BY TERRICA STRUDWICK
It is feared that five women and an unknown number of children may have died in the fire which broke out on February 14 at England's Yarl's Wood detention centre. As of February 27, 25 detainees were still unaccounted for.
Yarl's Wood is one of five new centres to be opened to detain asylum seekers. With a capacity to hold up to 900 detainees, it housed 400 at the time of the fire.
Controversy surrounds the fire, with claims that it was started by rioting detainees.
There was a major protest on the day of the fire, sparked by security staff attempts to handcuff and remove an elderly person who was very ill. At one stage there were close to 200 detainees protesting on a roof. The fire, however, was believed to have started in the reception centre, an area that detainees have no access to.
Sources reveal that firefighters had to bring in special equipment to tear down otherwise impenetrable doors in order to get to the fire. How then would detainees have been able to access the reception area to start the fire?
Group 4 staff and police prevented firefighters from entering the burning buildings to check for trapped detainees.
Firefighters were shocked at the treatment of detainees by Group 4 staff. They described detainees being herded like animals after being left to stand in sub-zero temperatures wearing hardly any clothes. Detainees were handcuffed to seat rails on buses and taken away from the detention centre.
There was a complete lack of fire protection in the construction of Yarl's Wood and no fire prevention strategy. There were no sprinkler systems installed, no fire drills practiced, and staff were not trained to handle emergency evacuations.
The Home Office refused to install sprinkler systems, despite spending £100 million on the construction of the centre. Two hundred detainees remain at Yarl's Wood in an extremely dangerous situation, with sprinkler systems still not fitted.
Home secretary David Blunkett suggests in the government's latest white paper on immigration, citizenship and asylum that rebuilding Yarl's Wood, establishing more detention centres and expediting and increasing deportations will prevent future unrest.
The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC), the Stop Arbitrary Detention at Yarl's Wood campaign, and the national Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers (CDAS) argue that events such as those at Yarl's Wood will continue unless detention of asylum seekers is scrapped completely.
From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
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