Protected by the National Secrets Act of 1989, what is Yarl’s Wood?

SBC Rehearsal Image 1

Hello Lowry family,

My name is Rosie MacPherson, I’m a playwright and one third of SBC Theatre Company (with John Tomlinson and Hannah Butterfield) that are bringing new show ‘TANJA’ to The Lowry Studio this September 16th & 17th.

‘TANJA’ is a show about Yarl’s Wood. Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I. It’s one of many immigration removal centres here in the UK. It houses up to 400 (vulnerable) female asylum seekers and although publicly funded is run by the private giants SERCO. The staff is predominantly male and in the last 11 years there have been numerous allegations of sexual assault made against individual staff. Yarl’s Wood first came to my attention via an e-petition (I should have a side line business in signing those things) it was posted by a young woman called Meltem Avcil who had been detained there as a child and was desperate for the place to be shut down. It sounded so awful, surely it was exaggerated? Surely Great Britain, with all its human rights and justice system wouldn’t treat those fleeing the likes of war, torture, rape and persecution as prisoners? Yet Yarl’s Wood is built just like our high security prisons: barbed wire fencing, air tight doors, windows that don’t open, cells with reinforced doors and isolation facilities. Women are put on 24/7 supervision by male guards, have their phones taken off them, are unable to make any calls and often strip-searched on arrival. The building is protected by the National Secrets Act of 1989 which means that no member of public, journalist, or even the UN are allowed to enter. It is meant as a fast-track housing service for those asylum seekers believed not to require sufficient evidence to be granted leave to remain – fast-track means two weeks – but there are asylum seekers that have been kept in Yarl’s Wood for closer to 4 years. Terror suspects can only be detained for up to 28 days. So… asylum seekers have fewer rights than prisoners and terrorists.

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‘TANJA’ has taken two years to write, access to information is severely limited and without the help of the fantastic organisation City of Sanctuary I am not sure if it would have ever have been possible to learn enough to write it at all. City of Sanctuary provides support for asylum seekers and refugees (and playwrights) they have introduced us to many brave and wonderful women who have gone through the asylum process and been detained in Yarl’s Wood. After we performed an extract of the piece at a Sanctuary in Parliament event we were introduced to the inimitable Emily Ntshangase-Wood. Emily came to the UK from Zimbabwe 14 years ago, was held in Yarl’s Wood three times and was granted leave to remain 2 years ago… I suspect she may be a real-life super-hero. Emily thankfully agreed to make the show with us and even star in it. She has put so much of herself into this show, has given us such intricate insight into life in Britain’s best kept secret and has also given us hope; that together we can raise awareness and give the personal stories behind the headlines.

I don’t believe it is a writer’s job to preach. That’s not the show we have made. This is a show about bravery and hope. It’s about real people that asked for help and were locked up. There’s a post-show discussion on Friday 16 September with a panel of experts both personal and political, we’d love to see you there.

As Emily always says “It’s about giving hope to the helpless.” Yebo!

Written by Rosie MacPherson, Strawberry Blonde Curls.

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