by Gemma Lousley, Detention Policy and Research Coordinator

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of women held in immigration detention in the UK has dropped dramatically. At the end of December 2019, there were 121 women in detention. By the end of March 2020 – just after the first national lockdown came into force – this number had fallen to 42. By mid-August, there were fewer than 20 women in detention.

At this point, the Home Office announced that they were ‘re-purposing’ Yarl’s Wood, which for so long had been the only detention centre in the UK predominantly for women. It was stated that Yarl’s Wood would become a short-term holding facility, instead, for men arriving in the UK by boat.

The arrival of refugees in the UK via the English Channel has, increasingly over the past six months, been whipped up as a ‘crisis’ by the government and some sections of the media – despite the fact that the proportion of the world’s refugees who manage to get to the UK is tiny. As some have pointed out, by presenting the arrival of refugees via the Channel as a ‘crisis’ and proposing various ‘solutions’ to this, including the re-deployment of Yarl’s Wood, the government has attempted to distract from its incompetence and neglect in the handling of the pandemic.

So, Yarl’s Wood did not close; it simply became a different type of detention centre. For the men held there since its ‘re-purposing’, Yarl’s Wood has continued to inflict the same racist harms that defined it while it was locking up women. A recent report on the use of Yarl’s Wood as a short-term holding facility highlights that the men detained there are from countries including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Sudan. These men have found it almost impossible to get proper legal advice; they have not been able to access safeguarding mechanisms for survivors of torture and trafficking, which are supposed to protect against their detention; and they have not been provided with adequate medical care.

Keeping Yarl’s Wood ‘open’ has also meant that the Home Office could ‘re-purpose’ it once more at a moment’s notice – which it now has done. We have just learned that, alongside operating it as a short-term holding facility for men, the Home Office has started indefinitely detaining women at Yarl’s Wood again. We understand that there are currently around 10 women locked up there.

The Home Office apparently re-started the indefinite detention of women at Yarl’s Wood about three weeks ago. In contrast with the ‘re-purposing’ of Yarl’s Wood in August, however – and indeed the ‘closure’ of Morton Hall detention centre in July, which has not in fact been closed but turned into a prison – the Home Office has not made any public announcement about this latest development. Re-starting the indefinite detention of women at Yarl’s Wood – a place that in 2015 the Chief Inspector of Prisons labelled ‘a place of national concern’ – is apparently not considered significant enough to warrant this. It just happened.

The Home Office’s non-announcement of this latest development at Yarl’s Wood is partly about its lack of transparency and desire to avoid any accountability. But it is also about the invisibility of women in immigration detention. Women have always made up a small proportion of those held under immigration powers – and, currently, their numbers are very low. Consequently, what happens to women in detention is often overlooked and considered unimportant – and not only by the Home Office.

Earlier this year, for example, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published the first annual inspection of the Adults at Risk process, which is the process designed by the Home Office to supposedly prevent the detention of people who are vulnerable. In the report, the Chief Inspector explains that to conduct the inspection it was not only detention centres that were visited; inspectors also went to four prisons where people were being held under immigration powers. What the Chief Inspector should have said, however, was that four prisons for men had been visited. No women’s prisons were visited during the inspection at all.

But the small numbers of women in immigration detention does not mean that the use of detention for them is insignificant. As Women for Refugee Women has repeatedly highlighted, the majority of women detained are survivors of rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Locking up these women indefinitely causes immense harm and re-traumatises them. One in five of the women we spoke to for our 2014 report Detained said that they had tried to kill themselves in detention. Forty per cent of the women we interviewed for our 2015 report I Am Human said that they had self-harmed while detained. One woman we interviewed for our 2017 report We Are Still Here told us: ‘Detention is another form of torture. You think you’ve escaped it in your country, but then you get here and you go through more.’ 

Moreover, the vast majority of women locked up in detention are not removed from the country, but released back into the community to continue with their cases. In 2018, just 14% of asylum-seeking women leaving detention were removed from the UK. This, of course, has been exacerbated by the global pandemic we are now living under. In a recent ‘short scrutiny’ report of four detention centres, including Yarl’s Wood, HM Inspectorate of Prisons highlighted that since the start of the pandemic ‘few removals had taken place and few were scheduled’.

What the small number of women currently in immigration detention does mean, however, is that the Home Office could formally put an end to the detention of women today. Since 2019 the Home Office, with the charity Action Foundation, has been running a case management-focused alternative to detention pilot for women – a pilot that is due to come to an end in early 2021. The Home Office is therefore in a position to use emerging findings from this pilot to develop and expand the use of alternatives to detention for women, and to stop locking them up now.

At the time of Yarl’s Wood’s first ‘re-purposing’ in August this year, Mariam Yusuf, a campaigner who was detained at Yarl’s Wood, said: It is time to shut down Yarl’s Wood for good to put an end to this site of injustice and inhumanity.’ We are calling on the Home Office to recognise that the historically low numbers of women currently in detention presents a real opportunity for meaningful change. Given how low these numbers are, the Home Office could formally end the detention of women immediately. This would be an important step towards abolishing immigration detention, and the immense harm that it inflicts, in the UK altogether.