Female Ugandan detainees at HM Yarl’s Wood removal centre have entered the fourth week of hunger strike, their protest highlights deportations to an unstable war-torn country and allegations of abuse whilst incarcerated in the UK immigration system.
Detainees at Yarl’s Wood have made allegations of sexual harassment, racism and violent removal procedures.
The Ugandan hunger strikers claim they face imprisonment, torture and execution if deported.
For 18 years war has raged across Uganda with the Lords Resistant Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda opposing the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) of President Museveni.
Conflicts in neighbouring Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo regularly spills violence over the western border of Uganda.
Women and children are caught in the middle of three conflicts, suffering inconceivable atrocities.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report both the LRA and UPDF are accused of rape, torture and arbitrary detention.
One woman’s account said the UPDF cut off people’s ears and noses, a visible warning to others that dare oppose the government.
Two weeks ago Harriet Anyangokolo, spokesperson for the Ugandan hunger strikers, spoke out on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.
She described the concentration camps of northern Uganda. Anyone caught passing the three-mile radius boundary of the camp is executed. Women and children are routinely raped. Children are kidnapped and forced to join the LRA. Girls as young as six are forced to sleep with officers.
HRW stated since June 2002 the LRA has abducted 8,400 children and caused the displacement of over 800,000 Northern Ugandans.
A spokesperson for the UK Home Office said each case of deportation to Uganda was considered carefully and dealt with on an individual basis by trained case workers, only returning people when it is safe to do so.
On 15 July, after a hunger strike by Zimbabwean refugees, deportations to Zimbabwe were suspended because the safety of failed asylum seekers was not guaranteed.
Ms Anyangokolo said she would rather take her own life than be sent back to face the torture in Uganda.
“They can take my body, they will never take me,” she said.
She attempted suicide after she claimed a male guard entered her room when she was undressing and when she was naked. She was warned not to tell anyone.
Ms Anyangokolo suffers post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the rape and torture she endured in Uganda. She fled to save her own life and was forced to leave behind her two daughters. She has never heard from them again.
On 16 August the HO attempted to deport another hunger striker referred to as “C.” With two hours to spare the deportation was cancelled. This was just a continuation of constant trauma for C.
Originally from Rwanda, her parents and family were killed in the genocide. C and her husband became active in the Ugandan opposition party. The UPDF raided their house and killed her brother in front of her eyes. Then they gang-raped her.
Both C and her husband were arrested and imprisoned. While incarcerated her husband was murdered and C was raped again. She is now HIV positive.
On 14 August, two days prior to her deportation, guards at Yarl’s Wood attempted to remove C to the “Kingfisher” solitary confinement unit.
C barricaded the door to her room and the other Ugandan hunger strikers, led by Ms Anyangokolo, formed a human shield, preventing the guards access. This stand-off lasted several hours. Eventually the guards retreated.
The next morning, whilst the other detainees were in their rooms, Yarl’s Wood guards removed Ms Anyangokolo to the Kingfisher unit.
Officials for Global Solutions Limited (GSL), who operate Yarl’s Wood, said this was because she was “non-compliant and obstructive to staff”. The guards then moved on C.
An eyewitness inside the detention centre said C screamed as she was wrestled to the ground, put in a headlock and was dragged off in handcuffs.
She was also taken to the Kingfisher unit and later transferred her to Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow airport to await her deportation.
After the deportation was halted C was returned to Colnbrook. She was due to meet with a consultant to access her health on 19 August, but was instead transferred to Dungavel detention centre outside Glasgow, a ten-hour drive.
Other allegations of abuse have come from detainees currently held at Yarl’s Wood.
Amanda, a 19-year-old, faced deportation in May. She claimed she was handcuffed so tight her wrists swelled and she was kicked in her knee, where she already had an injury.
She spent three days in a wheelchair, was not given physiotherapy and was forced to support herself on walls and tables whilst walking.
Amanda said she suffered racist comments from some staff at Yarl’s Wood, one guard telling her to “go back to Africa”.
One detainee, who wished to remain nameless for fear of reprisal, claimed guards at Yarl’s Wood used a process called “maximum force”, adding it was not uncommon for more than 20 officers to deal with one detainee.
“It is a prison,” she said: “You just have to obey.”
She also experienced racism, stating one officer said to another inmate, “Hutu woman, go back to Burundi and eat African food.”
Another 29-year-old detainee known as “C1” said she was pushed and dragged, and had her arms twisted behind her back when she refused to be deported on 1 August.
Despite being pregnant at the time C1 claimed the four escort officers from Group 4 Securicor kicked her and pressed her head into the floor.
GSL raised questions why these incidents were not reported officially to staff or the HO representative who was present at Yarl’s Wood everyday.
The Ugandan hunger strikers and other detainees claimed their complaints were ignored.
A spokesperson for GSL said they would not be commenting on statements made by Ms Anyangokolo on BBC Radio 4, but added GSL staff faced very challenging behaviour and the welfare of detainees was taken very seriously.
A HO spokesperson said all reports of abuse were investigated and reported to the police.
As the hunger strike continues and the health of the women deteriorates, one detainee being admitted to Bedford hospital vomiting blood, the deportations continue.
Harriet Anyangokolo was released from detention on 22 August.