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