Posts Tagged ‘Yarls Wood’

Yarls Wood – Shut It Down

Thursday, March 24th, 2022

Yarls Wood – Shut It Down – Saturday 24th March 2018 saw another protest outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, calling for all immigration detention centres to be closed down.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

It was the 13th protest there organised by Movement for Justice, but on this occasion other groups including Sisters Uncut had also organised separately to come to the event and hold their own slightly distanced protest, following serious allegations about the way MfJ worked and had behaved, particularly to one woman who had been one of their high-profile members, but also a number of others including some of the migrants they had supported.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

I had been shocked to hear of the allegations, but not particularly surprised. I admired both the work MfJ had done over the years in leading the protests against our racist immigration system and the contribution of the woman activist concerned who I had met and photographed at a number of protests.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

But I had been long aware that MfJ was led by Trotskyists, members of the Revolutionary International League, including several white activists, having been set up by them in London in the 1990s to confront racism and fascism. So I knew that like all such groups knew they would enforce disciplines to back the party line at least on its inner members, so the revelations came as no surprise to me.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

Of course I don’t condone these actions, though I was in no position to judge on the truth of some of the allegations, but it seemed to me the most important things was that protests against our racist immigration system should continue and should be effective. For some years MfJ had been the main group taking effective action against immigration deportation flights and immigration prisons. I was pleased that the controversy actually seemed to have prompted other groups to organise and protest on this occasion and for later events.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

The protest followed much the same pattern as the others I’ve attended at Yarl’s Wood, except that the protesters spread out a little more along the slope and the fence with some wishing to distance themselves from MfJ and their PA system. And, at least while I was there, all of those who spoke over this to the protesters and the women inside were former asylum seekers who had themselves been detained, many inside Yarl’s Wood. And inside Yarls Wood there seemed to be more women able to come to the windows and join in the protest.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

I’d also gone slightly better prepared so far as equipment was concerned, as I now had a 300mm Nikon lens and a camera on which I could use it either in full-frame format or switch to DX, which made it a 450mm equivalent and still get files of sufficient size for publication. Shooting through the wire mesh of the top 10ft of the 20ft fence still made focus hard – and autofocus reliably settled on the mesh rather than the windows behind, so I had to resort to manual focus. But at least the windows didn’t move, which made this fairly easy.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

This time too we had a coach driver who knew the way and arrived in plenty of time for me to photograph the events on the road before the march to the prison. But it also meant I had to leave a little before the event had concluded to catch the train back to the station. I think for later protests I brought my folding bike so I could easily (or fairly easily as there is a long climb up from the A6 to Twinwoods and the meeting point) make my own way the five or six miles to and from Bedford station.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

The weather was good to us this time, but there had been heavy rain earlier in the week leaving at least one giant puddle we had to walk round on the way to the prison fence, and making the slope on which the protest was taking place rather treacherous.

Yarls Wood - Shut It Down

More pictures from the protest on My London Diary at Shut Down Yarl’s Wood.


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Flowers to Yarls Wood – 2017

Thursday, November 18th, 2021

Four years ago on Saturday 18th November saw Movement for Justice’s 12th protest outside the immigration detention prison up a hill around 6 miles north of Bedford, calling for this and the other immigration detention centres to be shut down. On this occasion many took flowers to pin to the upper section of the fence where they could be seen by the women inside.

The whole system of immigration detention seems to have been designed as a deterrent to asylum seekers coming to the UK, though unsuccesful in doing so. People who had fled their countries because they were in fear of their lives and had often been subject to violent attacks and rapes were thrown into jail while there cases were being considered. Often their imprisonment made it very much harder for them to provide the evidence demanded by the Home Office of the danger they had been in and their suffering, and official reports and journalistic investigations, some by reporters who had taken jobs at the centres, both revealed the callous and often illegal treatment they received from the staff in these privately run centres, including sexual assaults and violence.

Mabel Gawanas who was held inside for a day under 3 years speaks to her friends still inside

The accomodation provided is poor and the food is of poor quality and often fails to meet the relgious ordietary needs of the detainees, and there have been numerous reported cases where necessary medical treatment has been either refused or excessively delayed. But the major problem is that immigration detention is of indeterminate length, with some detainees serving perhaps a few weeks and others up to three years. Unlike in a normal jail there is no known length to the time people serve and no way that they know when they may be released or deported. And there is no process for them to appeal their detention. The government like to pretend it isn’t a prison, and there are some differences in the routines, but those held inside cannot leave and are often restricted in their movements inside the buildings.

The windows only open a few inches

There are currently in 2021 seven ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ in the UK as well as a number of short-term holding facililites. All but one of the seven are run by private companies, Serco, Mitie, G4S, a Capita subsidiary and Geo, and they are run to make profits. The less they spend on food, staffing and facilities the more the companies make – and the more those detained suffer. In 2015 the Chief Inspector of Prisons labelled it ‘a place of national concern’.

Yarl’s Wood is in an isolated location, hidden away from roads on a former wartime airfield. As I found cycling from Bedford Station it is on the top of a hill and rather windswept. From where the protesters coaches and cars can park it takes aroud a mile walking along public footpaths to get to the field next to the prison where the protests take place. The prison is surrounded by a 20 ft high metal fence, the lower half with metal panels and the upper half with a thick wire grid material that allows the upper storeys of the building to be seen from the top of a rise in the field.

It’s difficult to take pictures through this screen, but not impossible. I’d taken with me a Nikon 70-300mm lens and was working with the D810 in DX mode which converts that into a 105-450mm equivalent and still provides a 16Mp file. Focussing was tricky as the autofocus was very good at focussing on the wire, leaving the building behind well out of focus, and although it would sometimes focus on a window frame, it was far easier to use manual focus.

I also took some pictures on a 28-200mm (equivalent to 42-300mm) which was better when I wanted to include any foreground detail, but the windows became rather small. Even at 450mm any one of the pair of windows only filled around a sixth of the frame, and some of the images have been cropped.

For photographing the protesters as well as that highly versatile 28-200mm used both as a X lens on the D810 body and a full-frame lens on the D750, I also had a 28-35mm lens for use on the D750.

Many of the exposures I made where not quite sharp. It was November and the light dropped off fairly dramatically towards the end of the protest and by 3pm I was having to work at 1/250s at the full aperture of F5.6, not really fast enough a shutter speed for a 450mm lens. So camera shake added to my focus problems. At 3.30pm the protest seemed to be nearing its end, I was getting too cold and decided it was time to get on my bike and return to Bedford Station. Fortunately except for a short steep slope it was more or less downhill all the way.

In August 2020 the Home Office announced it was ‘re-purposing’ Yarl’s Wood, which became a short-term holding facility for men arriving in the UK by boat. But by November 2020 it had also been brought back into its previous use with around ten women then being indefinitely detained there.

Shut Down Yarl’s Wood 12


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A Wet Day at Yarls Wood

Friday, September 10th, 2021

Five years ago Movement for Justice organised a protest outside Yarls Wood on Saturday 10th September 2016, and I took the train to Bedford where there was a coach to make the five mile or so journey to the remote site on a former WW2 airfield, now a business park. Unfortunately it is so remote that the coach driver didn’t know the way, and we ended up making a lengthy detour and arriving over half an hour later than we should have done.

The coach set us off as usual on the road outside the Twinwoods Business Park entrance, around 3/4 mile from the Immigration Removal Centre. A rally was taking place on the grass there while waiting for everyone to arrive.

Eventually we set off marching down the road to the public footpath that leads along mainly muddy tracks beside several fields to that beside the immigration prison. The prison has a 20ft high fence around it, the first 10ft with solid metal sheeting and the upper half with a thick gauze through which we could see the women at the windows welcoming and signalling to us.

The field rises up quite steeply from the fence, enabling us to see the two top floors of the nearest wing of the centre, a private prison run by Serco. Going further back the lower floor where famiilies were housed became partly visible. Those held inside are in indefinite detention, never knowing when they will be released or deported – and one woman was kept locked in there for just one day less than three years.


Many of the supporters of Movement for Justice have previously been held in this or similar detention prisons, and a number of them spoke at the protest about their experiences inside. We also heard from some of the women inside, who unlike those in our normal jails, are allowed mobile phones. Some told us how Serco security guards had prevented them from coming to the windows and were threatening those who greeted the protesters with solitary confinement.


Other groups from around the country had come to support the protest, and among them were Latin American women and Sisters Uncut, who at one point provided a display of coloured flares from the top of the hill. Unfortunately be the time I had clambered up to muddy slope to take pictures it was past its peak.


The rain continued, though fortunately it was not too heavy, but the slope towards the fence meant that some areas were waterlogged and others were slippery mud. It was a noisy protest as people shouted and kicked the fence and battered it with branches. On my way back to the coach I went to take a look at the real wood called Yarl’s Wood to the south. I’d hoped I might find another view of the prison, but was disappointed. it seemed a shame that such a peaceful wood should be mired by taking its name for this shameful immigration prison.

Many more pictures at Shut Down Yarl’s Wood on My London Diary.

Yarl’s Wood November 7th 2015

Saturday, November 7th, 2020

On November 7th 2015 I went to a protest outside Yarl’s Wood organised by Movement for Justice, calling for this and all immigration detention centres to be closed down. It was a cold and wet day, but fortunately the rain eased off at times.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Home Office began moving detainees out from the Yarl’s Wood immigration centre, and all of them had gone by the middle of August. The centre which opened in 2001 had been used mainly to hold women, though there were also some families there. But the centre is not to be closed down, but is being used to house migrants who have come across the Channel. It seems likely they will be treated just as badly as the previous residents.

There was very little reason for most of those housed there over the nineteen years it was in operation to be held in a secure unit. They presented no danger to the rest of us and the centre provided none of the support that many needed, with inadequate health care, poor food and little or no counselling for the many vulnerable people who who had fled their countries because of violence against them including rape. Holding them in this fairly remote location with limited contact with the outside world made it difficult for them to prepare themselves for immigration hearings.

Some were found to have been illegally deported and many more were not given proper consideration before they were deported. But over half of those held there are simply eventually released, amny after months or even years of imprisonment – one woman was held for just a few days under 4 years. These people are not criminals but we treat them as if they were – though worse in some ways as their detention is indefinite at the the whim of the Home Office.

Yarl’s Wood had a particularly bad record, with abuse and sexual harassment and a failure to provide adequate care, highlighted both by official inspections and by undercover reporting for Channel 4 News. Many of those held inside have reported horrific stories of their mistreatment.

Yarl’s Wood is run for profit by Serco, whose CEO Robert Soames is the brother of former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames and is a grandson of Winston Churchll and a nephew of former Defence secretary Duncan Sandys. Like many of our leading Tory politicians he studied PPE at Oxford and was a member of the Bullingdon Club. Perhaps these kind of connections help the company in getting lucrative government contracts despite their poor record on delivery.

Serco have been given the most Covid-related government contracts among UK-listed companies and despite their failures with test and trace were recently awarded another £57 million contract for it – as with the others without any competitive tendering. Shadow Cabinet Office secretary Rachel Reeves commented “This government seems obsessed with shovelling huge sums of public money to a handful of outsourcing companies without competition, rigour or accountability“. Serco’s share price shot up by 17% on news of the latest government handout and they revised their profit forecast for the year upwards to £165m.

Yarl’s Wood is on an industrial estate created on a former Second World War air base in the middle of nowhere on the top of hills a little over 5 miles north of Bedford. Around 20 coaches brought campaigners from around the country, with a shuttle service bringing some from Bedford Station and others arriving by car, taxi and bicycle. Among them were a number of Movement for Justice supporters who had previously been held in this and other detention centres. Most of the speakers at the rally were former inmates, and we also heard from some of those inside who are allowed mobile phones and held up their numbers in the windows.

The protesters are not allowed into the Business Centre and instead walk along the road and across a several fields on a public footpath to reach a field on the edge of the centre which is surrounded by a 20 foot high fence. The bottom ten feet of the fence is made of solid metal panels and the centre can only be seen through the top half which is covered with a metal mesh.

Photographing through this mesh presents some problems. Apart from partly blocking the view, my cameras autofocus systems prefer to focus on the mesh and it is generally easy to use manual focus. Standing on the small hill facing the centre gives a view of the top two floors of one wing of the centre above the solid metal fence. The windows of the centre can only be opened a few inches – just enough for those inside to wave a towel or clothing etc. And Serco staff try to keep the women inside away from the windows and in other parts of the centre, sometimes assaulting them to prevent them reaching these windows.

‘We Are From Torture We Need Freedom’

To get good views of the windows long lenses are needed, and require fast shutter speeds to avoid camera shake. I don’t really have the most suitable lenses for the job.

Many more pictures and more about the protest on My London Diary:
MfJ ‘Set Her Free’ protest at Yarl’s Wood
MFJ Meet Outside Yarl’s Wood


All photographs on this and my other sites, unless otherwise stated, are taken by and copyright of Peter Marshall, and are available for reproduction or can be bought as prints.