SOAS Detainee Support started in 2005 as a campaign run by SOAS students for two Ugandan twins, Judith and Maria. The girls came to speak at SOAS about their experiences as young asylum seekers, of the immigration system and of detention. For many it was the first time to hear of the shameless human rights abuses being carried out in the UK and it came as a shock. However, as much as people were saddened and angered by the treatment the girls had received, we were inspired by their tremendous courage and sense of hope.
When Judith and Maria were detained for the fourth time, less than a fortnight later, it was a call-to-arms for many of the students who had met them. People from SOAS began to visit the twins in Yarl’s Wood IRC (Immigration Removal Centre) and formed a campaign to stop their “removal” to Uganda and calling for their immediate release.
Ultimately it was unsuccessful – Judith and Maria were forcibly returned to Uganda. This was a massive blow to everyone who had grown close to them. However, the feeling was very much that the battle had been lost but the war was far from over. During the campaign students from SOAS had had their eyes opened to the reality of immigration detention centres and of forced deportation. At the same time, they had learnt how to deal with solicitors, carry out legal research, lobby politicians, engage with the media and organise demonstrations.
It was widely felt that this would not be in vain, so in September 2006 the SOAS Detainee Support Group was founded as a society at SOAS. Since then, membership has continued to increase and now includes students from other London universities and non-students. We work closely with other organisations defending asylum seekers’ and migrants’ rights and are developing links with other student groups in SOAS and other parts of the country.