Yesterday as mentioned in my blog post – and in response to the question I had forwarded to David Hanson yesterday – the Home Office Press Office continued to be attentive – although not at all friendly. They phoned me three times in all – asking aggressively ‘where I had got my information from’ (the hunger strikers, I said – interview published in “The Friend” online, I said, would they like me to send them a link…?) in the last call at ten o’clock at night they finally answered my query with a feeble “we don’t comment on individual cases”.

Of course this is not simply about an individual case.  I’m due to write a comment piece for the print version of “The Friend” the international Quaker weekly journal for Monday and so I’ll come back to this point.

This morning The Guardian headline reads: Immigration bosses to be quizzed after asylum seekers were ‘beaten’ by guards – “Senior Home Office officials will be questioned this week over allegations that women inside Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre were assaulted by staff using riot shields”. 

So there was the EDM and now the incidents in question are firmly on the parliamentary agenda. The article even mentions the possibility of a police investigation.

See The Friend” articles to date “Voices of the Hunger Strikers” and “A matter of conscience – Yarl’s Wood”.

Read the Guardian article at this link: Immigration bosses to be quizzed after asylum seekers were ‘beaten’ by guards.

The events of the past three weeks prompted me to pick up my copy of Tony Harcup’s “Ethical Journalism” today. I was reminded of his advice that journalists should also be reflective practitioners. This appeals to me as I’m also a trained teacher and much of our training used this useful tool. Although as we know things move fast when you’re writing news and it’s hard to be reflective under those circumstances. I was struck by this Andrew Gilligan quote in the book:

“Journalists…are trying to open a cupboard and shine a torch around – a feeble torch in a very large cupboard – and we don’t know what’s in the bits of the cupboard we can’t see and some of those bits are deliberately not shown to us”.

Trying to write something on Yarl’s Wood feels like this. I entered that very large cupboard again today by formulating a question which I intended to deliver by hand to the Minister for Justice, David Hanson as he appeared with Frank Field in a public political debate in Mold, Flintshire, North Wales today. Unfortunately there were travel delays, I had missed David (who knows of me personally as I grew up in his constituency – indeed although I’m no longer a member I have memories of canvassing for Labour when I was just twelve years old – that’s a long time ago).

David Hanson had left to catch a train already, but I gave a paper copy of the following question to a representative. When I returned home I found the Home Office Press Office had been attentive. There was a message on my phone and another phone call at around 8.p.m. with questions. They wanted to know where I had got my information from. I referred to the interviews I conducted last weekend. As agreed with the Home Office I have now forwarded my question to them (although I’m not sure why they phoned as my original query was for David at the Ministry of Justice – I have my thoughts on this, though). Anyway, here is the original,  clumsy but important query, which asks about Verna Joseph. Another attempt to shine the torch in a very dark cupboard.

Dear David (Hanson) at the Ministry of Justice.

 I spoke to Verna Joseph last weekend during the course of an interview published by the international Quaker Journal “The Friend” online, and also now published by the international Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network website. (“The Friend” is the longest running weekly journal in Britain and has been published continuously since the 1800s and throughout the First and Second World Wars). As you will know, many churches have joined together to support mothers and children at Yarl’s Wood. For links to the pieces and references to the material mentioned below, please check my news blog www.franceslaing.co.uk

 Verna is a detainee at Yarlswood immigration detention centre. Verna told me last weekend that she ‘won her case’ under Article 3. Whilst being no expert at immigration and criminal law, my job as a journalist is to ask the very simple questions which make the situation transparent for the general public.

 Whilst I am  aware that the Home Office is ultimately responsible for Yarl’s Wood – Verna’s situation appears to fall within your remit David. Namely – she maintains that because she won her case, she is currently being illegally detained. This assertion appears to contradict recent statements made by Meg Hillier in a letter to all M.P’s and published on the UKBA website – namely that:

 “ detention is only used when people have refused to leave the country voluntarily, despite support being offered for them to do so, and we have to enforce that removal. Detention is a vital tool in the removal of failed asylum seekers, ex-foreign national prisoners and others whose application to stay have been fully considered by the UK Borders Agency and the independent Courts but have failed”.

 My understanding is that Verna’s case (and that of other women at Yarl’s Wood?) may currently be going to appeal. But that surely does not explain why the decision of the courts i.e. that Verna has won her case –  is apparently not being enforced. So that’s why my press question goes to you, David and not to the Home Office. Can you explain this situation in a way that is transparent for the general public?

 Many thanks

Frances (Laing)

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Post update: Of course, David Hanson is no longer at the Ministry of Justice, but is now at the Home Office I learned today…since 2009 Policing and Security Minister at the Home Office

I have just received the following statement from the Black Women’s Rape Action Project. Copy follows:

Parliamentary Early Day Motion 919 lodged on 23 February by John McDonnell MP and endorsed by Jeremy Corbyn and 15 other MPs has led to a government attempt to smear the hunger strikers and their supporters.

The EDM requests that:
“HM Inspector of Prisons urgently carries out an independent investigation into reports of violence, mistreatment and racist abuse from guards, being kettled for over five hours in a hallway, denied access to toilets and water and locked out in the freezing cold, which women have made, and a moratorium on all removals and deportations of the women who took part in the hunger strike pending the results of that investigation”.

Meg Hillier, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, has written to every MP denying that women are still on hunger strike: “Whilst there are a small number of detainees refusing formal meals from the canteen, they are buying food from the centre’s shop and vending machines and having food delivered by visitors.”

34 women wrote denying these lies and pointing out that visitors are banned from bringing in food.

Other false claims in the government letter include:

1. “Women are only removed after their cases have been ‘fully considered.” Rape survivors and victims of other torture are still routinely assessed under the fast-track, where a case is settled in 10 days leaving no time to gather expert reports crucial to corroborating a claim of persecution. 99% of cases are refused. Listen to this week’s Woman’s Hour interview with Isata Denton Ceesay of All African Women’s Group, whose case was fast tracked, and Gauri van Gulik, Human Rights Watch on their report “Fast-Tracked Unfairness.”

Reliable legal representation is almost impossible to find. Appointments with lawyers at the Legal Services Commission clinic in Yarl’s Wood are at max 35 minutes long and often less. Many women come to AAWG & BWRAP with claims which have been refused without the evidence of rape, torture and persecution being considered. How much more is spent by the Home Office opposing asylum claims than is spent on legal aid by people trying to make a claim? Evidence of blatant hostility, racism and other discrimination by Home Office case workers is well documented.

2. “Detainees prolong their detention by appealing.” Women are increasingly denied the right to appeal in the UK or end up representing themselves leading to great injustice. Research has exposed Immigration Judges systematic hostility and discrimination (Misjudging Rape: Breaching Gender Guidelines & International Law in Asylum Appeals). In addition, when women win their claim, sometimes after years, the HOME OFFICE APPEALS! We are in touch with three women in Yarl’s Wood in this situation – one who has been in since June 2009 and won her case in October. She is in detention waiting for a hearing which is not till the end of March.

3. “Yarl’s Wood has free on-site primary healthcare provision and this reflects the level of care provided by NHS general practices.” Similar claims were made a few years back but a HM Inspector of Prisons report found: “weak clinical governance systems, inadequate staff training, insufficient mental health care . . . unresponsiveness of the IND to clinical concerns about an alleged history of torture or adverse medical consequences of continued detention.” 1

Complaints of brutal, unresponsive health care continue to flood in including women recently released from detention who spoke in the House of Commons

4. “Any claims that one detainee is on the verge of renal failure, or that others are suffering ill health as a result are false.” Please contact Dr Frank Arnold of Medical Justice for his statement confirming his examination of this woman and his findings.

5. “. . . a detainee claims she should have her case looked at because she is not a criminal and has a little girl. In fact she was previously convicted of a serious criminal offence and is subject to legal restrictions by the courts for access to one of her children.” Singling out one mother to discredit the hunger strikers shows the level of desperation at the Home Office. Ms A, who this refers to, had only been in the UK for seven weeks and was destitute when she was convicted of child neglect after her son was injured by one of the people she was dependent on for housing. She was severely depressed at the time but unable to get her medication – all of which the judge took into account when sentencing her. She served her sentence and is therefore entitled to say. She is not a criminal, she’s a distraught mother, traumatised by knowing how her children are suffering without her. She is now in danger of being deported and permanently separated from her children.

Government and media hype about “dangerous foreign criminals” living in Britain has led to thousands of immigrant people, many of whom are convicted of minor offences of survival and poverty, being swept up in raids, detained and deported. Some hunger strikers were destitute when they were convicted of shoplifting or using fake documents to work, enrol in college, or open a bank account. Others were convicted of travelling on false documents when they came to the UK to escape persecution. Use of this offence to dismiss an asylum claim was condemned by Judge Sedley as a “serious invasion of judicial independence.” (2)

Even drug convictions are almost always because of severe poverty or coercion, where mothers, who are in fear of their own and their children’s lives, or don’t know where their next meal is coming from, have agreed to carry or sell small amounts of drugs. All are people of colour and easy targets for an institutionally racist police force and court system.

6. A denial of “incidents of racial abuse and violence directed at detainees.” Complaints of racist abuse are in statements given to lawyers and are being pursued. There are too many and they are too consistent for there to be any serious doubt about their veracity. The report Outsourcing Abuse (3) documents almost 300 cases of alleged assault of detainees by immigration staff between 2004 and 2008. We look forward to the Independent Monitoring Board’s report and to Serco, the multi-national which runs Yarl’s Wood, responding to MPs request to providing unedited CCTV footage.

7. “The current misreporting, based on inaccurate and fabricated statements by those who campaign against our policy, is irresponsible as it causes unnecessary distress to the women at Yarl’s Wood.” We are in daily contact with hunger strikes and they have consistently pressed us to publicise their situation saying that media coverage is the best protection against retribution and further violence. Their hand written statements listing their complaints and demands were specifically done for the media. Some have expressed their fear of what would have happened if there had been no publicity.

22 FEBRUARY STATEMENT
“We the undersigned have been on hunger strike since the 5/02/10 to date.. At no particular point in time have we gone to eat in the dining room, got food from the vending machines or at the shop. We would also like to point out that Yarl’s Wood has a no food, no drink policy, this has always been the case therefore saying that “visitors bring us food” is untrue.“

SIGNED BY 34 WOMEN.
________________________________________
[1] Inquiry into the quality of healthcare at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre 20 – 24 February 2006 by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
[2] “Asylum-seekers put at risk by law, warns top judge” Robert Verkaik, The Independent, 2 July 2008
[3] “Outsourcing Abuse” Birnberg Peirce & Partners, Medical Justice & NCADC 14 July 2008

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Solidarity Demonstration Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers. Outside Serco (the private company that runs Yarl’s Wood detention centre). Vid from the week before last. There have been weekly demonstrations since, including today.

Verna Joseph’s letter which I’ve now found online in the Socialist Worker contains an important statement indicating that she won her case. This tallies with what Verna told me at the weekend. Read the Socialist Worker letter here.

Hunger Striker Verna Joseph calls for dignity and support

If Verna is right – this appears to indicate that Meg Hillier’s letter contains inaccuracies. Namely – Meg is telling us that all detainees have failed in the courts.

According to the UK Borders Agency (see this link):

 “The Government has responded to recent media reports regarding Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre…Home Office Minister, Meg Hillier has written a letter to members of Parliament about the unfounded allegations made by the media, and in particular the recent article in the Guardian about hunger strikes at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre”.

You can download the letter at this link:

http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/newsarticles/2010/February/yarls-wood-meg-hillier-response

(As you can imagine, readers – I have my thoughts about this statement. For now, though I look forward to hearing reader responses as well as what the editor of the Guardian has to say F.L)

I spoke to Verna Joseph, (currently being held at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire) at the weekend. Once again she calls for answers and dignity in a letter to the print version of the Socialist Worker newspaper today:

“I have won my case and been granted asylum in Britain. But, like many of the women here, the authorities are still keeping me detained.

…The Home Office say it wants to reconsider my case, but that doesn’t give it the right to keep me locked up in prison. I have been here for seven months. Others have been here for three years…”

For the full text of Verna’s letter, see Verna’s letter  in the Socalist Worker (the print version) : “Hungers Strikers call for answers and dignity”.

Read my interviews with Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers and reportage in “The Friend” published online this week. Follow these links: Voices of the Hunger Strikers  and A matter of conscience.

Here’s a link to the printable Early Day Motion in support of the Yarl’s Wood Women’s Hunger Strike. The Yarl’s Wood women (and their supporters) have succeeded in taking the struggle to parliament. It has been signed by fifteen M.P’s already. Find it here.

Further reports from the Bedford press here.

See this link:  http://london.noborders.org.uk/node/307 London NoBorders calls for the immediate release of the hunger strikers and an end to immigration prisons and is calling for a demo in solidarity with the hunger strikers on Friday 26th February at 2.30pm outside Serco’s offices at 18-22 Hand Court (off High Holborn), London, WC1V 6JF. Please bring banners and instruments. A list of demands can be found here: National Coalition of Anti-Deporation Campaigns.

Just received from the Black Women’s Rape Action Project. If you’re reading this with concern, can you ask your M.P to sign it?

EDM 919  HUNGER STRIKE AT YARL’S WOOD IMMIGRATION REMOVAL CENTRE                                                23.02.2010

McDonnell, John

Corbyn, Jeremy

 That this House notes that women detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre have been on hunger strike since 5 February 2010 in protest against being detained for up to two years; condemns the detention of victims of rape and other torture, of mothers separated from their children and anyone who does not face imminent removal; believes that such detention flouts international conventions and UK immigration rules; requests that HM Inspector of Prisons urgently carries out an independent investigation into reports of violence, mistreatment and racist abuse from guards, being kettled for over five hours in a hallway, denied access to toilets and water and locked out in the freezing cold, which women have made to their lawyers, the media and supporters, including the All African Women’s Group and Black Women’s Rape Action Project; and calls for a moratorium on all removals and deportations of the women who took part in the hunger strike pending the results of that investigation.

BBC Woman’s Hour reports: “The UK ‘fast-track’ system for dealing with asylum seekers is failing women, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. The organisation says that the system is set-up to deal with straightforward cases, but that complex women’s rights’ claims, such as rape and physical abuse are regularly being dealt with in this way too. This means that women don’t have time to prepare evidence to support their case, and are not getting a fair hearing. Jenni is joined by Gauri van Gulik, author of the Human Rights Watch report, and Home Office Minister Meg Hillier to discuss the British fast-track asylum system”.
LISTEN AT THIS LINK.

See this link:  http://london.noborders.org.uk/node/307 London NoBorders calls for the immediate release of the hunger strikers and an end to immigration prisons and is calling for a demo in solidarity with the hunger strikers on Friday 26th February at 2.30pm outside Serco’s offices at 18-22 Hand Court (off High Holborn), London, WC1V 6JF. Please bring banners and instruments. A list of demands can be found here: National Coalition of Anti-Deporation Campaigns.

Government responses to reports of Yarl’s Wood can be found here.

At a hunger strike solidarity demonstration outside SERCO HQ in London on Friday February 19th. a Black Women’s Rape Action Volunteer gives an account of the beatings at Yarl’s Wood. SERCO is the private company that runs the detention centre. 19.02.10                      Picture by Frances Laing

On Saturday and Sunday I spoke to four women on hunger strike at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre in Bedfordshire.

The interviews have at last been published in “The Friend” the international Quaker weekly journal online today. See this link:

 WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

Demonstrate: Black Women’s Rape Action Project, Women Behind the Wire, Communities of Resistance , Feminist Fightback , No Borders the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns and the Campaign Against Immigration Controls are just some of the movements upholding solidarity protests at SERCO HQ in London and at Yarlswood in solidarity with the strikers. On March 1st. there will be another protest at SERCO HQ. (the private company that runs Yarl’s Wood) 18-22 Hand Court , Holborn, London (WC1V 6JF). 

Write to Minister of State Phil Woolas MP woolasp@parliament.uk or Privateoffice.external@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk  to condemn the detention of victims of rape and other torture, of mothers separated from their children and anyone who does not face imminent removal.  

Write to women inside.  Contact Black Womens’ Rape Action if you can write to women who want to receive letters.

Help find legal representation for women to lodge or appeal an asylum claim.  Most women don’t have lawyers or their lawyers do nothing. Some demand extortionate fees. Most women’s cases are not “straightforward” so many lawyers won’t take them. 

Legal aid cuts have reduced the paid time that lawyers can spend on each case. -The All African Women’s Group (AAWG) and Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) need help with money to pay for phone calls to keep in touch with lawyers and supporters.

For two weeks they have  been taking and returning calls to over 20 women a day (calling out from Yarl’s Wood is very expensive) trying to stop deportations, posting updates, and faxing legal and other information in to women. AAWG is unfunded and BWRAP operates on a shoestring budget.   Email: AAWG aawg02@gmail.com  BWRAP bwrap@dircon.co.uk 

All women have compelling cases to be released because they are: mothers separated from their children; survivors of rape and other torture, detained contrary to Home Office rules; not facing imminent removal. 

 Endorse OUTCRY http://www.qarn.org.uk/homepage/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/outcry.jpg  The coalition working to end child immigration detention. Send an email at together@outcrycampaign.org.uk with details of the organisation you represent -Join the Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network:  http://www.qarn.org.uk/homepage/

For anyone who is tempted to say I’m being one-sided in my coverage – read the lengthy Home Office email interview I did last week. See:

https://franceslaing.wordpress.com/2010/02/19/home-office-responses-to-the-womens-hunger-strike-at-yarls-wood-february-2010/

In that interview the Home Office Press Office made the following statements:

“We believe that children should not be separated from their parents”.

“We only detain families as a last resort”

“We always release families where advised it is in their best interests by independent social workers and specialist medical professionals”.

“Independent monitors were at the scene to witness the women’s protest. The demonstration remained passive at all times and there was no use of force”.

My response: I have yet to see evidence of a sustained presence of “independent social workers” “specialist medical professionals” or “independent monitors”.

Placard at solidarity demonstration. SERCO HQ. 19/02/10 Picture by Frances Laing

“Fears for health of Yarl’s Wood women in third week of hunger strike”. See this Guardian article which appeared in the print version today.

Hunger striker Denise McNeil tells her story in the Guardian here.