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Women treated ‘like animals’ at Yarl’s Wood

Conditions at the immigration detention centre are atrocious, writes STEVEN WALKER

NEWS that conditions at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre have “deteriorated” over the past year to the point where almost half of the women held there fear for their safety will come as no surprise to those who have followed the case.

According to a damning report published by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, some vulnerable female asylum-seekers detained at the Bedfordshire centre said staff treated them “like animals” and that their experiences had left them with anxiety, depression, disturbed sleep and mental health problems.

In one shocking case, a woman told staff that she had come to Britain after being raped at gunpoint by three men and was suffering from panic attacks, sleep loss and flashbacks. The Home Office responded by saying that rape “did not constitute torture” and that she should continue to be detained. In the 14 years since privately run Yarl’s Wood opened it has become synonymous with degrading and inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers whose only crime has been to flee persecution and attempt to build a better life in Britain.

Yarl’s Wood has been mired in controversy right from the start. Shortly after it opened a fire gutted the main building, shutting it down for months. The fire was the result of protests at racist abuse from staff. Four separate hunger strikes have begun and there have been hundreds of riots as a result of heavy-handed treatment by staff. The £85 million-per-year contract to run Yarl’s Wood has been passed on from private contractor to private contractor — five firms, including Global Solutions Ltd, Group 4, Englefield Capital, Serco and G4S have faced constant criticism from human rights campaigners.

Yarl’s Wood opened on November 19 2001 with capacity for just over 400 people, making it the largest immigration detention centre in Europe at the time. A September 2003 report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that provision at Yarl’s Wood was “not safe.” Twelve years later and nothing has changed. There have been a series of allegations of sexual abuse made against staff. The only witness to one alleged incident was deported before she could be interviewed by the police. Almost 90 per cent of people held at Yarl’s Wood are women, yet about half the staff are male.

The decision in November 2014 to give Serco a new £70m eight-year contract to run the centre was criticised by Natasha Walter of Women for Refugee Women: “Serco is clearly unfit to manage a centre where vulnerable women are held and it is unacceptable the government continues to entrust Serco with the safety of women who are survivors of sexual violence.” The following month, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria Vera Baird expressed her support for such an investigation.

In March 2004 the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman reported allegations of racism, abuse and violence based on 19 claims made by an undercover reporter for the Daily Mirror. The report found evidence of a number of racist incidents and that an allegation of assault had not been properly investigated. In September 2005 Manuel Bravo, an asylum-seeker from Angola, hanged himself while in detention awaiting deportation with his 13-year-old son following a dawn raid at his home in Leeds. In February 2006, the Chief Inspector of Prisons published an inquiry into the quality of healthcare at Yarl’s Wood. It found substantial gaps in provision and identified 134 recommendations.

A 2006 Legal Action for Women (LAW) investigation into the centre found that 70 per cent of women held there had reported rape, nearly half had been detained for over three months, 57 per cent had no legal representation and 20 per cent had lawyers who demanded payment in advance. Women reported sexual and racial intimidation by guards. LAW’s self-help guide has been confiscated by guards depriving detainees of information about their rights.

In April 2009 the Children’s Commissioner for England published a report which stated that children held in the detention centre are denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and left at risk of serious harm. The report details how children are transported in caged vans and watched by opposite-sex staff as they dress. This followed earlier allegations in 2005 by the Chief Inspector of Prisons that children were being damaged by being held in the institution. In 2010, Children’s Commissioner for England Albert Aynsley-Green reported that children detained at Yarl’s Wood faced “extremely distressing” conditions and treatment. On January 11 2011, the High Court ruled that the continued detention of the children of failed asylum-seekers at Yarl’s Wood was unlawful.

In March 2014, 40-year-old Christine Case from Jamaica died at the centre from a massive pulmonary thromboembolism.

The family were not told of her death until eight hours later, and an investigation is underway into accusations that staff denied her medical assistance before her death.

In April 2015 a 33-year old detainee from India died of a suspected heart attack. In April 2014 UN special rapporteur on violence against women Rashida Manjoo was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office when she tried to investigate complaints about the centre as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in Britain. 

The Chief Inspector of Prisons’s latest report said women should only be detained “as a last resort” and for the first time called on the government to introduce a strict limit on how long asylum-seekers can be locked up. The Inspector’s views echo that of a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year, which suggested a 28-day maximum limit on detention amid evidence that spending any longer locked up can be catastrophic for detainees’ health. Britain is the only country in the EU which has no limit on the length of time that asylum-seekers can be detained.

Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, has called for Yarl’s Wood to be closed: “The fact that people fleeing war and persecution are being locked away indefinitely in a civilised country is an affront to the values of liberty and compassion that we proudly regard as the cornerstones of our democracy,” he said. Sonya Sceats, director of policy and advocacy at the charity Freedom from Torture, said the Chief Inspector’s latest report showed something was “really rotten in the immigration system” and called on the Home Office to accept that “asking for protection in the UK is not a crime.”

  • Steven Walker is a Unicef children’s champion.


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