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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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.