The Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire is set back from the road, surrounded by barbed wire fencing and guards. It looks, to all intents and purposes, like a prison. And that is effectively what it is. The difference? The women detained here have not committed a crime.
There are over 3,500 “beds” in detention centres across Britain, where people are locked up as the Home Office tries to deport them. Each year, over 1,500 of those detained are women. Usually, detention is for an indefinite period of time, so those stuck in these centres do not know when they will be released.
Britain, like some other European countries, has steadily increased its use of immigration detention in recent decades – in the early 1990s, there were just a few hundred cells to hold those who were about to be deported. The increase in detention is part of increasingly harsh border policies. Theresa May’s government has an explicit policy of creating a “hostile environment” for those seeking to live in Britain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the use of detention has been controversial. Firstly, research shows that countries which do not use detention are just as efficient at enforcing immigration controls, calling into question the logic underpinning these centres. And secondly, there are very clear ethical issues with indefinitely imprisoning people who may be the survivors of war and torture.
In September 2016, the government set up the Adults at Risk policy, which was intended to prevent the most vulnerable people from being detained while they seek asylum. The policy stated that victims of sexual and gender-based violence should not normally be detained. It also stated that if a woman’s vulnerability becomes clear while she is in detention, she should not stay locked up.
But according to a new report by the charity Women for Refugee Women, this policy has made little difference to women at Yarl’s Wood. Researchers interviewed 26 women, who had all sought asylum and been detained after the guidelines had been introduced. They found that there was no screening process to detect vulnerability, and that if these vulnerabilities became clear during detention, there was no mechanism to free the women concerned. What this means in practice is that survivors of sexual violence are being locked up by the government, for no crime other than seeking refuge in Britain. Women for Refugee Women spoke to detainees who had been raped, and who had been forced into prostitution. They also spoke to pregnant detainees. “The detention of pregnant asylum seekers increases the likelihood of stress, which can risk the health of the unborn baby,” the Royal College of Midwives told researchers.
Why is there still no screening in place to identify vulnerability before women are taken into detention? And what will it take for this to change?
Campaigners and caseworkers have long drawn attention to the “culture of refusal and disbelief” at the Home Office when it comes to asylum claims. Women’s cases, which often depend on demonstrating personal persecution such as rape or sexual abuse, are notoriously difficult to prove. The fact that detainees are not being vetted for vulnerability continues this trend of failing to respect women’s cases, or to see asylum seekers as human. The report raises serious questions. Why is there still no screening in place to identify vulnerability before women are taken into detention? And what will it take for this to change?
It is difficult to know the answer to this question, as Yarl’s Wood has already been subject to a number of serious complaints. Secret filming at the centre in 2015 prompted national outrage, and since 2013 there have been allegations of sexual abuse of detainees by staff. Recently, the Home Office was forced to admit it had acted unlawfully at Yarl’s Wood when it locked up a Kenyan asylum seeker in a “punishment room” for too long. Also this year, a disabled victim of trafficking complained she had been forced into a waist restraint belt and dragged “like a goat” when the Home Office was trying to deport her.
On top of this catalogue of complaints, the Home Office already knew that vulnerable women were being held in Yarl’s Wood. Two years ago, an independent report found that the centre was holding vulnerable women in conditions that not only caused serious distress but that were entirely unsuitable for people with mental health problems.
Yarl’s Wood, like all detention centres, is not only inhumane but unnecessary and inefficient. Even on its own terms – deporting people from the UK – it fails. The Women for Refugee Women report shows that in 2016, just 15 per cent of asylum-seeking women leaving detention were removed from the UK, while the other 85 per cent were released into the community to continue with their claims. The continued existence of these centres is a stain on our national conscience. If the Home Office insists on locking up innocent people, at the very least they could abide by their own guidelines to ensure that this is done as humanely as possible.