Bedford, England – As about 300 protesters surrounded the Yarl’s Wood detention centre on Saturday to demonstrate against the treatment of immigrants held inside, Eulalee, a 60-year-old Jamaican woman said: “We are no illegal people”.
She arrived in the United Kingdom 18 years ago. Although she has the right to remain as a British Commonwealth citizen, she says she was detained for six weeks in March in the Bedfordshire centre and is yet to be granted indefinite leave to stay.
As protesters chanted “Tear down the fences, open the borders!”, Eulalee cried and told Al Jazeera: “I would never do anything to jeopardise the law in this country or anywhere.”
“The Home Office denied me of my freedom and rights by taking me for no reason and putting me in the centre.”
Yarl’s Wood, the only centre in the UK designed to hold women, is managed by private security company Serco.
It was flagged in 2015 as a “place of national concern” amid allegations of detainees suffering abuse and harassment at the hands of security guards.
Saturday’s protest, organised by campaign group Movement for Justice, saw people standing on the other side of the barbed wire fences, calling for the detention centre and others like it across the country to be shut down.
Women inside could be seen squeezing their hands through their tiny bedroom windows to wave at the protesters.
“We’re all sad and crying,” said one of them, using a speaker. “Everyone is getting mad in here.”
The woman, having lived in the UK for 16 years, said she has been in Yarl’s Wood for 11 months.
Britain is the only EU country with no limit on the amount of time an individual can spend in an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC).
The woman also claimed there was a pregnant woman in the centre, as well as cancer patients and anaemic and diabetic people.
Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify these claims.
If true, this would contravene the government’s “at risk” policy, whereby those deemed to be at risk of harm if detained should not be placed in an IRC.
“We are suffering. If we go back to our country we are going to die,” the woman said. “That’s why we came to this country.”
Eulalee, whose family is all in the UK, said her 37-year-old son was detained and deported in 2008. He was murdered five months after being sent to Jamaica, she said.
“I’ve never seen my son’s face since he’s returned.”
Hoping to hear of a positive decision from the Home Office in March next year, Eulalee said: “They make me feel like nobody, I feel so empty inside.
“I have nowhere to stay in Jamaica and here is my home now, and I should be allowed to stay here.”
‘It disproportionately affects black and brown people’
The government’s “at risk” policy also bans victims of sexual violence from being detained, but research by Women for Refugee Women in November last year found 85 percent of the detained females they spoke to had been victims of rape or other gender-related violence, including forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).
Movement for Justice representative Karen Doyle said among Yarl’s Wood detainees are women who were seized during immigration raids on brothels “after being horrendously abused, and have the least means to assert their rights”.
Doyle said Yarl’s Wood is now at half capacity, meaning around 200 people are detained.
One of the protesters, 22-year-old politics student Dylan Bradbury, branded the UK’s immigration system racist, saying: “It disproportionately affects … black and brown people and also women.
“It is part of the general hostile environment policies of the Tories (Conservatives) which is designed to divide people.”
Student Sophia Taha said she was protesting because “in the detention centre, you don’t know when you’re leaving, you have committed no crime other than existing, and we’re not okay with that”.
The Home Office released a statement saying: “Detention and removal are essential elements of an effective immigration system.“
“Those with no right to be in the UK should return to their home country. We will help those who wish to leave voluntarily but when they refuse to do so, we will take steps to enforce their removal.”