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Yarl’s Wood: still a nightmare

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women for refugee women, Yarl's Wood, female asylum seekers, I am Human, research‘Men watched them in intimate situations such as while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet.’

A report ‘I Am Human: Refugee women’s experiences of detention in the UK’, has been published recently that looked at the experiences of 38 women who came to the UK to seek asylum and were detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre between June 2012 and October 2014.

It focussed particularly on what these women told Women for Refugee Women (WfRW) about how they were treated during their arrests, detention and attempted removals.

WfRW undertook this research in order to gain more insight into the way that the Home Office and their contractors treat women who come to this country seeking protection.

In 2013, 6,396 women came to this country to claim asylum in their own right, out of 23,584 asylum applicants overall.

During 2013, the Home Office detained 2,038 women who had come to the UK to seek asylum. 43 per cent were held for more than a month.

Many of those held in immigration detention are not asylum seekers, but WfRW were only looking at the experiences of those who come to the UK seeking asylum.

In January 2014 Women for Refugee Women published a longer report which explored the experiences of women who had been detained in the UK after seeking asylum.

That report, ‘Detained: women asylum seekers locked up in the UK‘, discovered compelling evidence that women who are survivors of rape, sexual violence and other torture are often being held in immigration detention for long periods when they come to this country to seek asylum, and that this detention has a very negative impact on their mental health.

The research WfRW undertook for this new report adds more weight to those original findings. For instance, the women spoken to for this report also talked about grave experiences of persecution in their home countries.

Of the 34 women who disclosed their experiences of persecution, 19 women said they had been raped; 21 women had experienced other sexual violence; 28 women said that they had experienced gender-related persecution under the headings asked about – rape, sexual violence, forced marriage, forced prostitution, or female genital mutilation – and 21 women said that they had been tortured in their home countries.

WfRW said, ‘We cannot know how representative these findings are compared to the whole population of asylum seeking women, but this suggests that the UK government is still routinely detaining large numbers of women who are survivors of rape, sexual violence and other torture.

‘We should state that all our research relies on women’s own accounts of their experiences of seeking asylum and being detained.

‘We did not seek corroborating evidence but simply allowed women to tell their own stories in their own way.’

‘Again, we found that detention had an extremely negative impact on the mental health of those who have already experienced persecution.

‘Among the women we spoke to, half of those who answered said that they had been on suicide watch in Yarl’s Wood, and 40 per cent said they had self-harmed.

‘This is comparable to findings in our previous report, where one in five of the women we spoke to said she tried to kill herself in detention.’

There have been recent reports of sexual assaults within Yarl’s Wood. In June 2014 the management of Yarl’s Wood said that 31 allegations of sexual contact had been investigated and 10 staff had been dismissed.

Six women in the sample said that staff at Yarl’s Wood had made sexual suggestions to them, and 3 said that they were touched sexually.

However, research suggests that the intimidation of women in Yarl’s Wood does not start and end with sexual assault. Almost every woman told us about other ways in which they felt their privacy was invaded, especially by the male staff at Yarl’s Wood.

Almost all of them said that men watched them in intimate situations such as while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet.

Of the 38 women, 33 stated that they experienced men seeing them in these situations. Three did not answer, one was on the family wing with her husband, and only one stated this never happened to her.

Of these 33, 13 said that men saw them naked, 29 said men saw them partially dressed, 29 said that men saw them in bed, 16 said men saw them in the shower and 14 said men saw them using the toilet.

Nineteen of the women spoken to were on suicide watch for some or all of their time in Yarl’s Wood. For them, the invasions of privacy felt particularly extreme, as they were watched continuously night and day, and even told not to cover their faces while they slept.

Seven of the women in the sample had also been put into solitary confinement in Yarl’s Wood, for reasons ranging from punishment after they protested, to having suspected communicable diseases – and the majority of these were also watched by men while they were in solitary confinement.

The women also talked to WfRW about how they felt their privacy was invaded by being searched by men.

‘Thirteen of them told us that they were searched by a male member of staff. Twenty-two of them said that they were watched by men while being searched by a female member of staff,’ the report continues.

‘These experiences of being watched by men were distressing. Thirty-one of the 33 women who were watched by men said that this made them uncomfortable, 27 said they felt ashamed, and 27 said they felt scared.

‘It is also something that the Home Office has denied. In January 2014, when we published our previous report, the Home Office made this statement: ‘Male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm.’

‘Our evidence shows that this is not the case, and that either the Home Office does not know what roles are given to male staff and how they have been behaving in Yarl’s Wood, or it is deliberately misleading the public.’

Women also spoke of other ways in which they felt victimised by staff members, male and female.

For instance, while only 6 women said that they resisted being taken into detention, 15 of them said that they were handcuffed.

They also spoke about how they felt abused or bullied in Yarl’s Wood.

Six women said that a member of staff made a sexual suggestion to them, and 3 said that they were touched sexually. Seven said that they were assaulted by a member of staff. Twenty-nine said that they were bullied by a member of staff. Twenty-five said that they experienced a member of staff being racist to them. Twenty-four women witnessed another woman in detention being subjected to some kind of abusive behaviour.

This report builds up a more detailed picture of what happens to women when they are detained in the UK.

WfRW believe that detention is unnecessary in the asylum process and that women who seek asylum should not be detained.

In 2013 only 633, or 31 per cent, of women who were detained after seeking asylum left detention to be removed from the UK, the rest re-entered British society to continue their asylum claims.

Their detention had served no purpose.

All asylum claims can be considered while the asylum seeker lives in the community. This need not compromise immigration controls, as the government learned after it announced it would end the detention of children for immigration purposes in 2010. An evaluation of the new family returns process in 2013 found that ‘5 per cent of families within the new process [with minimal use of detention] had absconded. This is exactly the same as in the previous process.’

Detention is also very expensive.

In 2013, the UK government reported in Parliament that the cost of detaining an individual in an immigration removal centre for a year is £37,230.5

Maintaining an asylum seeker in the community has consistently been found to be significantly cheaper.6

Women for Refugee Women is not the only organisation that is recommending a change or end to the process of detention for those seeking asylum.

The recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Detention heard from many organisations including Liberty, Amnesty International and UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), all of whom are challenging current detention practice.

WfRW recommend an end to the detention of those seeking asylum.

In the immediate future, WfRW recommend that those who have experienced rape or other gender-based violence should never be detained, that pregnant women should never be detained, and that there should be an upper time limit of 28 days on all immigration detention.

WfRW also recommend that immediate changes should be made to the conditions under which women are detained and to the training and recruitment of staff at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

For more detailed recommendations please see page 25 of the report.

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