The Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is an isolated, institutionalised building, surrounded by towering fences and CCTV cameras. Most of the approximately 350 detainees at this detention centre in Bedford, United Kingdom are women but there are also some families.
The Yarl’s Wood website, hosted by the contract management company Serco, shows pictures of grinning “residents” and states that its “promise” is “respect, support and commitment”.
But behind the glossy promotion images lies a darker picture.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons concluded from an unannounced inspection that “Yarl’s Wood is rightly a place of national concern,” reporting failings such as poor treatment of vulnerable - often traumatised - women, inadequate healthcare, sexual abuse, high levels of self-harm and insufficient, undertrained staff.
It is little wonder that nearly all of the UK’s 11 immigration detention centres are located out of sight and out of mind; both international law and national policy are regularly flouted in their existence.
The UN’s refugee agency is opposed to the detention of asylum seekers in almost all instances, and the Home Office’s own policies and statements regularly contradict the reality of detention.
For example, Home Office policy states that pregnant women should only be detained “exceptionally”, and pledged to end the detention of children in 2010. Yet in 2014 almost 100 pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood alone, and 203 children were detained in 2013.
The UK stands alone in the EU in placing no limit on the length of detention. In September, in a House of Commons debate, 25 MPs condemned detention outright, with Seema Malhotra, Labour and Co-operative member of parliament (MP) for Feltham and Heston saying that: “The issue unites not just the House, but the country, demonstrating the powerful and overwhelming case for reform of a system that is not fit for purpose.”
Abuses and whistleblowing
This November, around 1500 protestors – including many asylum-seekers or ex-detainees – travelled from across the country to a protest outside Yarl’s Wood. The protest, organised by the Movement for Justice, saw men, women and children march in torrential rain and through muddy fields, chanting: “Shut it down!”; “No human is illegal!”; “Freedom!”
During a round of rousing speeches, a former detainee, who had been detained for three months despite the fact he had a valid student visa, declared: “People need to understand that the UK is carrying out human rights abuses. This is a country that prides itself in human rights, democracy and freedom – how can they preach something that they cannot practice? I am standing here because people need to know about these places.”
Ex-employee turned whistleblower Noel Finn agrees. “When I started working at Yarl’s Wood, I shamefully knew nothing about it. On reflection I think they rely on that, people not knowing about what goes on.”
When Finn began work at Yarl’s Wood as a psychiatric nurse, he wasn’t told much about the centre. Arriving for the first time, he “initially thought [he] was in the wrong place... I noticed very clearly that it was a prison – barbed wire, airlock systems, a central nerve centre of cameras. I thought the patients were going to reflect that and be dangerous people.”
What he discovered was a different story; as asylum seekers, the detainees “are no risk to society, but [in being detained] in some cases become a risk to themselves.”
As a psychiatric nurse, Finn feels certain that the centre not only neglects mental health problems, but creates them. “If I put you in there for six months, you’d become very suspicious of the world,” he says.
The 2015 inspection reported that nearly half of women felt depressed or suicidal on arrival, and that there had been over 70 self-harm incidents in the previous six months.
Finn was troubled by the fact that the complex needs of his patients being met with a “dismal staffing level and unskilled workers”.
And detainees feel the effects of this; in the inspection report, though most women said staff treated them with respect (with significant exceptions), they felt that a lack of understanding and training meant their needs – often set in histories of violence – were not met. Finn felt that many of the more “caring officers are trapped in the system, simply because they need to pay their bills.”
Experiences of sexual and other violence are common for women in Yarl’s Wood. Women for Refugee Women have said that their findings “suggest that the UK government is still detaining large numbers of women who are survivors of rape, sexual violence and torture.”
In light of this, the Home Office made a statement that: “Male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm.” But yet again, it seems that such statements are empty; findings of the inspection revealed that women are still supervised by men at inappropriate times, that 45 per cent felt unsafe in the centre – 20 per cent even their bedrooms – and that allegations of sexual harassment and abuse are alarmingly common.
Again, rules are being disregarded. Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules (which stipulate the way in which detention centres should be run) is to safeguard detainees who are particularly vulnerable; it requires careful monitoring and reviewing of wellbeing and detention in these cases, in order that detention does not continue in cases where it is considered inappropriate.
The Prison Inspectorate’s report stated that the “Rule 35 reports we examined at Yarl’s Wood were among the worst we have seen,” describing some as “dismissive”.
After raising serious concerns about the safety and wellbeing of his patients at Yarl’s Wood, Finn was suspended. He had drawn up a report regarding mental health services in the centre and submitted it to management. “I put everything in there, things they didn’t want to hear. But we needed to understand the failing system to improve it. I said there would be significant consequences if nothing happened – that there would be a death, which there was.”
Following this, Finn was subject to “a spike in emails, abuse, bullying, marginalisation, they would leave [him] with females intentionally – common things that happen when you’re raising concerns, seen as a troublemaker.”
Now suspended from Yarl’s Wood – on vague grounds of “not following orders” - Finn is researching whistleblowing, and says that a culture of “fear and no open discussion or debate” means that staff at Yarl’s Wood are too scared to speak out.
Speaking out against violence
At the protest though, as the clouds finally cleared, people spoke out – loudly and in solidarity. Women inside poked their arms out windows that only open a crack, waving whatever they could. Some waved plastic bags that looked like white flags. They spoke through crackling phone lines about their experiences, as the crowd outside chanted and a former detainee told them: “Our freedom is your freedom. Don’t give up.”
Seeking asylum is not a crime; in fact the right to asylum is guaranteed by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And yet innocent, often vulnerable, people in Yarl’s Wood and elsewhere in the UK are detained indefinitely in “a Class B prison – classified for dangerous people,” says Finn.
Many detainees are eventually released back into the community, which – as concluded the inspection - “raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place.”
The government cannot claim that it is to ‘save taxpayers’ precious money’; detention is much more expensive than maintaining an asylum seeker in the community. Instead, said one ex-detainee, “the tax payer is paying for brutality against women.”
Considering the incessant controversy and damning reports, from detainees themselves right up to the upper echelons of political power, why detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood still exist at all is a valid question.
Finn is clear that “the only purpose they serve is the government’s ideology about immigration.”
This echoes the rallying cries of both detainees and protestors at this month’s demonstration, and, in light of the recent events, more compassion and refuge for those fleeing violence should surely be the natural response, not less.