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Mabel Gawanas: “I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel”

Liberated after 3 years detained in Yarl’s Wood, this Namibian women has become a symbol of the limitless duration of immigrant detention. “I consider myself an anti-deportation activist. (…) I suffered all my life. All I want is peace.”


Mabel Gawanas primera foto marcos OrtizInterview and photos: Marcos Ortiz F.


“Being here is a dream come true. In detention I just wanted to go to the Courts of Justice. That’s where I believed my justice was.” Mabel Gawanas enters court in her traditional African outfits as she had always imagined.

“I had fought so hard, I put forward four or five high court judiciary review applications that were rejected, but I still succeeded with the sixth. So I really wanted to come here, I believed I would get my justice. I thought the judge would listen to me and give me a chance. I can’t believe that I’m here at this beautiful building”, she adds with a big smile to The Prisma, in one of the first interviews since her release.

Three years passed for this Namibian woman to fulfil the dream of walking through these doors. That was the period in which she was detained at Yarl’s Wood and that made her the longest detainee in an immigration centre on these shores.

Her case made her talk. #SetHerFree was the phrase that became the motto to release “the queen mother of Yarl’s Wood”. A woman who, was orphaned at an early age, was abused and raped by relatives and claims to have been a victim of human trafficking. A fighter who was left with mental and physical problems after the accumulation of bad life experiences, escaped from Namibia in 2006, left a 7-year-old daughter and after being detained in 2014, stopped seeing her second daughter.

“We called her the lawyer,” recalls a former roommate. Mabel Gawanas was walking around Yarl’s Wood with folders and files trying to help the cases of others, gathering signatures and increasing pressure.

MabelGawanas5_MarcosOrtiz“I thought it was my responsibility as a long term detainee to protect others, by helping with paper work, by sharing my food. I consider the other detainees as my mothers, sisters and daughters,” she says.

Within four days of being free, Mabel attended a massive demonstration at Yarl’s Wood. It was the first on this side of the bars.

“My sisters, I have come here with good news. I’ve come here to tell you not to give up. If you give up you have nothing to fight for”, she says, mounted on a ladder through a microphone that could be heard inside the enclosure.

“We’ve been provoked, intimidated, we cannot speak out, but I was the one who found the courage to speak up. Do as I did, follow my steps and don’t give up. I told you I would come back and I kept my promise,” she explains, to the excitement of the demonstrators and the women on the other side of the wall.

MabelGawanas4_MarcosOrtizToday, in court and accompanied at all times by Movement for justice activists, Mabel remembers every time she avoided being deported. On one occasion she took off her clothes and started running riot: “It was such a distress that I didn’t even know what I was doing. Of course you cannot take a distressed detainee on the plane. So I escaped that one”.

On another occasion already on board a plane, she managed to be taken off: “I was sitting down and I started screaming. It was five minutes before departing. Every time removals take place I am thinking of my daughter. I said if I go on this plane I will never see my daughter again. And that drove me crazy. I screamed, they called the pilot, and the pilot took me down”. At the airport, activists came to support her.

The day after her final release, Mabel wanted to fulfil her dream of going to collect her daughter from school, something which was prevented by the authorities, demanding a more formal reunion.

MabelGawanasJustice1_MarcosOrtiz“The principal explained to me and said I understand your situation, you were in detention and you want to see your daughter. I was so sad. As I left the school my tears ran. It was so painful, because I had promised my daughter if mummy comes out, mummy will come and surprise you at school. So that you know that you have a mother like other children. And that is what I did.”

You said once in an interview you’d rather die than be deported.

Oh yes. I’m a human of principals and a very compassionate person. You don’t give away a child like a toy. You can loose everything, but you cannot loose your child. For me to be separated from her is extremely hard and difficult, it’s just something I can’t take. I am willing to die for my child.

MabelGawanas1_MarcosOrtizDo you consider yourself as some kind of symbol of migrant detention?

Being in detention for three years I’ve become stronger. I had to stand up for myself and help other girls. I consider myself an anti-deportation activist or human rights activist. Because it’s about humans, I have compassion for human beings. Each person should treat others with respect.

One of the most shocking images we saw was when you were going to hospital handcuffed. What was that like?

It was the policy of the Home Office to take every detainee handcuffed. I asked them, why are you taking an ill person in handcuffs to the hospital? There is no need. I felt very vulnerable, I felt powerless, I felt humiliated. When the officers put those handcuffs on me tears dropped from my eyes. I felt like a prisoner.

How do you see your future?

I really want to be a mother. I’ve got a daughter in Africa I left when she was 7. Now I had to leave the second one. I just can’t understand it. So I just want to be the best mother I can be and I want my children to be my best friends. I want to study law – human rights law – or journalism.

MabelGawanas2_MarcosOrtizHow did you feel on the Yarl’s Wood demonstration?

Inside I was very emotional, but outside I had to be brave, show a brave face. I had mixed feelings. The most important part was I kept my promise. I said to the girls I’d come back and I’d never forget them. And I came to show them that I was still there, I think of them and don’t forget them.

Do you realize your case gives hope to so many other people?

Of course. I always tell them no matter how hard it is just don’t give up. Do something. That something you are doing will help you. You might not know it now. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and I’m seeing that light. I had a very difficult childhood and teenage years. I suffered all my life. All I want is peace. I believe this Royal Court of Justice will give me peace to lead a normal life.


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