The entrance to the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. Photo: Aliya Mirza/Women for Refugee Women
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Helen Lewis on Yarl’s Wood: we are detaining people indefinitely who have committed no crime

There are 13 immigration detention centres in Britain but only the name of Yarl’s Wood really resonates – it’s where nearly 400 stateless, powerless women – the majority of whom say they are previous victims of sexual violence – are held.

Lily tells me that the moment they began her screening interview, they took away her bag – and with it her phone. Then she was told that she would be taken to a detention facility. “It was nine o’clock at night. Then they said, ‘The van is here for you’ . . . I always see those kinds of vans on TV when they are picking up criminals to go to the police, or to go to prison. When I saw myself in that van, that’s when I started thinking, ‘Wow, am I going to prison?’” It took her a month to contact her family and let them know where she was.

Stop a minute. What’s your gut feeling about this scenario? Does it sound like one of those nightmarish news reports in which a western journalist is shunted off to a holding cell by some despotic regime? Because it’s not. It is something that happened in Britain in the 21st century.

I’ve deliberately left the details vague – and given Lily a pseudonym that sounds like it belongs to a posh, white woman – because I feel quite strongly that if anyone treated white first-worlders the way our immigration system treats people from the developing world, there would be outrage. As it is, there is a shrug; or, worse, a silent agreement that this is the only way to “keep our country safe”. If the only way to keep our country safe is to treat human beings like treacherous cattle, count me out.

“Lily” is the name I’ve given to a woman who fled Gambia, where she was a reluctant practitioner of female genital mutilation. She sought asylum in Britain three years after arriving here in 2009 because a friend told her it was the right thing to do; she had no idea when she turned up at the assessment centre that staff had every right to detain her immediately and send her to Yarl’s Wood. And contrary to the stereotype, she didn’t choose Britain because it was seen as a soft touch. “I was looking for any little chance I can get to go out from Gambia,” she tells me over the phone. “Anywhere you go to in Africa, it’s easy for someone to take a bus and come and take you. So I had the chance to come to Britain. That’s why I seek my asylum here.”

Lily spent five months in Yarl’s Wood, the Serco-run women’s detention centre in Bedfordshire. The company is careful not to call it a prison, although a former inmate told a parliamentary committee there was only one difference between the two: “In prison, you count your days down, but in detention you count your days up.” In other words, in prison you at least have some idea when you’re going to get out.

There are 13 immigration detention centres in Britain but only the name of Yarl’s Wood really resonates. That is partly down to the work of Natasha Walter and her charity Women for Refugee Women, which the NS is supporting this Christmas. (Several years ago, this magazine successfully campaigned for an end to the detention of children in the immigration system.) It is also because it is uniquely alarming to have nearly 400 stateless, powerless women – the majority of whom say they are previous victims of sexual violence – held at a facility with so many male staff. At the parliamentary committee, one detainee described the problem with suicide watch: “I can tell you anybody who is [on] suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl’s Wood, because those male guards, they sit in there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked. You can hear them talking [about] it.” (Serco’s website says: “Decency and respect is at the centre of Serco’s agenda in looking after residents.”)

Meltem Avcil, a 21-year-old from a Turkish Kurd family who was held at Yarl’s Wood for three months in 2007, echoes that sentiment. After being taken there as a 13-year-old, she now campaigns for the closure of the centre because: “I saw what my mother went through, I saw what the women went through, I saw how guards were looking at women.” She says it is very difficult to interest people in the plight of refugees. “Negativity around asylum-seekers still exists. So it’s very hard to break the barrier and say, ‘No, you’ve been taught wrong all this time – I am an asylum-seeker, you can hear from me.’”

Avcil remembers arriving at the centre in late August; she had spent six years before that in Britain and had no idea that she was not legally entitled to the life she had led. “We arrived in a van and I was sleeping on my mum’s lap,” she tells me. “When we arrived, we were strictly searched. We couldn’t take in any glass, any technology; we just couldn’t take in anything. And then we went through eight metal doors to get to the unit.” She describes Yarl’s Wood as “a B-class prison for innocent people”.

Natasha Walter points out that such treatment is unnecessary. “There already exist good alternatives to detention. People who claim asylum have to stay in touch with the authorities through regular reporting. Detention makes the asylum process less efficient, more expensive and much more traumatic for the individuals going through it.” Avcil agrees: “The taxpayer pays £164 [per detainee] a night for Yarl’s Wood to be run and people simply do not know what they are paying for. People should just go and see that place and what they pay for themselves.”

Even leaving the centre can be disorientating and traumatic. Lily says that after five months in detention she struggled with simple tasks such as shopping – she had forgotten you could choose your items before going to the till – and crossing the road.

I ask Avcil what it will be like for the women who are held at Yarl’s Wood over Christmas. “They struggle a lot in that place to save their lives, so that they really don’t care what day of the month it is or which festive season it is,” she says. “It’s not a place to enjoy yourself or lie to yourself.” 

Find out more at refugeewomen.com, by following the hashtag: #setherfree, or by supporting the New Statesman website’s Christmas campaign

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 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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