By Alex Johnson
“They are all slashing their wrists apparently. Let them slash their wrists.” These are the words of a guard at Yarl’s Wood asylum detention centre captured by an undercover film broadcast in March. Staff at the facility were recorded referring to detainees as “animals” and “bitches” while encouraging violence and racism. Following the airing of the footage an outcry has led to calls for the facility to be closed and the UK’s system of indefinite detention has come under scrutiny.
But this is 21st century Britain. A country where the UKIP party leader wants to ban HIV-positive immigrants. Where the Daily Mail claims that British holidays in Greece are being ruined by the “disgusting” presence of Syrian refugees, and where government vans drive around cities telling illegal immigrants to “go home”. In a climate of vitriol and misinformation surrounding migration, abuse continues in the failed asylum detention system.
Fifty miles from London in the heart of middle England’s leafy Bedfordshire lies Yarl’s Wood detention centre for failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation. The centre is one of 13 in the UK with a capacity for around 400 mostly female detainees. The secretive facility is notoriously difficult to access for the press, NGOs and even the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo who in April 2014 was denied entry. Secret filming by Channel 4 News earlier this year demonstrates the true extent of the UK’s mistreatment of detainees.
The film uncovered examples of guards inciting violence and using derogatory and racist terms to refer to the detainees. One staff member was filmed saying: “They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up.” Another was recorded saying: “Headbutt the bitch … I’d beat her up”.
This is not the first time Yarl’s Wood has been under the spotlight for the attitude of staff members and the mistreatment of detainees. The NGO Women for Refugee Women spoke to one individual who experienced racism first hand: “One day I asked for cold drinking water. They said, ‘Why are you asking? In Africa you drink dirty water.’ They did not give me any that night.”
Several reports over the past few years allege a pattern of sexual abuse towards residents by staff members. In 2014 A BBC Radio 4 documentary spoke with several female former detainees who claimed the guards would regularly make sexual advances: “He said, ‘I want to see your private parts.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to show you, why I’m going to show you?’ He touched my private parts. I said, ‘Please leave me alone, I’m not feeling okay, you can go.’ He didn’t go.”
A woman who complained to the police in 2013 describes further sexual abuse at the centre, as the Observer reports: “They made ‘hand job’ signs, saying, ‘Wow, you look nice.’ They choose younger girls, the most vulnerable. They do whatever they want.” When the woman’s complaint was noted by the facility’s authorities they attempted to coerce her into science: “They told me that they are going to take me to court about making the complaint because there is no evidence.”
Indefinite detention and abuse leads to high rates of depression within the facility. Women for Refugee Women report that many of people detained at Yarl’s Wood have experienced torture or abuse in their countries of origin and are at risk of severe depression, self-harm and suicide through being held in captivity. One women told the NGO: “The scars of physical torture, from my country, you can see. The psychological scars from detention here, you can’t see but they will last forever.” Of the women interviewed for the report half claimed they had attempted suicide while at the centre and 35% state they attempted to self-harm.
In February the Home Office Minister Lord Bates told the House of Lords that in the past two years there had been zero cases of self-harm at Yarl’s Wood. However, through Freedom of Information requests the Channel 4 News team revealed there had been 74 separate incidents of self-harm in 2013 alone.
The UK is the only EU country with no upper time-limit on detention for asylum seekers. The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for Yarl’s Wood found that in 2014 68 people were held for periods longer than six months, the length of time called for by the EU Returns Directive. The IMB’s report reflects calls from a cross-party parliamentary committee, which in March concluded the need for an upper limit of 28 days detention and only as an “absolute last resort”.
Part of the problem with the dentention process rests with the way in which asylum seekers are rapidly locked-up. The fast-track procedure gives rejected asylum seekers only seven days to lodge an appeal. The practical difficulties involved in appealing and the growth in detainees in recent years lead to a high court judge ruling the process unlawful earlier this month. Mr Justice Nichol said the procedure “looks uncomfortably akin to … sacrificing fairness on the altar of speed and convenience”. The Home Office is appealing the ruling.
There’s an overused cliché in the UK that a week is a long time in politics and this is especially true in an election year. After the initial outcry following the Channel 4 News film both the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and Serco who run the centre promised independent inquiries, which will not be completed until the autumn. The issue has dropped off the media radar in recent weeks. However, campaigners have kept up focus on Yarl’s Wood with a large protest outside the centre on June 6th and an active social media campaign entitled ‘#setherfree‘.
Both the mayor of Bedford Dave Hodgson and the local Conservative MP Richard Fuller have called for the closure of Yarl’s Wood. Mr Fuller MP told the Bedfordshire News: “Immigration detention is costly, ineffective and unjust. It costs millions of pounds a year. Some 70% of people who go into immigration detention go back into the community. These experiences in Yarl’s Wood are a stain on the conscience of this country.”
Questions arise over the accountability of privately run detention facilities. At the end of 2014 Serco was awarded a £70 million contract to run Yarl’s Wood for another eight years, after allegations of abuse had emerged. The NGO Corporate Watch and the Information Commissioner’s Office have demanded the Home Office make public potentially damning reports on two other privately-run detention facilities at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook which are being kept from publication.
The experiences of detainees at Yarl’s Wood demonstrate serious failures in the accountability, effectiveness and necessity of detention. The mistreatment of those most vulnerable cannot continue. Many asylum seekers come to the UK to find refuge from torture, hunger and war only to find themselves suffering abuse in a country they believed would be safe. Pressure must be kept up on the Home Office to end the unnecessary detention of failed asylum seekers and to properly investigate conditions in detention centres. You can support the #setherfree campaign by signing this petition or following @4refugeewomen on Twitter or Facebook.
Alex Johnson is a freelance journalist. He writes on Greece, corruption and European politics. He tweets here: @Ah_johns
‘Inside Britain’s Worst Immigration Removal Centre at Christmas’, The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11308434/Yarls-Wood-Inside-Britains-worst-immigration-removal-centre-at-Christmas.html
‘I am Human Report’, Women for Refugee Women, http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/WRW_IamHuman_report-for-web.pdf