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Chronicle of a spring demonstration

Two thousand people in Yarl’s Wood shout for the closing of immigration detention centres. This is how a day was spent protesting the perverse system that holds foreigners without a departure date.


Mabel Gawanas protest detencion yarls wood Foto MarcosOrtiz (5)
Mabel Gawanas

Text and photos: Marcos Ortiz F.


“Mummy, where is the middle of nowhere?” A child’s question to his mother resounds in the air. London is left behind as the crowded bus takes the road north. A long day of demonstrations begins at the immigration detention centre in Yarl’s Wood, where 400 people –mostly women– are locked up waiting for their immigration status to be clarified.

Their uncertainty is complete. The United Kingdom is the only European country with no maximum period of detention. This is how Namibian Mabel Gawanas beat all records by being held at the centre for three years.

The goal of today is to surround thepremises, to give a show of strength against these centres and to give emotional support to those who are on the other side of the bars and barbed wire.

Mabel Gawanas protest detencion yarls wood Foto MarcosOrtiz (9)The organisers have planned everything. Posters should be displayed high so that they can be seen on the other side of the fence. The organisers advise on bringing balloons that can be raised in the sky. They have also requested a large number of instruments so that the noise will leave people incapable of feeling indifferent to what is happening inside Yarl’s Wood.

The demonstration should reach the ears of the Home Office and Westminster.


Buses park one after another and anxiety levels increase as we leave them. Posters, balloons and drums appear. Protesters have come from Manchester, Oxford, Leeds, London, Bristol and from a myriad of corners of the UK. “My daughter comes for the songs,” a mother confesses.

Mabel Gawanas protest detencion yarls wood Foto MarcosOrtiz (4)Through a loudspeaker, leaders of Movement for Justice excite those present. They list recent victories against fascist groups and explain the challenges yet to come.

This is the eleventh demonstration in Yarl’s Wood.

A crowd of young people, adults and the elderly begin to walk just over a kilometre along a dirt road. On one side, there are huge fields of beautiful flowers; on the other, a large fence, metallic and cold. The contrast is overwhelming.

After 15 minutes, we are in front of the detention centre. At this centre, there was a fire in 2002, hunger strikes have been constant and three immigrants have died.

The wall is very high but on the other side arms and hands can be seen appearing through the small windows. The emotion is mutual, the greetings come and go. We are so far yet so close. Posters are extended to their full height. Shouts leave throats in anger while younger people kick the wall with their feet.

Mabel Gawanas protest detencion yarls wood Foto MarcosOrtiz (2)The organisers ask for silence to introduce Mabel Gawanas who was released four days ago.

“The queen of Yarl’s Wood” climbs a small ladder, raises her arms and greets her confined ex-companions. It is her first time on this side of the wall. Her smile is big and excited. Her words bristle. Some shed tears.

Now shouts are heard from inside. “Freedom!” shouts a woman.

Freedom!” shout others from another window further away. The sound becomes lost in the immensity of nothingness. Throats tighten as some climb up the wall to greet detainees at a closer level, hanging new posters and flowers picked along the way.

Speeches come from different immigrants who have been released. They stress the importance of coming to give support. From inside on the telephone, women speak with voices that are barely understood by the speakers.

Mabel Gawanas protest detencion yarls wood Foto MarcosOrtiz (7)“Hello, I miss my son, he is nine years old. I miss my husband too,” can just about be heard. People applaud and never stop waving their arms.

The demonstration goes from being emotional to one full of anger and then from anger to celebration. A musician raps, inserting messages against detention centres into his verses.

People dance, jump and never stop animating the detainees. Banners fly with the rainbow flag while a man wraps himself in his Zimbabwean flag. A group of Latin American women shout in Spanish as the sky becomes coloured with smoke emanating from flares.

After four hours, the buses begin their return. Faces are a mix of satisfaction and fatigue. The organisers thank everyone and report that a large poster for the closing of Yarl’s Wood had been hung in the football stadium earlier that day. Everyone applauds.

Mabel Gawanas protest detencion yarls wood Foto MarcosOrtiz (10)We return to our cities and to our homes. We know that the 400 people in Yarl’s Wood will not have the same fortune, but we are confident that they will have sooner rather than later when the detention centres are definitively gone. When they fall, as one of the shouts cries out, brick by brick, wall by wall.

(Translated by Sydney Sims – Email:

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One Comment

  1. Good report, pity the other media are not doing this.

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