By Harriet Wistrich

Women for Refugee Women Abuse Behind Bars

Two of my clients recently took the brave step of speaking to a journalist about embarrassing and intimate details of abuse they had experienced in Yarl’s Wood detention centre. They did so in order to expose the scandal of male officers taking advantage of vulnerable women in the infamous detention centre.

I have worked as a lawyer over the last ten years with many detainees who have been incarcerated at Yarl’s Wood, which is the main holding centre for women who are being detained under immigration powers. The Serco management at Yarl’s Wood like to point out the comfortable accommodation and range of facilities offered to the women detained there. However, any person I have met who has ever been detained at Yarl’s Wood describes it as a prison. For many it is worse than prison, because at least if you are sent to prison it is because you have been convicted of a crime, and you are given a date when you will finish your sentence.

Even those who have been incarcerated in terrible conditions in their own countries can experience shock when they are locked up for no reason other than because they are seeking asylum, in a country they had always believed upheld human rights.  And for all those detained the uncertainty as to if and when they may ever be released creates huge anxiety.  However many facilities Yarl’s Wood may boast, however relaxed the regime may be compared to a prison, there is no doubt it is still a prison – a prison with high fences, locked doors, guards with keys and regular roll calls.  To pretend that the relationship between staff and detainee is anything other than that of guard and prisoner is to ignore this fundamental reality.

Recognising this fundamental power difference is critical to understanding why what happened to my clients at Yarl’s Wood – and to a number of other women who have since come forward with similar complaints –  is nothing short of a scandal.  As Nick Hardwick, HM Inspector of Prisons, recently stated, it is “something that can never be less than abusive given the vulnerability of the detained population.” One organisation, Redress, has even written to the police on the back of the media coverage to alert them to the possibility that these allegations may amount to a form of torture.

Superimposed on this prison regime is the added dimension of a culture of disbelief.  Anyone who has been through the asylum process will know how hard it is to persuade the authorities that their harrowing story is true.  Many decision-makers believe that asylum seeker equals “bogus” and that most people who come to this country do so, at best, to better themselves economically.  When you put this in-built prejudice against asylum seekers together with a similar culture of disbelief in relation to women who have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted you begin to understand how hard it is for any woman detained at Yarl’s Wood to complain of sexual assault, let alone to be believed.

One of the women who complained, after a male nurse sexually assaulted her for the third time, found herself up against this culture of disbelief. Her complaints were dismissed by Serco, the UK Border Agency and the police on the basis that she was probably complaining as a ruse to allow her to remain in the country. This was despite the fact that after she made the complaint she was served with removal directions within days. On the contrary, my client did not complain earlier about the sexual assault as she feared it would adversely affect her immigration status.  Yet the failure to complain on previous occasions when she was sexually assaulted was used as another reason to doubt her credibility!

It is not surprising, when you look at the quality of the investigations into my client’s complaint, that sexual abuse continued at Yarl’s Wood.  If Serco, the police and UKBA fail to properly investigate complaints made by detainees, then those who seek to abuse their power will continue to do so with impunity.  As Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary, said recently: “The evidence of abuse at Yarl’s Wood is appalling. The Home Office and Serco have a responsibility to act much faster and much more effectively to stamp out abuse and make sure vulnerable women get the support and help they need.”

Indeed, it is only when the officers concerned, Serco and UKBA are properly held to account, that there can be any confidence that women will be safer at Yarl’s Wood in the future.  But this prospect is unlikely. The government’s proposals to end legal aid for detainees by imposing the outrageously discriminatory “residence test” will make it even harder for justice to be done in the future.  If this reform becomes law then neither of my clients would have received legal aid to assist them in speaking out and challenging the system. This system is already frighteningly stacked against vulnerable women, I fear that it might be getting even worse.

Harriet Wistrich is a solicitor at Birnberg Peirce.