By Sarah Graham, Communications Executive at Women for Refugee Women
All photos by Shyamantha Asokan
As part of our ongoing Set Her Free campaign, we are currently focusing on the detention of pregnant women. This is because pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the distress caused by being detained. The Royal College of Midwives has said: ‘The detention of pregnant asylum seekers increases the likelihood of stress, which can risk the health of the unborn baby.’
And that is before you look at the longstanding concerns about conditions inside Yarl’s Wood – including male guards routinely watching women in intimate situations, high levels of depression and self-harm, allegations of sexual abuse, and poor quality healthcare. Medical Justice has found that pregnant women in Yarl’s Wood often miss antenatal appointments; that some women have no ultrasound scans during their time in detention; and that women do not have direct access to a midwife.
Home Office policy states that pregnant women should only be detained under exceptional circumstances. However, in 2014, 99 pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood. Moreover, just 9 of these women were deported. The remaining 90% were released back into the community to continue with their claims. Their detention was unnecessary, and very traumatic for the women concerned.
On 22 March 2016, Caroline Spelman MP (Conservative) hosted an event for us in Parliament, with Medical Justice and Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, in which she described the practice of detaining pregnant women as ‘obsolete’ and urged the Government to ‘do all it can to stop holding pregnant women in detention centres once and for all’.
We were privileged to be joined by former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Stephen Shaw, who authored the recent Home Office review into the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention; as well as the Royal College of Midwives (RCM)’s head of midwifery, Louise Silverton; Stephanie Harrison QC from Garden Court Chambers; and a number of women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood while pregnant.
Stephen Shaw stated: ‘The recommendation that I make in my report is that there should be an absolute exclusion of pregnant women from detention. Detention does undeniable damage to both the pregnant woman and her unborn child.’ It was great to hear his words of encouragement to ‘redouble your efforts… [and] take this forward with all your energy.’
Stephanie Harrison QC described the case of Ms PA, who last year received a formal apology and promise of damages from the Home Office for being unlawfully detained while pregnant. ‘Our case exposed, and the Home Office agreed, that it was necessary to review their policy,’ Stephanie said. ‘It is simply impossible to provide the same level of care in detention as in the community. [Detaining pregnant women] is unnecessary and cruel.’
Our third speaker was Louise Silverton, who reiterated the Royal College of Midwives’ support for the campaign. ‘Women in detention are more likely to experience high risk pregnancies, and they are more likely to already be traumatised by their past experiences,’ she said. ‘The Royal College of Midwives is proud to stand alongside the individuals in this room calling for an end to this practice.’
Finally, we heard moving testimonies from three of the women who were detained while pregnant in 2014. ‘Detention is no place for pregnant women. I completely stopped going to healthcare because I lost faith in that department,’ Lorraine told us. ‘I hope and I pray that this concept of detaining pregnant women is abolished.’
Another former detainee stated: ‘When I think about that time I start crying, it was horrible. I came here to claim asylum because I heard the UK is a champion of human rights, but I was wrong.’
Many MPs and peers attended, including Paula Sherriff, David Burrowes, Richard Fuller, Baroness Lister, Baroness Hamwee, Lord Dubs, Tulip Siddiq, Paul Blomfield. Catherine West and Anne McLaughlin, as well as staff from the offices of Kate Osamor and Oliver Letwin.
We are continuing to try to reach more Parliamentarians to ensure that pregnant women are no longer locked up in Yarl’s Wood. This is a key moment in the campaign and we would like your support in reaching MPs on this issue.
Download our briefing here.
And take action with us! Please write to your MP and ask them to raise this issue with James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, asking him to ensure that pregnant women are never locked up for immigration reasons.
If you need help with finding your MP’s address or deciding what to write to them, please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org