Yarl’s Wood opened in 2001. It is one of 11 Immigration Removal Centres in the UK, and it predominantly holds female detainees. Placed into the hands of the private company Serco in 2007, the day-to-day running of the centre is marked by allegations of degrading treatment by guards, and criticised for being shrouded in secrecy. On an official visit to the UK in April 2014, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, was blocked from visiting Yarl’s Wood in order to investigate allegations of sexual abuse. Hundreds of similar complaints have been made public since, but while guards have been dismissed, Serco continues to maintain there is no widespread problem. In March 2015, exclusive Channel 4 footage from inside the centre revealed incidents of self-harm, inadequate healthcare, and aggressive and offensive language being used by staff. One member of the Serco management team was quoted on camera saying, “They’re caged animals. Right? Take a stick in with you and beat them up.” The latest report on Yarl’s Wood published by the Chief Inspector of Prisons labelled it “a place of national concern”.

Nine out of ten of the women detained in Yarl’s Wood have sought asylum in the UK. They have not committed any crime that warrants such a denial of their freedom. But in an era defined by the threat of global terrorism, the UK’s prerogative to defend its borders seems to repeatedly trump the human rights of detainees. Detention is increasingly used for administrative convenience, rather than as a last resort. The UK is currently the only country in the EU not to have a time limit on immigration detention. Whilst the majority are held for less than two months, a small proportion are held for over a year. To what end? In 2013, only 31 per cent of women who were detained whilst seeking asylum left the UK. The majority are released back into the community, but the impact of detention stays with them. The uncertain duration of detention, coupled with the deprivation of freedom and fear of deportation, means that detention can have a lasting and damaging impact on the mental health of detainees. Many have rightly criticised the government for not doing enough to tackle the current refugee crisis. But in calling for our government to welcome more refugees, it must be ensured they are treated with dignity upon arrival.

“It is a prison without trial”.

Last year, I met a woman in Yarl’s Wood who had been trafficked to the UK from Nigeria. She told me the sense of unknowing made it worse than prison. Whilst in prison, she was counting down the days until her release; here, she can only count up. It was coming up to nine months since she had been detained, and she remained hopeful that her lawyer would get her released soon. Since her arrival, she had been attacked by her roommate, after which she was taken to Kingfisher Isolation Unit for a short stint. She was on anti-depressants and said that the healthcare was appalling.  She is anaemic, but in the detention centre was unable to cook her own food and said that the kitchen catering did not meet her needs. She is a mother, desperate to be free to be a mother again. At the time of writing, she is still there.

Her story is a far cry from the official image presented by the detention centre. Take a look at the website. “Respect, support, commitment. That’s our promise”. It self-identifies as a “fully contained residential centre”, with “a comprehensive list of activities… from sporting events and arts and crafts to access to hair and beauty treatments, to name a few.” And despite revelations to the contrary from ex-detainees, the disguise seems to hold up for some. You only have to skim through the comments section of articles about detention and you’ll see people likening it to a hotel, referencing the free healthcare, the free gym, the free legal advice.

More generally, though, Yarl’s Wood is outside the public frame of reference. It is tucked away, out of sight and out of mind, in the countryside close to Bedford on an industrial complex that is also home to indoor racing and a pet crematorium. When you enter, the sense that it is designed to be hidden from the public eye is pervasive. You are not allowed to take anything in, bar small change and, subject to discretion, a pen and paper. You cannot go beyond the visiting room, and there are strict visiting times. Detainees are not allowed social media and are only permitted Serco provided mobile phones. An increasing number of detainees have been handcuffed to attend medical appointments at Bedfordshire Hospital.

Time and again, I have heard from former and current detainees that the worst thing about Yarl’s Wood is the healthcare. One of the most damning findings by the Chief Inspector of Prisons was that pregnant women were being detained against the Home Office’s own policy that this should only happen in the most exceptional circumstances. In 2014, 99 women were locked up in Yarl’s Wood while pregnant. At a reception in parliament for the campaign to end the detention of pregnant women, a former detainee spoke to an attentive crowd of politicians, activists, and lawyers about the lack of support she was given as a pregnant woman in detention, and how she feared for both herself and her baby. “Detention is no place for pregnant women. Healthcare had this agenda of sending me back. I stopped going to healthcare because I lost faith in that department.” Her child crawled freely around the room as other former detainees spoke out about their similar experiences. The testimonies reveal a pervasive cynicism from healthcare staff towards detainees, believing that they are faking illnesses to evade deportation.

Sarah Graham, Communications Executive for Women for Refugee Women, echoed this concern, when I spoke with her: “Healthcare is a concern that comes up again and again. It is a massive problem for women in detention; they may have already experienced a culture of disbelief from the Home Office, and then have to go through it again with healthcare, who think they are making it up. They may have to wait months for an appointment at Bedfordshire Hospital. We hear about serious mental health problems being treated as behavioural problems. There is a lack of understanding about the issues these women face, a lack of training, and often a lack of compassion.”

Many of the women that Women for Refugee Women speak to in Yarl’s Wood came to England fleeing gender-based persecution; survivors of rape, torture, female genital mutilation. Figures suggest they represent up to 93 per cent of those detained after seeking asylum in Yarl’s Wood. Some, like the woman I met, are victims of human trafficking. Sarah Graham describes their experience of detention as a “retraumatisation”. She continues, “It’s often thought that once you’ve been released, the trauma is over, but it is still really difficult. Women have told me that they experience nightmares, flashbacks, and still hear the sound of keys in the doors”. Another woman, detained a few years ago, stated she was taking anti-depressants because of detention, where she had thought of killing herself several times: “It is a prison without trial”. Figures recently released by the Home Office following a freedom of information request by the NGO No Deportations reveal that the number of suicide attempts in immigration removal centres are at an all time high, averaging more than one a day in 2015. People often desperately need professional support upon release, and yet this is, unsurprisingly, difficult to access. Women for Refugee Women do not have the resources to provide mental health support themselves, and instead seek counselling through specialist organisations such as the Helen Bamber Foundation, and Freedom from Torture, or through local counselling services and GPs. As expected, with mental health care in crisis across the country, this is not easy.

Is a time limit a step in the right direction? Absolutely. But Sarah does not believe this will solve the problem: “Detention in and of itself is traumatic. It could be infinitely improved, but the deprivation of liberty would still be traumatic. That is why as an organisation we call for an end to the detention of asylum seekers. Reports have shown that the longer you’re there, the more it impacts on your mental health. But that’s not to say that if you were there for only two weeks, you’d leave feeling absolutely fine.”

What’s more, the limited reforms that have been pushed through the Immigration Bill have also been accompanied by significant steps back, with the government retracting its 2010 commitment to end the detention of children. Speaking to former and current detainees, the overwhelming impression is one of disillusionment with the system. A sense of helplessness that their voices were not properly heard, that these injustices are carried out on a daily basis in a country which prides itself on a strong human rights record.

In the words of one former detainee: “I came here to claim asylum because I heard the UK is a champion of human rights, but I was wrong.”


Words by Anna Spencer and illustration by Elena Boils