by Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Coordinator

Over the past year there has been a significant reduction in the number of people held in immigration detention. At the end of September 2017, there were 3,125 people locked up in detention centres across the UK; by September 2018, this had fallen by more than 1,000, to 2,049. Within this overall decline, however, one particularly vulnerable group of women are actually being detained in much greater numbers than they were previously. Home Office figures show that the number of women from China in detention doubled between 2017 and 2018.

Since summer last year, Women for Refugee Women has been receiving an increasing number of phone calls from these women, many of whom have been locked up in Yarl’s Wood for months on end. Many of the women who have contacted us speak very little English, and so are very isolated in detention. Often they have no legal representation; they are also very distressed and confused, and terrified about what is going to happen to them. Particularly shockingly, a significant proportion of the women we have spoken to are survivors of some form of trafficking – typically, they have been brought to the UK and forced into prostitution, or to work in a restaurant for no money; and yet, in spite of this, the Home Office has locked them up in detention, in direct contravention of its own policies.

One woman we met, Anna, was trafficked to the UK and locked up in detention as soon as she got here. When she was released, her traffickers were waiting for her outside the detention centre, and she was forced into prostitution. After six months she escaped; over the next few years she worked in restaurants, but was never paid. In one restaurant, she was repeatedly raped by the chef there, who threatened to report her to immigration if she told anyone what he was doing. Anna was then arrested during an immigration raid at the restaurant in 2018, and taken to Yarl’s Wood; when we met her, she didn’t have any legal representation, so we referred her to a solicitor who specialises in trafficking cases. She was eventually released, after spending two months in detention.

Some of the women we have been in contact with have felt unable to disclose what they have experienced, because they are frightened about possible repercussions from their traffickers. And yet even when women do not disclose their trafficking themselves, there is often evidence from the circumstances of their arrest – they may be picked up at brothels, for instance, or, like Anna, at a restaurant – which should immediately alert the Home Office to the fact that they may be victims of trafficking.

We have also seen a number of cases where women have told the Home Office about what they have been subjected to – but the Home Office has completely failed to follow its own policies. One woman we met recently, for instance, disclosed that she had been trafficked to a doctor in Yarl’s Wood. This information was passed onto the Home Office – but, when we met her, several months later, nothing further had been done about this information, and she had been locked up by this point for almost six months.

What we are seeing, then, is not about failure to follow the proper procedures in a few individual cases, or about a small number of vulnerable women ‘slipping through the cracks’. In 2011, a report by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration highlighted that, within the Home Office, there is “a culture that detention is ‘the norm’”; the complete disregard shown by the Home Office for women’s vulnerability in these cases demonstrates that this ‘culture of detention’ remains firmly in place.

So how can we get this culture to change? There needs to be a shift away from the use of detention as a routine part of the asylum and immigration process. Women for Refugee Women and other organisations have demonstrated that detention is unnecessary (most of the asylum- seeking women who are locked up are simply released back into the community) and expensive as well as traumatic.

Women for Refugee Women advocates for an end to immigration detention, and for immediate steps to ensure real reduction in the numbers of women detained and length of detention. There’s huge momentum now around a 28-day time limit on all immigration detention; during the Second Reading of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, MPs from across the political parties set out their support for this. A 28-day time limit on all immigration detention would significantly curtail the Home Office’s powers of detention, and this could result in a clear reduction in the number of people going into detention in the first place. This has certainly been the result of the 72-hour time limit on the detention of women who are pregnant. Since its introduction, in July 2016, the number of pregnant women being detained in the UK every year has fallen by about half.

Alongside this, there also needs to be a shift towards the use of community-based alternatives, focused on resolving people’s cases in the community. For years, the Home Office ignored calls for the development of such alternatives to detention, insisting that, if people didn’t want to be detained, they could simply leave the UK; but then in July last year they announced a pilot community-based programme, for women who would otherwise have been detained Yarl’s Wood. While this pilot won’t significantly reduce the number of women locked up in the shorter term, it does appear to mark a recognition by the Home Office that detention isn’t an inevitable part of the immigration system. The development of this programme could, then, be a critical first step towards dismantling the ‘culture of detention’ within the Home Office, and towards abolishing the use of detention in the UK altogether.