#SetHerFree: The Yarl’s Wood Women’s Protest You Need To Know About

It's time to cancel your weekend plans, as hundreds of people are expected to attend a protest at Yarl's Wood detention centre in defence of the women being held there

Something tells us the streets of London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle might be a bit quiet on Saturday, as hundreds of people leave their home cities to head to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, to fight for the rights of the women and children who are being detained there.

Originally established to accommodate up to 40 asylum seekers at a time, Yarl’s Wood now houses 400 refugee women, and has been the UK’s largest immigration removal centre since 2001.

Thick metal doors, rolls of barbed wire and male guards imprison the detainees, many of whom are kept on suicide watch due to the circumstances surrounding their impending deportation. After all, these are women who are likely to have fled to the UK in a bid to escape terrible living conditions, abuse or war. They’re desperate, and the prospect of returning to their home countries isn’t just horrifying – it’s a death sentence.

But despite the fact that it would be less traumatic (not to mention cheaper) to process their applications for asylum while letting them continue their lives outside, the centre shows little sign of closing. And while only a third of the detainees are ever deported, the environment that they’re kept in while their future is decided is hard to justify. Hunger strikes are common, and there have been frequent reports of sexual assaults and violence against the detainees. According to one report in The Guardian, in 2010, ’70 women taking part in a protest were locked in an airless corridor without water or toilet facilities’. Since then, a report found that 93 per cent of asylum seekers who are sent there feel depressed, and more than half of them have thought about killing themselves.

That’s why Meltham Avcil (pictured above), who was detained in Yarl’s Wood with her mother for three months when she was only 13, launched the #SetHerFree campaign to help others in the same situation last year – and is spearheading this weekend’s protest.

‘I saw what my mother went through when she was in detention and I worry that many women like her are still being locked up,’ Meltham explains. ‘If a woman has already experienced rape, torture, imprisonment in her home country then it is really hard for her to be locked up here.’

Which is exactly why Saturday’s protest is such a big deal. Along with the general placard-waving public, there will be leading feminist speakers heading along too, including anti-FGM campaigner Nimko Ali, Caroline Criado-Perez, and Natalie Bennett, plus Romola Garai and comedian Josie Long, to name just a few.

The protest kicks off at 12:30pm, but if you can’t make it, don’t worry – you can sign Meltham’s petition here.

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