Tonight Channel 4 News will broadcast an undercover investigation into Yarl’s Wood detention centre revealing the abuse and harassment of women who are detained there
by Gemma Lousley, Policy and Reseach Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women
The report shows guards referring to female detainees as ‘black bitch’ and ‘evil’, making threats of violence, and showing a callous disregard for their mental health – “let them slash their wrists”, one says. One guard says he deliberately walks in on women in their rooms while they are naked. The report also highlights the appalling treatment of a woman who suffered a miscarriage and was made to wait three hours for medical attention.
This investigation corroborates the findings of Women for Refugee Women. In January last year, we published Detained, which highlighted the distressing impact of detention for women seeking asylum, most of whom have survived rape, sexual violence or other torture. The report received significant media attention.
Then, in June 2014, Serco, the private company that runs Yarl’s Wood, admitted to the Home Affairs Committee that 10 members of staff had been dismissed in relation to allegations of ‘improper sexual contact’ with female detainees. These dismissals, they explained, related to eight separate cases out of a total of 31 that had been investigated over the past seven years.
In spite of this, however, in November 2014, the government decided to renew Serco’s contract to run Yarl’s Wood for another eight years.At the beginning of this year, we published I Am Human, a report which documented in detail the abuses suffered by women held in Yarl’s Wood. We found that male guards routinely watch women in intimate situations, including while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet. We also found that the majority of women we spoke to had been searched by a male guard, or with a male guard watching, both of which are clear breaches of Home Office Policy.
The report highlighted, too, an ongoing culture of inappropriate sexual conduct at Yarl’s Wood. A significant proportion of the women told us that staff had been racist to them; women also told us that guards had physically assaulted them. Unsurprisingly, but nevertheless shockingly, half of the women we interviewed had been on suicide watch while in detention and 40% said they had self-harmed.
When we published I Am Human, Serco dismissed the women’s accounts of their experiences in Yarl’s Wood as “uncorroborated”. And as recently as last Tuesday 24 February, the government continued to argue that Yarl’s Wood is a “safe and secure place”, insisting in a House of Lords debate that “the standards provided by Serco … are of a very high level.”
In response to the Channel 4 News report, however, the Home Office has said that “these are clearly very serious and disturbing allegations which merit immediate scrutiny,” and Serco have now announced that they have asked a former barrister to “carry out an independent review into our work”.
In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it’s difficult to see what reviews of Yarl’s Wood and the treatment of women there are meant to achieve. Now, surely, is the time for action. We have advocated for improvements in conditions at Yarl’s Wood, and recommended that no male staff should be employed in roles where they come into contact with female detainees. Ultimately, however, such measures can only ever mitigate the harms that women in detention are subjected to. Detention, in itself, is traumatic: the government, quite simply, needs to end the detention of women who come to the UK to seek protection.
You can get involved with the Set Her Free campaign by writing to Theresa May and asking her to end the detention of women seeking asylum. Women for Refugee Women has produced Set Her Free postcards: if you would like to use these to write to her, please email us at email@example.com and we’ll send you some.
You can also sign the Set Her Free petition, started by Meltem Avcil, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood at the age of 13. The petition already has more than 50,000 signatures.
By Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women