Yashika Bageerathi (right) has been deported just months from taking her A-levels. Photo: change.org
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Yashika Bageerathi’s deportation and the institutional heartlessness of our asylum system

The Mauritian schoolgirl had been held at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where another woman recently died. If we want to be a country that can be proud of helping those in need, we need to shut it down.

Last night, a 19-year-old girl was deported. She was escorted on to Air Mauritius flight MK057 by five security guards, and placed in the middle of the empty rows of seats the Home Office had bought up to make sure she sat alone. She was warned not to scream or answer calls. Her supporters claimed that she had been denied food all day, in an effort to weaken her. After two failed attempts to bundle her out of the country, this time, the Home Office was taking no chances, sparing no amount of “taxpayers’ money” to rid us of this troublesome sixth-former. Her name was Yashika Bageerathi. Next month, she would have been taking her A-levels.

The Home Office has been reluctant to comment on this case. And no wonder. Whatever the merits of Yashika’s asylum claim, there could be no credible case for deporting her so close to exams that could shape the course of her life. And these were exams in which Yashika was predicted to excel – her teacher told me that she was expected to achieve A*s in all her exams, and that she had been offered scholarships by both Newcastle and Queen Mary’s University. And so the Home Office hid behind jargon. Proper legal process had been followed, they told us. “We do not routinely comment on individual cases”, they squirmed. No answer to the repeated question of why the unseemly haste, given their own policy says students under 18 should not be deported in the final months before their exams? Yashika was 19 though, and therefore the spirit of the law need not be applied. Only the petty-minded letter.

Still though, in the Home Office’s defence, they could argue that they had already ruined Yashika’s chances of getting those predicted grades. Since the 19 March, she had been detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where a 2013 inspection found that education was “restricted to study at a low level”. Even if they had been able to provide her with the tuition and materials she needed, it is unlikely she would have been able to focus. Torn from her family, with an uncertain future and the fear of being returned to a country where an abusive relative awaited her, Yashika told Channel 4 News, “I try to [sleep], but it’s just sleeping, wake up, sleeping, wake up. And I just keep thinking. About what might happen. What will happen.”

The day Yashika spoke to Channel 4, was, she said “a bad day”. A 40-year-old woman, Christine Case, died of a heart attack at Yarl’s Wood. Women for Refugee Women has heard reports that she was complaining of chest pains for days before she died and “was not given appropriate medical attention”. While they have, as yet, been unable to confirm the report, they do point to their recent report, Detained, which found that the vast majority of women detained at Yarl's Wood characterised the healthcare there as “bad” or “very bad”. Meltem Avcil, who was detained with her mother at the age of 13, tells me, “every time you go, no matter how ill you are , they just give you paracetamol and they send you back”. When I later speak to more women who were detained at Yarl's Wood, unprompted by me, paracetamol again emerges as Yarl's Wood’s panacea for all ills.

“I don’t believe there’s adequate provision there”, Louise King, a local councillor tells me. “I don’t believe there is an acceptance that the women [in Yarl’s Wood] are likely to have mental health problems and likely to be extremely distressed.” She has only recently started to visit Yarl’s Wood, as a part of an investigation into the centre’s healthcare provision, but, she tells me she has been “very shocked” by what she’s witnessed. She tells me about an offer she facilitated, for SEPT, the South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, to provide the women in Yarl’s Wood with counselling, to help them cope with the sudden death of their friend. This offer was refused.

Christine’s friends wanted to send her family a condolence card, but Serco, the private contractor that runs Yarl’s Wood, “wouldn't help us”, they told Women for Refugee Women. “We all feel very unsafe and frightened and as if no one cares about what happens to us here”. Some women have expressed a fear that they will now be deported, to silence them. Councillor King went to Yarl’s Wood on Tuesday and asked to speak to the woman who had called her to tell her about Christine’s death. The guard initially allowed her to, but after only a few minutes, Councillor King was told to leave. No reason was given but the conversation had been about Christine. Whether or not these women’s fears of being deported to prevent them speaking out are grounded is, in a sense, immaterial: they tell us all we need to know about the culture of mistrust and fear in which these women live.

Women for Refugee Women’s recent report on Yarl’s Wood is damning. It presents a prison where 93 per cent of the inmates are depressed, 89 per cent struggle to sleep, and where 80 per cent have been raped or tortured back home – often by soldiers, police and prison guards. And yet, section 9.1 of the United Nations Commission On Human Rights' Guidelines states that “victims of torture and other serious physical, psychological or sexual violence need special attention and should generally not be detained.” The key word here is, of course, “generally”, but when the latest Prison Inspectorate report found that for “the most vulnerable of the women held, the decision to detain itself appears much too casual”; when it found that pregnant women were being detained “without evidence of the exceptional circumstances required to justify this”; when it found that “obviously mentally ill women” were being detained before being sectioned, and that “it was difficult to understand why they had been detained in the first place”, it's hard not to conclude that the Home Office has developed its own very unique definition of the word “generally”. And this is before we get to those inconvenient but persistent reports of sexual harassment and exploitation from the guards themselves.

Yarl’s Wood is an unnecessary blight on the conscience of this nation. The Home Office tells us that we have a “proud history of offering asylum to those who need it” - and yet from the moment an asylum seeker steps foot in this country until the moment it is accepted that they have been raped, tortured, persecuted, they are treated like criminals – worse than criminals, since they can be kept locked up indefinitely. They are assumed to be lying (up to 96 per cent of female asylum seekers on the Fast Track system are refused on their first application), with many women attributing their depression to not being believed after having disclosed their experiences of sexual violence. The existence of Yarl’s Wood is the most visible and ugly manifestation of that sour culture of disbelief that creeps around our immigration system, infecting everyone with its mistrust, fear, and cruelty. If we want to be a country that can rightly be proud of helping those in need, we must cease our attitude of lying until proven persecuted. We must abandon our system of asylum by numbers. We must re-train our immigration officials, so that there is not one case worker who has not heard the term “female circumcision”, or who asks a rape victim if she tried to prevent her rape. And we must close down Yarl’s Wood, because while Yarl’s Wood remains open, we are complicit in every death, every suicide, every life-long case of trauma. We are complicit in saying to all those who flee persecution and come to us for help, “We don't believe you.” I don't want to be part of that system any more. Sign Meltem Avcil’s petition to end the detention of asylum-seekers in Yarl’s Wood, today, and help to #SetHerFree

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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