Yarl’s Wood, a privately-run detention centre in the Bedfordshire countryside, holds around 400 women, couples and families with adult children awaiting immigration decisions. The centre is run by Serco, which won the £70-million contract in 2007.
The detention centre is located at the rear of a huge business park (located alongside an indoor skydiving centre and a pet crematorium, amongst other mismatched businesses), and is effectively hidden away from view from local residents.
Yarl’s Wood was described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2015 as ‘a place of national concern’: undercover cameras for Channel 4 revealed male officers describing detainees in the most sexist and racist ways imaginable, and three officers were in court last year over the alleged rape of a detainee in their care.
I work with Women for Refugee Women, whose ‘Set Her Free’ campaign is focused on ending the detention of women seeking asylum. Alongside Women for Refugee Women, I wrote the Green Party’s policy calling for scrapping immigration detention back in 2014.
I also volunteer with a group called the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders. This non-campaigning group, set up by the Bishop of Bedford when the facility opened in 2001, trains and then matches people up with detainees who have requested a visitor.
As a befriender, I have met women from across the world seeking asylum for issues such as their sexuality, female genital mutilation and domestic abuse. The UK is one of the only countries in Europe to impose no time limit on detention, and I have seen what huge harm this does to both the physical and mental health of the women.
Not only that, but the healthcare available in Yarl’s Wood is extremely poor, provided by mismanaged private firm G4S.
Women complain that their health issues are repeatedly ignored. Indeed, in March 2014, Christine Case, a Jamaican woman, died in Yarl’s Wood of a heart attack. She had been given paracetamol for her chest pains by the healthcare centre and sent away.
Women are sometimes taken out of Yarl’s Wood by Serco guards for hospital appointments, but there has been controversy recently about the practice of taking women in handcuffs. Serco claims it carries out a ‘risk assessment’ and decides whether or not handcuffs are necessary.
A hopeful moment came last year, with the publication of the Shaw Report, an independent review commissioned by the Home Office after years of criticism about the treatment of immigration detainees, including incidents of death, self harm and sexual abuse in Britain’s 10 immigration removal centres. Written by Stephen Shaw, former prisons and probation ombudsperson, the Shaw Report noted that, at 30,000, the numbers of detained immigrants was too high and needs to be reduced ‘boldly and without delay’.
Shaw argued that there should be a ‘presumption against detention’ of victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorders, and also called for a complete end to the detention of pregnant women in immigration centres such as Yarl’s Wood, where 99 pregnant women were detained last year.
The Shaw Review’s recommendations for how detention needs to change await implementation. The campaign, demanding that migrants are treated like human beings rather than criminals, continues.