‘Vulnerable women are being locked up every year and we need
to shine a light on the situation inside the detention centre’
The women inside ‘the UK’s worst detention centre had gone through horrors I will never fully understand. They told me heartbreaking stories of coming to the UK to seek asylum. They had all started the formal application process but mid-way found themselves taken in vans to Yarl’s Wood and locked up.
Mostly, they were terrified. These women had been taken from their loved ones (who came to visit them in the Bedfordshire facility and spent most of the time sobbing and hugging). Most did not speak English as a first language and struggled with the appalling conditions in the centre – which has been labelled a “place of national concern.”
It’s why I wanted to see for myselfjust how they were forced to live and hear their accounts of their lives in Yarl’s Wood.
The women told me stories about detainees jumping from stairs to avoid being forcibly removed and made serious allegations of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of male guards.
The picture they painted was horrific. But we do not know to what extent this could behappening. We have no idea if women have been raped, sexually assaulted or harassed by staff inside Yarl’s Wood. Why? Because the Home Office won’t tell us. Staff have refused to answer Freedom of Information requests about sexual violence against female detainees. Their excuse? That “disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests” of the private companies involved with running Yarl’s Wood, such as Serco with runs the centre on behalf of the Home Office.
Serco has not yet responded to a Telegraphrequest for comment but aHome Office spokesperson said they will respond in full to the FOI shortly. “We take our responsibilities under the Freedom of information Act very seriously and aim to respond to all requests within statutory deadlines lines or permitted extensions,” they added.
But this is not good enough. The women detained inside Yarl’s Wood deserve transparency – and so do we. There may be serious incidents taking place inside a Government-sanctioned detention centre, and we the British public have a right to know if they are.
There is already evidence of misconduct. A recent Serco review found actions have been taken against 28 me1mbers of Yarl’s Wood staff since 2007, following allegations and incidents of misconduct and inappropriate behaviour. In 2012 one resident was found to have had sexual relationships with a number of malestaff - three of whom were dismissed.
In 2010, a resident actually became pregnant as a result of a relationship with an office, who was then dismissed. Between November 2010 and January 2011, a 29-year-old Pakistani woman known as Sana was alleged to have been a victim of sexual abuse three times. Serco made a settlement to her without admission of liability.
A recent Women for Refugee Women report also found six women alleged a member of staff made a sexual suggestion to them, while three said they were touched sexually. “Officers were asking some women for sex,” said one woman. “I knew one woman in particular who was having sex with a guard.”
Last year, Rashida Manjoo - the UN special rapporteur on violence against women - said she’d been denied access to Yarl’s Wood by the Government and questioned whether it had “something to hide”.
We must remember female detainees cannot consent to sexual activity with staff. If any guards engage in sexual behaviour with them, it is an abuse of power and needs to be dealt with appropriately. But this can only happen, if it needs to happen,when we know the truth aboutsexual violence inside Yarl’s Wood.
Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, says: “The Home Office refuses to answer straightforward questions regarding the number of pregnant women who are being detained and pressing questions aboutsexual assault in the detention centre. Whatever your view on the rights and wrongs of detention, it is genuinely shocking that our Government can refuse to disclose such information.
“At the moment hundreds of vulnerable women are being locked up in Yarls Wood every year and we need to shine a light on the situation inside the detention centre. We at Women for Refugee Women, together with many MPs and members of the public, are now asking: ‘what does the Home Office have to hide?’”
A security guard stands at the gates of the the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre near Bedford Credit: Getty images
The Home Office also needs to be transparent about the women being held in the centre.Current guidelines that say pregnant women should only be detained in exceptional circumstances, but last year a report found 99 had been detained at Yarl’s Wood.I met one who had been locked up for six months of her pregnancy.
This is unacceptable. We need to know exactly what is happening inside Yarl’s Wood and the Home Office needs to tell us. Home Office staff have not yet responded to our request for comment.