Sophie Radice,writes about taking the actress Romola Garai into Yarl’s Wood detention centre and support of the WhoMadeYourPants day.


Women for Refugee Women Romola Garai Visits Yarls Wood


The facade of Yarl’s Wood gives it the appearance of a motel stuck in a remote business park, right next to a red bull factory and a bungee jumping outfit. If you take a look around the back of it, though, you’ll see high security fences, security cameras and barbed wire. To get through to the visiting room, you have to leave all your possessions and be searched in a private room. The women detainees are also searched from the other side before they come in – and they are allocated phones that have no camera so that they will not record their daily life in detention. I am no longer allowed to take a pen and paper into the visitors room because when I was last there a guard approached me and said that he had looked up my name on the internet and seen that I worked as a journalist.

I work for Women for Refugee Women, a charity which supports women who come to this country to seek safety. I go into Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire regularly to see women who have escaped from terrible circumstances and come to this country to seek sanctuary. Instead, they find themselves held in detention without knowing when they will be released – or indeed whether they will be deported back to the danger they are desperately fleeing from.

Many of the women I visit want to tell me of their experience back home, and most of them are fleeing experiences so horrific that at times it is hard to give the calm support that they so desperately need. Like Margaret from the Eastern Congo, who was kept in a ‘rape house’ for three months by government soldiers, and who still had the marks from the chains that had held her legs open. She went to Croydon Immigration Centre from Heathrow to claim asylum – and was almost immediately detained in Yarl’s Wood, because the UK Border Agency did not believe her account. As we sat there on the fake leather chairs with the TV blaring she sat, softly repeating, “But I am not a criminal. I have done nothing wrong. No-one in my family had ever been in prison.” She was terrified of the male guards who surrounded her at the centre – so distressed that she had been put on suicide watch, where a male guard had watched her night and day, something which she said brought back the same feelings as the sexual violence she had suffered.

I always walk out of Yarl’s Wood with a heavy sense of guilt, always feel guilty for being free to go home to my family without fear – but that day I also felt so ashamed that my country can do this to women who have already suffered so much.

When I visited Yarls Wood with the actress Romola Garai (Atonement, The Hour, Amazing Grace) we sat and talked to a woman from Cameroon who had also been raped in her home country, and been rejected by her family because of it. As she spoke about what had happened to her and her pain at her separation from her children, I saw that Romola found it very difficult not to cry along with the woman. The woman, ‘Sara’, kept asking us to imagine how we would feel if we did not know where our children were. She said that she felt that she was being punished further by being locked up, and that it was like being ‘tortured once again,’. She described how she had been picked up when she went to report (something asylum seekers have to do on a regular basis), was handcuffed and taken into a van with other women. She had been told that she was going to a ‘nice place’, and was so frightened when she saw that she was going into prison that she had been sick.

On the train home Romola said that she felt that ‘anyone I know, would have found it difficult to walk away from Yarl’s Wood without feeling extremely upset by what I heard and saw.’ A few days later we made a short film, in which Romola describes her journey to Yarl’s Wood and how it made her feel that detention for asylum seeking women was wrong and inhumane.

Romola is supporting a lovely new initiative this Christmas, led by the dynamic Becky John, founder of ‘WhoMadeYourPants’. Who Made Your Pants is a company which makes comfortable beautiful knickers ethically in the UK. Becky came up with the great idea of one day (2nd December) when customers who buy a pair of knickers full price would have the option to buy another pair half price to send to a woman detained in Yarl’s Wood with a personal message.

We know that sending a present and a message is not going to free these women, but we think this is a lovely and simple way for us to show women in detention (many of whomhave very few personal belongings with them) that we are thinking about them and to give them a gorgeous personal gift. The pants will be taken into Yarl’s Wood by Heather Jones, of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a local Bedfordshire organisation that tirelessly supports women in Yarl’s Wood with daily visits.