Yarl's Wood:
behind the doors

One of the women on hunger strike says indefinite detention is taking a toll on mental health

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A detainee involved in protests inside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre has told of the mental toll of her incarceration.

Theresa*, who has been inside the controversial facility for almost three months, said being confined with no idea of a release date leads to mental distress and triggers suicidal thoughts for many women.

“Even prisoners know when their sentence will end. We are very uncertain about what tomorrow holds, and this is killing us psychologically,” she told Big Issue North.

“You walk into this place in your right mind but as the days go by you start talking to yourself and wanting to scream all the time. You hit walls and feel angry and bitter. I work hard to control myself but it’s hard. This place leads many women to feel suicidal.

“There are ladies here who have experienced forced marriage, domestic violence, rape and torture. Now they spend their days reliving these experiences. When you are outside, it’s easier to forget the past because you can keep the mind busy but here there is nothing to do. The impact on our mental health is huge.”

Theresa is one of around 100 women at the Bedfordshire centre who last week launched a strike – refusing to eat, use the facilities or undertake paid work, for which they earn £1 per hour. The protest follows a three-day hunger strike the previous week, and supporters have held a rally outside the Home Office in London to echo their demands.

100 women make demands

The group wants an end to indefinite detention and the detention of vulnerable people. They also want to put a stop to deportations before cases are decided and appeals heard, a fair bail process and improved healthcare and mental health support for people within the facility.

On the phone from inside the centre during the strike Theresa said Yarl’s Wood staff have warned protesters that they could be sent to prison. “Our protest is a peaceful, quiet one and we don’t appreciate having the threat of prisons directed at us,” she said.

Campaigners say legal aid cuts mean asylum seekers are frequently deprived of legal representation and advice, with judges often rubber-stamping Home Office decisions on cases – leaving people destitute, detained and deported rather than in a position to lodge fresh claims and appeals.

Theresa, 34, left her home country of Uganda after her sexuality put her life in danger. Around 18 months after her arrival in the UK her asylum case was refused and she received a letter telling her to leave the country. When she next went to sign in with the Home Office she was arrested and detained.

She said: “My solicitor was putting together a fresh asylum claim for me and we were trying to gather evidence – it is difficult to prove you are from the LGBT+ community and they often don’t believe people.

“When they arrested me they said they were sending me to Heathrow to return me to my country. I was really angry about it but I stuck to my guns and said my life would be in danger if they did. They wrote afterwards that I had engaged in disruptive behaviour during removal but I was never disruptive – I just made my views clear. I have now put in for a judicial review.

“The conditions here are tough. It’s like being in prison – we are confined to our rooms and corridors, but we are not criminals. The beds are hard, there is no privacy and the food is very difficult to eat.

“Our cases progress extremely slowly – a case could take six or nine months and our time here ends with us being told we’re either being deported or released. We don’t understand why we have to stay in the centre for all this time. Why can’t they release us with conditions attached? We were all regularly signing in with the Home Office before being detained and sent here.”

Culture of racism and abuse

A dossier compiled by the Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) brought together powerful testimony about a culture of racism and abuse at Yarl’s Wood from 2005 to 2015. Cristel Amiss, from the organisation, said: “There have been consistent reports of the same atrocious treatment – ranging from racist abuse to allegations of rape and sexual abuse and there’s been a systematic cover-up of this both by Serco, which runs the centre, and the government, which gives Serco the contract.

“Hunger striking – of which there have been many at Yarl’s Wood before this one – is a last resort but women are resorting to this as a legitimate protest against the conditions inside the centre.”

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott visited the facility last month with shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti after a year of asking the Home Office for permission to do so. She raised the issue of the protest in the House of Commons chamber, asking: “Are ministers aware of the long-standing concerns about the quality of medical care at Yarl’s Wood – concerns raised with me by so many women [during my visit]?

“Is the minister aware that victims of trafficking and sexual abuse are being held at Yarl’s Wood, contrary to government undertakings? And is the minister aware that some at Yarl’s Wood are on hunger strike?

“The women of Yarl’s Wood are desperate and we owe them a duty of care. Will the minister agree to meet with me so that I can share with her the specific concerns that so many women raised with me?”

“Essential controls”

A Serco spokesperson said: “We know which residents eat their daily meals in the restaurant and there is also a shop in the centre where residents can buy food. Anyone refusing all food is closely monitored and supported with the professional healthcare team and their situation is kept under close review.

Amiss: “atrocious treatment”. Main photo Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti outside Yarl’s Wood

“Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons in his report published in November 2017 found that ‘there had been significant improvements at the centre’, noting ‘inspectors came away from Yarl’s Wood impressed with the progress the centre had made since the last inspection’ and commenting that ‘the leadership and staff could and should take much of the credit for the improvements.’”

The Home Office says last year more than 90 per cent of people at Yarl’s Wood were detained for four months or less and almost two-thirds were detained for less than a month.

“Detention and removal of those with no lawful basis to stay in the UK are essential parts of effective immigration controls,” a Home Office spokesperson said.

“We do not detain individuals indefinitely – when people are detained, it is for the minimum time possible and detention is reviewed on a regular basis.

“Any decision to maintain detention is made on a case-by-case basis but the detainee’s welfare remains of the utmost importance throughout. The provision of 24-hour, seven-days-a-week healthcare in all immigration removal centres ensures that individuals held there have ready access to medical professionals and levels of primary care in line with individuals in the community.”

*  Name changed to protect identity of interviewee

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