“What have I got to lose?” Hunger strikes and protests at Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Yarl's Wood protest

Originally published at New Statesman, written as part of my communications work for Women for Refugee Women:

Yarl's Wood protest

On Saturday, hundreds of protestors gathered in the muddy field outside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, calling for an end to the detention of vulnerable women who have claimed asylum in the UK.

Despite the pouring rain, the mood on both sides of the fence was impassioned and defiant, with the women inside apparently buoyed by the support and solidarity of the chanting crowd.

On the way back from the demonstration, message after message reached me via asylum seeker and ex-detainee Karen*, who was travelling with me and taking calls from friends inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre. The news that seemed to please her most was that a hunger strike was being held, with one friend telling her: “We told the officers, ‘We have just come from a huge protest; we won’t spoil it by eating your food!'”

Karen is a keen supporter of these hunger strike tactics and was quick to encourage the friends she’d left behind when she was released from Yarl’s Wood less than two weeks earlier. She personally took part in four hunger strikes during the three months she was detained. The first, in early September, involved about 30 women, while her fourth strike was coincidentally held not long after the release of the film Suffragette.

At the time, as I watched Carey Mulligan’s Maud being force-fed on the big screen, I felt overwhelmed with sadness for the sisters who I’d been calling and visiting in Yarl’s Wood since I joined Women for Refugee Women (WRW) – a charity that works with women who have sought asylum in the UK – six weeks earlier.

There’s no forced feeding in Yarl’s Wood, and the hunger strikes there may at times be more symbolic than sustained – but I couldn’t help feeling an echo of the women’s desperation and defiance in their belief that, if they refuse food, the authorities will eventually have to listen.

At the moment, the Home Office locks up around 2,000 women who have sought asylum every year. A growing movement is speaking up against this unnecessary indefinite detention. Supporters come from across the political and social spectrum, but some of the most inspiring women I have met are those who have experienced Yarl’s Wood first hand.

Continue reading at New Statesman…

Breaking Into Journalism: the #tsjturnstwo conference

Originally published at the City IN Journalism course blog.

Photography: Fionna McLauchlan/The Student Journals

As many of you know, I spent Saturday at the University of Warwick for the ‘Breaking Into Journalism’ conference, organised by The Student Journals to celebrate our second birthday (along with lots and lots of cake!)

The day featured journalists from Huffington Post UK, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Channel 4, New Statesman, City University’s Jonathan Hewett, and many more, speaking on topics from pitching to data journalism to media law.

Despite being TSJ’s Deputy Editor, I’d been relatively uninvolved with organising the event and I was really impressed by how well it all came together.

The conference opened with a keynote speech from Carla Buzasi, Editor-in-Chief of Huffington Post UK, on how she got her job and what she sees as the future of journalism. Then after four sessions of workshops attendees regrouped for a panel on Access to Journalism, with Channel 4′s Fatima Manji and Dawn Foster from the Guardian’s Comment is Free. Finally, David Allen Green, a practising lawyer and New Statesman’s legal correspondent, brought media law to life with his anecdotes about legal blogging and, of course, exposing Johann Hari.

You can recap on all the action via our live blog and Storify, but there were a number of helpful tips that came up again and again throughout the day.

  • Be nice, and cultivate contacts. One of the first things Carla Buzasi told attendees at the conference was, “treat everyone as a potential contact, and make the most of your contacts”. This sentiment was repeated throughout the day; during the later panel on Access to Journalism, Fatima Manji advised “be nice to everyone” and “don’t set out with a mind to screw people over.” Dawn Foster added that if you want someone’s job, email them and ask how they got it – “there are few things journalists like more than talking about themselves.” Manji and Foster also agreed that getting yourself a mentor is hugely useful for your journalistic development.
  • Write about what you love. Advice about specialising was another recurring theme, even from journalists who are themselves general reporters. In her workshop on pitching, Dawn Foster said having a specialism is a great way of making yourself stand out in a particular area. This came up again in the Access to Journalism panel, with Fatima Manji saying “specialisms are the way forward.” But while both Manji and Foster agreed it’s important to hone your specialism and write about what you love, Manji stressed the importance of pushing your own boundaries and also writing what you find difficult.
  • Think about your pitch. Do your research – know who you’re writing to (avoid “DEAR JOURNALIST” or risk becoming Dawn Foster’s new “worst pitch ever”), don’t just read the publication but know it and enthuse about it, make sure your article hasn’t been written before. Keep your pitches short and concise, and don’t send more than one pitch in the same email. Be persistent, but don’t pester or harass editors or they’ll never commission you. Sameer Rahim, Assistant Books Editor at The Telegraph, who spoke on reviewing and literary interviews, also advised journalists not to underestimate the power of picking up pen and paper to write a letter – they’re a lot rarer than emails!
  • There’s no match for great content. There was naturally a huge amount of time dedicated to discussion of the internet, which I think we’re all agreed has a huge role to play in the future of journalism. Jonathan Hewett gave two workshops – one on the basics of data journalism, and one (which I found really useful) on using advanced search techniques in Google and Twitter to find people and news. But digital media innovator Adam Westbrook also emphasised that flashy websites and fancy data visualisations are meaningless without great storytelling that “sucks ‘em in and spits ‘em out”.

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