After 17 years, it’s time to close Yarl’s Wood

Vulnerable women – many of them survivors of violence – should not be locked up when they have not committed a crime.

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“When the immigration agency came to get me, it was as if the whole world was collapsing,” Priscilla tells me. “They came to get me in the morning, and then they were driving all over the place, hunting for other people. We got to London Bridge, and the van where I was sitting – my legs are long, I wasn’t stretching my leg – I was so numb, I couldn’t walk properly. One of the guys said, she’s pretending.”

Priscilla – not her real name – was picked up by immigration enforcement after leaving her husband, who had brought her to Britain from Nigeria. She has the kind of complicated story which so many of those who end up in immigration detention have. 

This week marks 17 years since the opening of Yarl’s Wood, where around 400 women are held while being processed by the British authorities. Earlier this year more than 100 detainees went on hunger strike to protest their conditions and the indefinite nature of immigration detention.

Priscilla was held there for just over six months in 2017. She is a lesbian, but that is illegal in her home country, Nigeria. So she married a man, who moved to Britain. He was controlling, forced her into sex, and abused her. Then he announced he was divorcing her. 

Priscilla tried to secure leave to remain in Britain as a domestic violence survivor. She didn’t feel able to tell the solicitor about her sexuality, after years of repression and fear. The Home Office asked to report regularly to the immigration authorities. Eventually, they came to her work and took her into detention.

“It was terrifying,” she tells me over the phone. “I’ve gone through emotional traumas. They asked me so many questions – I said, you’ve got all my details in your system. You’ve got my passport. It’s all there in the forms I filled in before coming to this country.”  

If you talk to women who have faced Britain’s immigration system, they often tell stories like this. The default assumption – encouraged by Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy – is that they are scammers, blaggers who are trying to take advantage of this country. It does not lead to a culture of respect or humanity within the immigration system.

That in turn leads to incidents such as the death of Jimmy Mubenga, who suffocated to death while being restrained by security guards. At Yarl’s Wood, there were six allegations of sexual assault made by detainees against guards between 2013 and 2015. 

And unlike a prison, immigration detainees are not given a fixed sentence. They can wait months to find out when their case will be heard – and then given a few hours’ notice that they face being deported.

“I was there for six months and two weeks,” says Priscilla of her time in Yarl’s Wood. ”It was getting to a point where I thought: I just want to kill myself. There was no point.” She was close to being put on a plane when her solicitor secured an injunction; she had not, it turned out, exhausted her right to appeal. A week later, she was released from Yarl’s Wood.

A charity called Women for Refugee Women helped Priscilla, putting her in touch with a better lawyer who was able to make her case for staying in Britain. In the meantime, she is living in London. Natasha Walter, the chair of Women for Refugee Women, argues that women present a low “flight risk” and that detaining them is needless. 

“‘I’ve been visiting Yarl’s Wood for more than ten years,” Walter tells me. “It never ceases to shock me – that this country will lock up women who have already been through so much, for no reason, causing so much anguish to such vulnerable people.”

Her charity has campaigned, successfully, for an end to the detention of children; a time limit on the detention of pregnant women; and an end to male staff guarding women on suicide watch. The next fight is for the closure of Yarl’s Wood altogether – something which Labour’s Diane Abbott has pledged to do if she becomes Home Secretary. “I just wish the government would see sense and close down Yarl’s Wood now,” says Walter. “It’s so much more straightforward and humane for women’s cases to be heard while they are living in the community with a chance to rebuild their lives.” 

Priscilla echoes this. “There are no people going in there who come out without trauma,” she says. “They lose their brain. It cost them their senses.”

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape