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Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain – when did “refugee” become a dirty word?

Hundreds of female asylum-seekers are housed in Yarl’s Wood. They have done nothing wrong, so why are we locking them up?

A security guard stands at the gates of the Yarl's Wood detention centre
A security guard stands at the gates of the Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire. Photo: Getty

They take everything from you when you go into Yarl’s Wood. Even on a visit to a friend or family member, you have to turn out your pockets and stand in line to have your biometric data recorded and stored. You hand in everything you are carrying, down to pens and chewing gum, and then you go down a bare corridor plastered with warning signs, passing through a rub-down, a metal detector and three sets of locked doors – almost as if this were a prison, rather than a holding facility for some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Hundreds of female asylum-seekers are housed in Yarl’s Wood. The centre opened in 2001 and is run by the private security company Serco, tucked away on an industrial estate among the rolling Bedfordshire fields. The people locked up here have done nothing wrong, unless it is now considered morally abhorrent to come to a new country with nothing and ask for shelter.

To arrive in Britain seeking asylum today is to sink into a bureaucratic nightmare in which you are no longer a person. You are a problem to be dealt with. You are a drain on a system that forbids you to work and insists on keeping you locked up at great expense – the former immigration minister Damian Green estimated it at £100 per person per night. You don’t know when, or if, you will be taken from your room and forced on to a plane in handcuffs, screaming and crying.

I visited Yarl’s Wood with help from the charity Women for Refugee Women and was able to speak to several of the inmates. Mary* is from Zimbabwe. She was at college when she was kidnapped and taken to the Border Gezi militia training camp. After a dangerous journey, she made her way to the UK and claimed asylum, and was staying with friends when she was picked up without warning and taken to Yarl’s Wood.

She has been here for five months and describes to me how the windows open only a crack, how you put your face against them to suck in fresh air from a world without locked doors or guards.

Across Europe, attitudes to refugees are hardening. In a climate of job losses and social unrest, anti-immigration parties are gaining popularity; mainstream politicians with little else to offer echo their rhetoric, promising to secure the borders. But imagine running from your home in fear for your life. Imagine making a long, hard journey that takes you far from your family and arriving in a strange new country you have been told is safe. Instead of the refuge you longed for, you are treated like a criminal, paraded in front of a series of border guards, most of them men, and made to repeat your story of trauma and abuse before being told that you’re a liar. Many of the women who arrive in this country as asylum-seekers have been victims of horrifying physical violence, some of it sexual.

“They ask you about it again and again,” Mary said. After she escaped the Border Gezi camp, guards tracked her down to her home, kidnapped her, raped her, beat her and left her to die in the bush. She tells this story almost without emotion, with the weary ease of somebody who has repeated it countless times and not been believed. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with the men,” she said.

Last year, the Yarl’s Wood facility faced allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual contact between female inmates and Serco guards, several of whom were disciplined. Inmates described how vulnerable women allowed abuse to continue because they were led to believe it was the only way to get out of Yarl’s Wood. Serco maintains that alleged sexual contact is not “widespread” nor “tolerated”.

But another detainee to whom I spoke on the phone disagrees. She told me that one current trend is to burst in on women in the showers, especially when roll-call is going on.

This week, the campaign group Women for Refugee Women will protest outside the Home Office to demand an end to the inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers, and especially to indefinite detention in centres such as Yarl’s Wood. The novelist Zadie Smith called the facility a “shame to any civilised nation”. “I hate this place,” said Mary. “The way they are treating us, they treat us as if we are criminals, as if we are murderers.”

Yet even most murderers know that they eventually will be released. The people held in immigration detention centres across the country don’t know how long they’re going to be there, or if they will ever get out. That’s what makes indefinite detention so inhumane. In a week’s time, it might be Mary’s turn to be taken from her room in the middle of the night, forced on to a plane in cuffs and shipped out against her will, like so much industrial waste.

“If they give me my stay I’ll go to school,” Mary says. “I want to become a midwife. It’s always been my dream.” The NHS currently has a shortage of 2,300 midwives, and training one of them costs less than it does to hold a female prisoner in a detention centre at public expense for six months. Yet even for a nation that calculates the lives of human beings in pennies and finds the most vulnerable least deserving of care, this was never about the money. This is about political positioning.

At some point in the past ten years, “refugee” became a dirty word. At some point, “asylum-seeker” started to be spoken as a slur, as if to seek asylum – to flee persecution for a chance to live and work with dignity – were a shameful thing to do.

It should be an insult to anyone’s idea of justice that victims of persecution, torture and rape are imprisoned and treated as if they were worse than criminals. It’s time to shut down Yarl’s Wood and expunge everything it stands for.

*Names have been changed