Yarl's Wood detention centre 'is a prison'
Hundreds of protesters held a demonstration outside the Yarl's Wood detention centre on Saturday, calling for its immediate closure.
Activists, politicians and actors were joined by women who had spent time at the notorious Bedfordshire centre, where foreign nationals are detained before their removal from the UK.
"Detention centres will fall, brick by brick, wall by wall," chanted some 400 protesters outside Yarl's Wood.
"When I say to people I was detained for five months they say, 'What! Why?' But I say I'm lucky because there are some people who have been detained for more than two years," says Maimuna Jawo from Gambia, addressing the crowd.
"Yarl's Wood is a prison but asylum seekers are not criminals."
Yarl's Wood is the main removal centre holding 400 women who are under threat of deportation. Until 2010, about 1,000 children were also detained there but then the family wing closed down.
Conservative MP for Bedford and Kempston, Richard Fuller, joined the protest and said the detention of asylum seekers had to stop.
"There must be no more detention of pregnant women or victims of torture and rape," he said.
A petition calling for a debate in Parliament to end immigration detention has now attracted more than 100,000 signatures.
"Detention used to be something that was used as an exception but over the decades it became the default position," he said.
"There's no inconsistency with wanting tough immigration rules, which I do, but also being strong about our values as British citizens."
Maimuna Jawo says she escaped to the UK in 2009 because her mother performed female genital mutilation and when she died, the community wanted her to carry on the tradition, which she did not want to do.
"I was threatened by my elders. If I say no I'm saying no to our traditional culture and that's a taboo. They might kill me for refusing."
She explains that she came to the UK legally but then overstayed. She says she moved around Birmingham and London sleeping in mosques, until eventually she was taken in by a family.
She claimed asylum in 2012 but was told after her first interview they would not accept her case, and she was taken to Yarl's Wood.
"They took my phone away from me and when I saw the officer with his bunch of keys, that's when I realised I was in prison."
She says she had no access to a lawyer and despite her poor English, she was refused an interpreter. She managed to call the family she had been staying with, who raised money for a solicitor for her appeal.
"But I wasn't able to see that solicitor until the day of my hearing and I had no interpreter, so I didn't have the chance to explain my case to her."