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

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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