Just 60 miles north of London, up to 405 women are being held in the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre as they wait to hear whether they will be granted asylum in the UK. Many questions have been raised over whether the treatment of these women is of an acceptable standard. This is made even more complicated by the fact that there is very little information on what actually goes on inside the centre with the exception of a couple of reports. Even the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, its Causes and Consequences, Rashida Manjoo, was denied entry by the UK government (1). Yarl’s Wood has been called “the UK’s most secretive immigration detention centre” (2).
Asylum seekers are the only group that is routinely detained indefinitely without charge, and the UK is one of the few European countries that does not limit the detention length. In 2012, 6,071 women sought asylum in the UK and 1,902 of them were detained. These women, many of whom are escaping war and extreme violence, do not feel they have done anything to warrant detention. However, women have been held in Yarl’s Wood for periods as long as 1 year and 5 months (3). Naturally, you may be questioning the necessity of this detention, particularly because only 36% of the female asylum seekers who were detained and released from detention were actually removed from the country. The rest were released back into the UK (4).
The cost of detention is four to five times the cost of allowing an asylum seeker to live in the community
Unnecessary detention is very likely to have a continuing impact on anyone’s mental health, let alone those with already vulnerable mental health. One of the primary concerns with the centre, is not only the fact that asylum seekers are not criminals, but that many of these women fled here from traumatic pasts. 72% of women the group Women for Refugee Women spoke to in their 2014 report said they had been raped and 41% said they had been tortured, with over 85% saying they had experienced one or the other (4). With backgrounds like this, detention brings back very difficult memories. Rule 35 of the UK’s Detention Centre Rules is in place to protect torture victims or those who are extremely vulnerable in other ways from being detained; yet extremely vulnerable asylum seekers are still being held in detention. The Rule 35 reports at Yarl’s Wood were of very poor quality—difficult to read, undetailed and sometimes even dismissive (3).
93% of the women interviewed in the same Women for Refugee Women survey said they felt depressed while in detention and over 50% had thought about suicide (4). 45% of women held have said they feel unsafe. Additionally, many of women with the aforementioned tough histories naturally do not feel comfortable being guarded by men (3). The vast majority of the women surveyed said male guards had invaded their privacy: they were watched in the shower, toilet, partly or fully undressed in their rooms. Furthermore, in June 2014, Yarl’s Wood’s management—the facility is managed by the controversy-ridden British outsourcing company Serco—said they had investigated 31 allegations of sexual contact, leading to the dismissal of ten staff (5). Publicised allegations seem to have lowered the morale within the centre, as they led to a further loss of trust between staff and detainees (3).
There is also no support in the form of peer support or counseling for the detainees, which would undoubtedly be incredibly useful for the vulnerable asylum seekers. Additionally, there is inadequate support for the women being released or transferred (3). With regards to the women’s asylum cases, a disturbing 59% said they found it hard to find out about their case (4).
Although for the most part detainees said they were treated with respect by staff, the strength of services available for these women is also a concern. An inspection by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons determined that Yarl’s Wood suffers both from too few staff and gaps in training for the staff available (3). In terms of medical care, approximately 62% of women described the health care available to them as either bad or very bad and 67% did not trust the medical staff (4). This would have been particularly problematic for the 99 pregnant women who were held in Yarl’s Wood in 2014, despite the fact that the Home Office said pregnant women should not be detained. Only 9 of those women were actually removed from the UK (3).
For these reasons Yarl’s Wood is “rightly a place of national concern” (3). Nick Hardwick, chief prisons inspector, said that the concerns about Yarl’s Wood show that women should be detained only as a last resort (6). The cost of detention is four to five times the cost of allowing an asylum seeker to live in the community (4). This raises significant questions about how we treat female asylum seekers here in the UK, and calls for an urgent revision of the system.
Lily Moghadam recently graduated from University of St Andrews with a degree in Economics and International Relations and is currently interning at UNHCR London.