What will it take for the shameful detention of women at Yarl's Wood to stop?

Report after report detail the horrors and abuses at the detention centre, yet nothing changes.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The tragedy is that the latest report into Yarl’s Wood doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. The investigations keep on coming out, documenting the systemic petty horror in Britain’s detention centres, and they are ignored, as all the reports before them were ignored.

“There was nothing I could do. Four men watched me while I was naked. They wouldn’t cover me. I was so vulnerable.” These are the words of one woman who was detained at Yarl’s Wood. They are quoted in a report released in January this year by Women for Refugee Women, which kick-started a year of damning revelations about the UK’s most notorious immigration removal centre. 

In March, Channel 4 broadcast an undercover report into the centre. Staff were filmed calling the women “beasties” and “caged animals” who should be beaten with sticks. One officer complained that the women who removed their clothes in desperate bids to prevent their removal by force, were “never slim and petite and pretty”. Another laughed off his latest disciplinary hearing for entering a woman’s room without knocking. “How about I just like tits? Sorry.” He laughs. “I’m addicted to the viewing of tits.” 

A day after Channel 4’s film was shown, the AllParty Parliametary Group on Migration released their own report, which revealed the mental trauma of indefinite detention. “The uncertainty is hard to bear. Your life is in limbo,” explained one detainee, while Dr Katy Robjant of the Helen Bamber Foundation refered to research showing the “significantly higher mental health problems” experienced by refugees detained for over 30 days. The APPG recommended a time limit for detention as well as a severe reduction on the number of people being detained for both humanitarian and cost reasons. 

In June, Women Against Rape and Black Women’s Rape Action Project released a joint dossier that collated a decade of complaints about sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood. “Guards give the impression they have the power to get women released,” said one woman. “If you have to open your legs you will,” said another. “You think that is the only way that you are able to speak to your family. You have to give in.”

So yesterday’s report of the findings from the chief inspectorate of prison’s latest unannounced inspection of Yarl’s Wood didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. We know that pregnant women and victims of torture are being routinely detained, despite guidance stating this should not happen outside of extraordinary circumstances. We know that vulnerable women are being watched by male staff. We know that women are being detained for inhumane lengths of time, at great cost to their mental health. We know all this from the reports released this year — and we knew it from the last HMIP report from 2013. 

And things have got worse. “Yarl’s Wood has deteriorated since our last inspection,” the report states. The main concerns in their last report have not been resolved. And new problems have developed. A new contract with reduced staffing levels that was being introduced at the time of the inspection is leading to “severe staff shortages”. Healthcare provision is woefully inadequate — to the extent that the report warns it is putting women at risk — and despite the lack of adequate mental health provision, a number of women with enduring mental health needs had been detained. Levels of depression, suicidal inclination and self-harm were all high.

Among its other recommendations the HMIP report calls for a time limit on detention. Like so many reports before it, it found several detainees had been held at the facility for many months — some for over a year. Again, this is not new information. Channel 4 reported on a woman from China who, after being held for two years, ultimately jumped down a stairwell and broke her back. She left Yarl’s Wood in a wheelchair and a back brace. Several other women have jumped from the same spot.

Given the lack of new evidence presented in this report, it is hard to feel optimistic that Nick Hardwick, the outgoing - and increasingly outspoken - chief inspector of prisons, will succeed in effecting change where past reports have failed. Already, its time limit recommendation has been rejected. The working-group that March’s APPG called for has not been set up. And it’s been less than a month since Prime Minister David Cameron referred to the desperate migrants at Calais who are fleeing conflict and terror in Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, as a “swarm”, or since Nigel Farage called for the army to be sent in to contain the humanitarian crisis. 

But there are signs that public opinion may be shifting. In June, the largest ever protest outside Yarl’s Wood was held, attracting coachloads of protesters from all around the country. Two months later, only a few days before the HMIP report was released, another protest took place — and this one was even bigger. Several protesters cited the situation in Calais as a catalyst for their involvement.

The need for asylum is not going away. As the effects of global warming increase, and as conflicts continue around the world, more and more desperate people are going to take the difficult decision to leave the country they know and the people they love, and flee to a place where they have some chance of a life. Britain is one of the countries that is least impacted by this crisis — we get far fewer than our fair share of applicants, and accept even fewer than that. How many more reports like this will we ignore before we start treating them humanely?

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer and feminist activist. Her forthcoming book, The Other Half, is an examination of how the global gender data gap harms women. She tweets as @CCriadoPerez.