Solidarity against detention and deportation

On 15 June 2009 families in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) began a protest and hunger strike. They were angered by their treatment and conditions but their central demand was an end to the detention of children. They asked for a representative of the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) to speak to them as Serco, the private company contracted to run Yarl’s Wood, did not have the power to release the children. Steve Umoro, one of the parents involved, later told FRFI that the protest was peaceful at all times: ‘We were not there for ourselves. We were fighting for the sake of our children.’ No-one from UKBA came to see the detainees, so the parents moved their mattresses into the corridors and said they would remain there until someone came to discuss their concerns.

This passive resistance was met with violence. On 15 June Tyneside Community Action for Refugees (TCAR) received a phone call from Laureine Tchuapo, whose struggle against deportation to Cameroon they had been supporting. Laureine said a big group of guards had entered the section, dragged men from their families by force, and stripped two women naked. She said she had never seen such a violent assault. FRFI then spoke to Juliet Umoro, who graphically described the sudden, unprovoked attack, in which, as her husband was dragged away, her baby fell from her back and was trodden on by guards.

Four men and two women were taken to the solitary confinement part of the detention centre and handed notices stating that they were ringleaders of the protest. All but one was then moved to other detention centres and issued with removal directions. Those labelled ‘ringleaders’ were, in the main, detainees who had spoken to the press about the protest, although Steve Umoro appears to have been targeted because in March this year, when the immigration police raided the Umoros’ home in Barnsley for the second time, he staged an eight hour roof-top protest, which attracted local publicity. The Umoros had been in Barnsley since 2005 and had significant support from the local church and their son’s school.

Steve was moved to Colnbrook IRC and held incommunicado until campaigners began complaining to UKBA. Juliet and others continued the protest in Yarl’s Wood. Although the mainstream press all but ignored both the protest and the attack on it, anti-racist activists mobilised in support of the detainees. FRFI, TCAR, No Borders, SOAS Detainees’ Support Group, Feminist Fightback, Campaign against Immigration Controls, National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns and other organisations telephoned and visited the detainees and tried to generate support for their struggle. Demonstrations were organised outside Serco’s London office and at Communications House Immigration Reporting Centre. Laureine Tchuapo, who, with the support of TCAR, had succeeded in getting her removal directions cancelled and been released on bail, came to London to speak to demonstrators at Communications House and on a march against ESOL cuts about the harsh reality of life in detention.

This solidarity with the Yarl’s Wood protesters was carried over into opposition to the charter flight deportation to Nigeria on 30 June. An Omni Airlines flight picked up 96 Nigerians, including 21 children, from various places in Europe, before flying to Lagos. The Umoro family were among those on the flight. Protesters from the Stop Deportations network managed to delay the flight by blocking the entrance to Yarl’s Wood, so the coach carrying deportees could not leave. On the plane, protests by the prisoners held up the flight a bit longer. And while these actions did buy some time for a few people with emergency injunctions being heard in the courts, they were not able to prevent the flight going ahead. Steve and Juliet and their children were dumped in Lagos with no support and ended up sleeping in a churchyard, from where Steve sent this text message: ‘they succeeded in taking us to Nigeria, am crying all day, don’t know what to do, don’t have place to stay, only a church and I fear for the kids. I don’t know if we will survive, we know you all tried your best, they hardened their hearts, please do anything you can still do to bring us back’.

On 6 July Immigration Minister Phil Woolas responded to a parliamentary question about the cost of deportations over the past four years. In 2008-2009, £8,227,553 was spent on charter flight deportations and another £18,562.162 on scheduled flights. Last year Woolas boasted the government was deporting one person every eight minutes and in March 2009, before she was replaced as Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith issued an unequivocal declaration of war against immigrants: ‘The message is clear – whether you’re a visa overstayer, a foreign criminal or a failed asylum seeker, the UK Border Agency is determined to track you down and remove you from Britain.’ As the capitalist crisis intensifies, this attack will be stepped up still further. A far stronger solidarity movement in opposition to detention and deportations needs to be built urgently!

Nicki Jameson

FRFI 210 August / September 2009


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