because we are free to come out and talk to the general hall, so we went to the general hall, then this officer just came, yeah you wanted to see the immigration isn't it?

We said yeah because we know, obviously the main issue is with immigration the immigration employs SERCO,  so if the Immigration don’t put us there we don’t have problem with SERCO so that’s why we’ve been telling in Avocet that we need to speak to Immigration face to face, so I think that’s why the officers told us that immigration wants to see you, because they said you should all come down so all of us we were just marching down following the officer, he said follow me and we followed him and then when we get to the end of the corridor he said – only 4 people are allowed in because office obviously, immigration work in office so he said  you will all have to wait your turn – after they finished then another 4 will go in, so then we stayed. And this lady manager she came in she just said ‘oh, are you gonna go back to your wings?’ and we said ‘no we are waiting for immigration’. That’s why we came down the hall and the officer said immigration wants to see you, – he said ‘yeah but it’s time for room check it’s gonna be room check. Because he said well we need to see Immigration and when we finish with immigration then we’ll go back to our own…then she said OK then. And she asked the officers to come they did just went down the hall and they just locked the doors in the middle of the hall, closed the door that was it, that’s how we got locked in.

And then we say, ‘what are you doing? What you doing?’ and they just walked away

M: A number of women got quite ill didn’t they?

S: Yeah there’s one woman she’s an asthmatic, because what we were thinking we are just going to see Immigration, nobody said we were going to be locked in or it’s going to take forever. So she wasn’t carrying her asthma pump with her, but then she started having an attack, because she was having panic attacks and there was no ventilation, no window, no air, nothing and the only door there they locked us in. So we needed air obviously, it’s like the length of this room [approx 30’]

M: The size of this room is where you were locked?

S: yes, yes

M: How many were you?

S: Yes, seventy people.  There was no air, no ventilation, nothing – she was hyper-ventilating because asthmatic is a breathing problem. Yeah she needed air, we are telling them that she needed air, open the window – they said no ….. She was having asthma attack and we called them – she collapsed and later after about 15 minutes after a lot of officer they came through the windows and they were watching - and we are banging on the door – saying let us out – open the window – no, kindly let us out – no. They were just shaking their head, ‘no’ and then when she passed out we said ‘can you let her out’ – they said ‘no’. And later when she was having some sort of fit we said she need a pump. They said ‘no’ and somebody pick up her phone they called her family and in case something happen to her we called the office and told them to let her out and we told them to get a pump. They said ‘no’ that just in case we just know that we tried everything but nothing get done , and there’s this lady too, she’s in the Sickle cell she also call out and this lady Nadia she fainted and that Chinese lady she fainted – it was so terrible and we were there from like12.15pm till 7pm – I left there about half past seven.

C: Seven in the night!?

S: Yeah– they didn’t offer us no food, no drink they didn’t open the door. We wanted to go to the toilet and we couldn’t – we had to wee right there - and people on their period. They had to change their sanitary napkin, and they had to use tissue, and people had to pass it around to make a fresh sanitary.  It was so disgusting and in the end and we cannot stand obviously for over 8 hours, we had to sit there where people were weeing…Yes, you had to see them, because in the end our legs got swollen because we were standing – it was just empty bare hall, nothing, so in the end we have to sit and when we got to our room, the first thing we all said ‘no we just have to wash and wash the clothes because they are all soiled and we had blood and this lady her fingers got broken and there was blood everywhere. It was so disgusting, it was so demoralising.

M:  All the time the guards were watching this?

S:  Yes, we were watching them and …

M:  Were there any other people present who were not guards.

S:   Yes, there was this – I saw this person, because I really don’t know a lot about Yarl’s Wood then – but later on I was told by the lady said he’s from IMB.

M:  Which is….?

S:  IMB Independent Monitoring Board and then later on when they came to me when we were on strike and they came to discuss with me about the strike and I told them ‘I’m on strike because of the way they treated us because I was so mad. I was so livid because of what they did to me. Like I said I’ve been in this country for over 22 years.  I can never believe it - This is what I expect from my own country Nigeria, even then I would still be shocked if I was treated that way but to be treated that way in this “civilised” country – country, that’s what I told Immigration Manager, a country that always go on TV and complaining about Iran, Iraq violating human rights and they are doing that in your own country in your face to us. I was so mad that …it’s unbelievable.

M: So this person from the Independent Monitoring Board was also watching what was happening?

S: Yeah I told you actually ….I said somebody told me that IMB were there and I cannot understand how IMB can be there and the immigration was saying on TV that nothing happened, there nobody was locked in – they are free to go into their room whenever they like.  They just said they refused to move. I said if IMB were there why he not say to the minister, no sorry they were locked in, ‘he say don’t worry we were there’ so I said you were there you saw. They say yeah, yeah so he admitted to me – but I mean I don’t know what the official line is going to become. IMB has admitted to my face but yeah they said there were four of them but I only saw one.

M: So that – you were saying that’s what spurred you on to carry on the hunger strike.

S:  Yeah because I went to Sunday for the meeting and they said there’s gonna be a protest Monday which is 8th and then the strike will continue if Immigration is not gonna do anything because we actually believe we were going to see Immigration and then I say OK and I’m certain the, broadcast was Sunday, then I said the Monday I’m gonna go, and then after I’m gonna go to work. So I was not planning nothing at all.

M: And how many other women were in that situation?

S: About (50)

M: Um but the 50 didn’t continue all…

S:  No they continue in the it’s just that they couldn’t, they couldn’t carry it on for so long. So they kept on breaking at different, different interval - that’s why in the end I decided that it was better to keep faith because otherwise they would just look at us they would look at all this stupid silly bunch of women, just deciding not to eat and then going back to eat because I mean our body needing food so the people going in and out, in and out, people were just deciding not to strike any more without ….any meeting so what I said is I know the best thing to do is to we’re all grown up, we are all adults, we should all plan it so that we don’t look stupid – we look like - Something that we planned – then we just planned to stop there because we are proper needing food and not planning to hurt ourselves or kill ourselves. Let’s stop it and give them an ultimatum – OK if you don’t come to talks about our demands that’s then we will continue then that is when we stopped.

M:  Did you make an official complaint during that period.

S:  Yeah I made a complaint to SERCO.  I made a complaint to my wing manager. I made a complaint to Immigration.

M:  Did the health staff intervene, or help in any way?

S:  No, I mean when they opened the door for us on the on the day of the protest, they were there they offer ourselves our food after 8 hours of not eating. That was it.  Those … they never intervened – but then when they realised that the hunger strike continue they sent us an appointment to come and see them.  But when you go – what they do is ‘are you alright why you are not eating?’  But a lot of women do not want to admit they on hunger strike because of the implication, because you don’t want recrimination from Immigration. So they are like pretending they are not on hunger strike and so actually not eating but when they ask them they cannot admit to them because they put it down their file, they are part of the hunger strike.

M:  So the health staff were using that opportunity to put down the name of the people who were on hunger strike?

S: yeah, because they know the women are worried obviously that the immigration case so they don’t want to jeopardise it by, because they label us,  like me they label me,. Like oh I am black – one of the number one trouble maker.  Because I proper prove to fight to death. So most of the women they were saying ‘oh no, oh no leave it’ but I said ‘no, no, no, I can fight for my rights until the death’. Even though when they weigh them, they can see the weights going down and they don’t go to eat – so they put that together, that mean they are on strike.

M: Were there any reprisals? You were saying that women feared that there would be. Were there any that you knew – did any women report ‘oh this has happened to me because I was on the hunger strike’?

S: What I know is, because most of the women like I said only two people in Dove and some on their own Bunting.  And a lot of them give them another removal directions.

M:  Do you know how many women were removed as a result? Do you think they were removed because they were on hunger strike?

S:  I think about 6. Some of them the application that they apply for their children outside – were turned down and it was just after the strike.

M: That’s terrible. Were you able to get support from other people outside Yarl’s Wood.

S:  Yes, we got support from the pressure group that support from outside like the NCADC and this centre; Crossroads Women. And some, like, women’s rights group. I mean for me personally lots of them, lots of them contact me.

M: Are there some groups that did not support you whom you expect them to support you?

S:  I mean I’m talking about the experience I have some information that I gather from women, and this support group, they are supposed to, - they are set up supposedly to help us and it’s called ‘Befriender’ but I never trust it from Day one, from the beginning.

M:  Why was that?

S:   I’m a bit wary of whatever SERCO is going to offer me because you get to contact it through SERCO. It’s not like you we contact you direct, but them you have to contact them through SERCO. You have to give SERCO your mobile number and your name and then SERCO will pass your information to them it, -and then they will contact you.

M:  So that’s the only way you can get a Befriender? …..Is to go through SERCO?

S: Yes, you have to go through SERCO, So that’s why I just find it though SERCO is the link I don’t trust it from Day One .  A lot of people did ….. pour their heart They will tell them things they will never tell Immigration and then they say the next time they, next time you have the meeting with Immigration, Immigration will bring up, something you told Befriender.

M: Something you told them in confidence?

S: Yeah something you told the Befriender. And anyway in the end after the protest, there’s this thing going around that Befriender is like Immigration Investigation with the women asking us individually what really happened.  Are you sure, is this the truth, are you lying or exaggerating. That’s how they’ve been going around.

M: Were the Befrienders coming to women and saying ‘are they on really on hunger strike’?

S:  Yes like this person told us this and this, like last week “are you sure she is not exaggerating was she really there? Is that really what happen?  Yes they were like doing an investigation, I mean that is what I am assuming  it has to be for immigration because they were asking us things that we already told you before why are you asking us again?”