Yesterday it was reported that Yarl’s Wood detention centre has been emptied of women and may be ‘repurposed’ as a holding centre for people who have crossed the channel.

Women for Refugee Women has been campaigning against the detention of women seeking asylum since 2014. While we welcome the news that Yarl’s Wood detention centre is being emptied of women, there are many unanswered questions, including what the centre is going to be used for now and what is going to happen to women who might have faced detention there. We are calling on the Home Office to be transparent about the future use of the centre and to be proactive about the development of alternatives to detention in the asylum process.

Mariam Yusuf, who was detained in Yarl’s Wood and now volunteers with Women for Refugee Women and Women Asylum Seekers Together Manchester, says:

“I came to the UK seeking safety, but instead I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood. That experience tore my life apart and I know many other women who continue to struggle with the trauma of being locked up there. For many years I have campaigned to shut down Yarl’s Wood. To hear that it is now becoming empty fills me with hope. But it is time to go further and shut down Yarl’s Wood for good to put an end to this site of injustice and inhumanity.”

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, says:

“I first visited Yarl’s Wood detention centre in 2007, when children were still detained there. We saw an end to the indefinite detention of children in 2011, and I hope that we are now moving away from the detention of women and all those caught in this inhumane system. I have worked with so many women who have been locked up in this centre, who have spoken so eloquently of the pain and suffering they have experienced. It is time not only to move women out of this particular centre, but to put an end to the system of detention and ensure that women in the asylum process can be supported in the community.” 

Philippe Sands QC, human rights lawyer and author of East West Street and The Ratline, spoke at the launch of the Set Her Free campaign in 2014. He says:

“The indefinite detention of those who come to this country to seek safety from persecution is a stain on all our consciences. The right to seek asylum was enshrined in British and international law in the wake of the Second World War and  all of us who care about the rule of law need to uphold it into the future. I hope that the news that Yarl’s Wood detention centre is being emptied of women could be a sign that this government will move away from its reliance on detention and start to ensure that those seeking protection here are given liberty, dignity and a fair hearing.”

Juliet Stevenson, actor and supporter of the Set Her Free campaign, says:

“I am glad to hear that women are no longer being held in this facility which brought so much needless suffering to so many women who were seeking sanctuary from war, rape and torture. I have been proud to stand with many of these women to campaign against their detention and I hope that they can now find safety and hope for the future.”

Stella Creasy MP (Labour) says:

“For years many of us have campaigned alongside brave women detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, because we have been horrified by the stories of women who have fled sexual violence and persecution only to be locked up indefinitely when they came here for protection. The centre has been a place of suffering and trauma for too long and it’s good to hear that women are no longer being held there. The Home Office should now be transparent about its future plans, and close Yarl’s Wood immediately rather than keeping it open under its multi-million pound agreement with Serco.”

Richard Fuller, Conservative MP for Bedfordshire (the constituency where Yarl’s Wood is situated):

“Indefinite immigration detention is both expensive, and harmful to those individuals who are locked up. I cautiously welcome the news that women are no longer being held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre but join the call for further transparency and hope that we will see greater humanity when it comes to ensuring that those who seek asylum here are given a fair hearing.”

Women for Refugee Women has led the Set Her Free campaign since 2014. It has enabled many women in detention to speak about their experiences and brought together Parliamentarians from all parties to demand change.

  • In 2014, we published research that showed that the majority of women in Yarl’s Wood were survivors of sexual violence and that detention re-traumatised them.
  • In 2015, we published research showing that women in the centre were routinely denied privacy and dignity, and were being watched by male staff even in bed and on the toilet.
  • In 2016, 99 influential women wrote messages of solidarity for the 99 pregnant women who were detained in Yarl’s Wood, leading to a change in policy and a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women.
  • In 2017, we pressed the government to explore viable alternatives to detention for women seeking asylum.
  • In 2019, we published research on the experiences of Chinese women in detention, showing that they were often locked up despite clear evidence of trafficking.
  • In 2020, we shone a light on how women were being held without due regard to their rights and safety at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s time to shut down Yarl’s Wood and put an end to immigration detention altogether.