Yarl’s Wood and the anti-detention movement: challenging perceptions at the grassroots

Yarl’s Wood and the anti-detention movement: challenging perceptions at the grassroots

2019-11-15T13:03:27+00:00 November 25th, 2019|

When we think of immigration detention, we tend to focus on immigration detention centres, what happens inside them and groups working directly and exclusively on immigration detention. But perhaps, this is changing. More people are waking up to the connection between immigration detention and the shadow of the Hostile Environment they see in their communities. Catherine Hurley (@hurleycat38) reports on a growing, loose, network of community groups in Cambridge who are taking action, to help others imagine an end to immigration detention.

“The taxi driver who picks us up for the 20-minute drive back to Bedford station knows where we’ve been, ‘I don’t know what I think about it’ he says, ‘I mean I suppose we need places like that today.”

This quote comes from a 2016 article in Grazia magazine,  one of many accounts of visits to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre that have been collected over the years in Unlocking Detention. Most refer to its bleakness on an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere and, looking back over previous Unlocking tours, I am struck by the similarity of the accounts of real-life visits to women detained there,  and how they focus on their perceived loss of hope.  

Symbol of protest

One of the more controversial of the country’s detention centres  Yarl’s Wood has come to be a potent symbol and site of protest and opposition to what was described in the launch blog for Unlocking Detention in 2014 as this ‘national practice of incarceration’. Located as it is about 40 miles from my home in Cambridge, Yarl’s Wood is to me the most visible local manifestation of the hostile environment: a vivid reminder of the continuing urgent need to challenge the inhumane practice of immigration detention. 

Yarl’s Wood was opened in 2001 under a Labour government. Not long after opening a fire destroyed the centre and the report of the inquiry into the ‘disturbance’ and fire which followed reveals much about both the changing attitudes to migration and  the political and policy context in which Yarl’s Wood was created. At the time, the government was forecasting huge upsurges in the number of people coming to the country to seek asylum – remember the appalling expression ‘bogus asylum seekers’? Increasing the number of detention places was a priority for the government, not least to make it look as though it had immigration under control. 

The roots of the hostile environment are clearly visible from Yarl’s Wood’s beginning, yet in the report’s investigations into early discussions about the design of the centre, we can detect a certain ambivalence about the role of detention in immigration policy. Developers were encouraged to build a centre as unlike a prison as possible in terms of its security and accommodation. There was an acknowledgement that the residents of the Centre would be people who hadn’t actually done anything wrong but who were being detained for administrative convenience. The planners thought that this might make for a more ‘compliant’ population. 

Hostile Environment

By the time the hostile environment had been codified in Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016, any governmental squeamishness about immigration detention had evaporated.  Much has been written about conditions in Yarl’s Wood and about immigration detention in general, giving us vivid testimony about the harm indefinite detention does to the thousands who experience it annually in the UK.  Government-commissioned reports and the annual reports of the Independent Monitoring Boards have made detailed and important recommendations including the need for a time limit on detention. Despite the growing clamour for an end to indefinite immigration detention it neveretheless feels as though change comes too slowly.  If too many people think along the same lines as that taxi driver it will always be hard to imagine a world without immigration detention centres.

Where I live a loose coalition of local groups has emerged, in part as a legacy of opposition to Oakington, the notorious detention centre that operated in Cambridgeshire between 1990 till its closure in 2010.  Some of the groups are refugee support groups and others have formed to challenge the policies of the hostile environment which expose many migrants, not just refugees, to the risk of detention.   

While there is no formal connection between these groups, they meet regularly under the umbrella of the Cambridge chapter of City of Sanctuary,  keeping each other informed about what each is doing.  Frontline groups such as Cambridge ethnic community forum have developed a refugee service that provides practical advice and support to asylum seekers and refugees. The Cambridge Convoy Refugee Action group (Camcrag) works with volunteers to bring relief to migrants in Calais.  Besides playing an important co-ordination role, Cambridge City of Sanctuary sponsors Schools of Sanctuary and Techfugees, both examples of where local people bring their local connections to bear and helping embed welcome and hospitality. Like a spiderweb, the connections radiate outwards, expanding the community of welcome.  New student groups emerge and new groups with specific focuses develop, such as Cambridge Welcome whose key aim is to work alongside and in solidarity with migrant groups.

Urge to Take Action

People find out about the groups in many different ways, whether it’s via a faith group, through university channels (Cambridge has two universities), through trade unions, or local politics.  We learn from each other, supporting where we can our various initiatives, and try always to keep the people who are most harmed by the hostile environment to the fore. A founder member of Cambridge Welcome spoke of what is common to all our local groups:

I suppose the greatest challenge is to take initiatives that  build trust with vulnerable migrants & refugees so that their own voices are heard clearly – especially by those who are in positions of influence & responsibility.


The thread that links these groups is an urge to take action. The connections can be a powerful means of combating the hostile environment, helping to change the conversation around migration so that more and more people can imagine an end to immigration detention. 

My original idea for this blog was to look at the impact of Yarl’s Wood on the local community. But it soon became clear that Yarl’s Wood and detention are but one aspect (maybe one of the worst) of a larger story of how we treat migrants who live among us.  Cambridge is often dismissed as a sheltered bubble, but even here the insidious effects of the hostile environment can be felt. There is thankfully a fluid and changing network of individuals and groups who share a collective revulsion at the treatment of people who want to make our community and country their home. 

They – we – are a kind of subversive inversion of the hostile environment, which has tried insidiously to turn the providers of essential public services (the NHS, schools), and employers and landlords into border guards. This patchwork collective of opposition embeds welcome and hospitality into our community instead. I like to think that this energy will one day be turned towards more humane ways of supporting and empowering refugees and all vulnerable migrants within our local communities.