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The Women Suffering In Yarl's Wood Detention Centre
18 Feb 2016 7:00 AM
Women can be detained almost indefinitely in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, while their immigration claims and other appeals are slowly processed. Jo, a 54-year-old Ghanaian asylum seeker, who was released from Yarl’s Wood a month ago, spent nearly a year in the centre. “Twice I took an overdose and ended up in hospital," she tells me. "They still detained me. Even the doctors in Yarl’s Wood made a comment about how the Home Office couldn’t care less.”
In Yarl’s Wood, Jo says her depression was exacerbated by boredom and uncertainty. “There are no activities, you cannot use your brain to do anything,” she said, “They dump you there and they forget you. No rehabilitation. You get up and walk to eat. That’s it.” After five months in detention, Jo developed deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially fatal condition often caused by prolonged inactivity. At first, Jo said staff tried to fob her off with painkillers, telling her to go back to her room and wait until a doctor visited the centre at the weekend. “I said, I’m not going anywhere because if I go upstairs I’ll die. I insisted before they took me to hospital.”
Jo was held for a further five months after developing DVT, in addition to severe depression. Eventually she took the Home Office to court and won: her detention was ruled unlawful, and she was released.
Although she is out now, Jo is still dealing with the consequences of prolonged detention. One of her legs is swollen to far larger than the other and sometimes she has to use a wheelchair – a stick at least – to get around. She cries while talking about the things that happened to her in Yarl’s Wood. “I have been through hell,” she said. “I could be dead.”
Anybody who is not a British citizen, including asylum seekers, can be taken into immigration detention as soon as they arrive in the UK (that's if they don’t have the correct papers or if they’re suspected of planning to stay in the country illegally.) Migrants can be detained weeks, months, or even years after they arrive in the country, either when their immigration status changes and they lose the right to remain in the UK, or at any point while their immigration or asylum case is pending, if they’re deemed likely to abscond.
Research has found that detention is ineffective – it doesn’t significantly increase the number of people successfully deported from the UK each year – and it’s expensive: it costs nearly £40,000 a year to detain someone, according to parliament.uk. It’s also extremely harmful to people detained.
Last month, an independent report into immigration detention, commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May, called for ministers to reduce “boldly and without delay” the 30,000 people detained each year. The report, by former Prisons Ombudsman Stephen Shaw, highlights evidence that immigration detention seriously damages the mental health of detainees, and calls for an end to excessive periods of detention. It also calls for a complete ban on the detention of pregnant women and a “presumption against detention” of victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But while the Shaw Report could be instrumental in bringing about policy change, it could also just be tossed on to the mounting pile of evidence against immigration detention. In fact, the Home Office have had guidelines in place for years that reflect Shaw’s finding, it’s just that in practice these guidelines are routinely ignored.
Theresa Schleicher, acting Director of Medical Justice, an organisation that sends voluntary clinicians into detention centres, confirmed that the charity still regularly sees torture survivors and pregnant women detained — the numbers fluctuate, she said, but there’s been no steady decrease.
“We’ve seen so much harm done by detention that at the moment we’re concerned that it’s damaging for everyone,” Schleicher said, “but it is the most damaging for people that are already vulnerable. A start would be for the Home Office to implement their own policy on vulnerable groups and only detain them in very exceptional circumstances.”
Women for Refugee Women, who offer support to people like Jo, point out another major issue with the detention system: Britain is the only country in Europe that doesn’t limit the time someone can be detained for. This can be immensely damaging to both detainee's mental health, and their future prospects.
Inside Yarl’s Wood — buried behind high walls and barbed wire in an industrial estate just outside Bedford — I met Katherine, a tiny 19-year-old who has been detained for 10 months already. Katherine stumbled out in towering wedges, shivering without a jacket. “My roommate told me, ‘you have a visitor, you have to dress up,’” she explained, apologising for being late — she was working in the kitchen where detainees are paid £1.50 an hour to serve food.
Katherine’s mother is from Guyana, but Katherine lived in Venezuela until she was eight or nine, and then came to the UK with her mother, sister, and stepfather, who had British citizenship. She was quickly taken into care because her stepfather was abusive. As a teenager, Katherine was shuttled around south London, greater London and once even sent to the Midlands.
Eventually Katherine got into trouble: she robbed a few shops with a group of friends and was arrested just after she turned 16. As nobody advised her otherwise, she pleaded guilty to everything the prosecution threw at her, and was sentenced to over three years in a young offenders' institution. She expected to be released early for good behaviour, but instead her indefinite leave to remain in the UK was revoked and she was transferred into immigration detention. She now faces deportation to Guyana, a country she doesn’t even remember.
In the past 10 months, Katherine has been rejected for bail three times. She suffers from mental health problems and ADHD. Her case is strong — she’ll probably be allowed to stay in the UK — but her chances of being rehabilitated are clearly diminishing.
“It’s horrible what detention does to people.” Katherine said. “They separate you from your family. They make you feel like you have no hope.”
“Prison is better than Yarl’s Wood,” said Elsie*, 40, who is bisexual and claiming asylum on the grounds that she was kidnapped and tortured for her sexuality Nigeria. “In prison you count your days, you know when you’re leaving, but in Yarl’s Wood you don’t know when they’re coming to take you. It’s so traumatising.”
Yarl’s Wood’s has a history of sexual abuse. In 2013, a Prisons Inspector report recommended that: “Men should not enter women’s rooms unless explicitly invited to do so.” But according to Elsie, the recommendation has been ignored. “Men can walk into your room any time they want because they have the key; when you know they are coming is when you hear the key,” she said.
“It affected me a lot,” Elsie continued, of her time in detention. “By the time Medical Justice came to me to assess me, I was diagnosed with PTSD, paranoia, and I have memory loss. I was living in fear, with flashbacks of what happened back home: it was like it’s put on television and you’re seeing what was happening.”
Medical Justice are particularly concerned about the way torture survivors and people with mental health problems are affected by detention. “Someone who’s experienced trauma, who’s been locked up before, who might suffer from PTSD, the symptoms will get triggered by things that might remind the person of the trauma,” explained Schleicher. “So a guard walking along the corridor, or the sound of a key in the door, or being a small room that’s that kind of shape might remind them of the previous circumstances and might exacerbate their symptoms quite a lot.”
So far, the Home Office’s response to the Shaw report has been non-committal. The immigration minister, James Brokenshire, accepted that there should be a presumption against detention for a new category of “adults at risk”, however he has refused to implement a ban on detaining pregnant women. He has also refused to implement an “arbitrary” time limit on detention.
“If they take me back there, I can’t handle it,” said Elsie. “No woman should be detained in Yarl’s Wood,” she continued, pointing to her slogan t-shirt: “Set her free… God made women to be free, to bear children…”
“Ugh, don’t start with that Bible rubbish,” Jo interjected. “I used to go to Church,” she explained, “but since all these bad things have happened to me, I have lost my faith.”