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29 July 2013

“I started to go mad in there“: The detention of pregnant asylum seekers

The Home Office has no clear and functioning mechanism in place to record women’s pregnancies and review their detention in light of it. Pregnant women who have been detained in facilities like Yarl's Wood report receiving abysmal treatment, done in our n

By Alan White

Samantha’s voice quivers with rage when she says these words. “It was hell. I can’t lie to you. I can’t lie.”

She fled to England from Africa, where she says she was persecuted, tortured and arrested in her home country on the basis of her political opinions and her role in strike actions. Two policemen raped her and threatened to kill her, and her husband was murdered in front of her.  

By the time she’d been transferred to Serco-run Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) she’d given birth to a child in Britain and was pregnant with another. And that’s what she wants to talk about: not the horrors she experienced in in her home country, not her ongoing appeal against deportation – just Yarl’s Wood.

“My daughter, by that time 14 months old, had measles so I’d had to leave her with a relative while I went to the reporting office. They told me I was being taken to Yarl’s Wood. Then they brought her to me. She had wet Pampers, and no other clothes. They just dumped her in front of me.

“There is no standard of care there. The food was so bad my daughter lost weight. The male staff would just burst into the room at four in the morning. She was terrified. The staff don’t care. They stick all the kids in a nursery: another child tried to strangle her. In the end my lawyer had to write to them about that.

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“It’s a dirty, filthy place. You never go outside. There are some bad people in there. My daughter and I were in our bedroom when a huge fight broke out. There was screaming, mothers being pulled apart from their children, people with bleeding noses. It spilled into our room and there were four or five men and women trying to restrain another woman: one of the men accidentally had his leg on top of my daughter in the scuffle. I was screaming: “You’ll kill her! They lied afterwards – they told the TV news crews it didn’t happen. I know what I saw.

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“I started to go mad in there. I honestly wanted to kill myself. If it hadn’t been for friends I’d made before going in I think I would have. It made me ill.”

Samantha was released after three months. Shortly afterwards, she suffered a miscarriage. She attributed it to the stress she suffered in detention.

She was one of the women interviewed by the charity Medical Justice for the report it published last month: “Expecting Change: the case for ending the immigration detention of pregnant women”. Here is another (anonymous) woman’s voice:

“I don’t want to remember those horrible moments of my life which I spent in detention, when I cried for food and cried due to pain. I was in a detention centre for seven months. I had severe morning sickness which lasted five months. I couldn’t eat the food which was provided for detainees. I remained there living just on fruit, juices, biscuits, crisps and popcorn for five months. I got weaker day by day.

“I lost 6kg of my actual weight – it should increase in pregnancy. The doctors and nurses there shouted at me many times. They mentally tortured me by saying that I was on hunger strike. I was never on hunger strike: I love my baby so why would I go on hunger strike? I requested and begged the officers many times to allow me to go to eat something in the cultural kitchen because I always felt hungry – but they refused.

“The health care staff were very rude, uncooperative and untrained. Every time when I went to health care for a problem, they didn’t care and told me to go and take paracetamol – even though I told them that I can’t take paracetamol because it made me vomit. I suffered a lot in terms of physical, emotional and mental health. Health care never give importance to pregnant ladies. They treated us like things, as though we are not human beings […]

“I face risks to my life in my country. That is why I cannot go back to my country. And this is the reason why I suffered this awful situation and faced hardship for seven months as a detainee. The UK Border Authority (UKBA) put me and my unborn baby’s life at risk as well. I was not criminal: I never breached the law in the UK. I just claimed asylum and asked for refuge. But UKBA put me there and kept me in a detention centre for seven months as a pregnant woman, for no reason. A pregnant woman needs more care, good food, a healthy environment and freedom because she has to nourish a baby.”

She’s one voice among many. Maria was restrained and forcibly removed to her home country by four escorts. A few months after her return, she suffered a stillbirth. Aliya developed acute psychosis after she was prescribed anti-malarial medication in anticipation of her forced removal. Anna, who had complained for three weeks about abdominal pains was sent to A & E, where she miscarried with two guards in attendance. She subsequently attempted suicide and was admitted into a psychiatric ward.


The Home Office doesn’t know how many pregnant women are detained. It has no clear and functioning mechanism in place to record women’s pregnancies and thereon review their detention. There is a question, then, as to how it is able to actually implement its policy that pregnant women should not normally be detained for immigration purposes.

In 2011, 3,560 detainees were held at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, most of whom were women. To quote the report: “Yarl’s Wood is one of ten IRCs in the UK. Up until 2011, Yarl’s Wood detained children. Since it opened in 2001, it has had a long history of scandal, involving a fire, protests, hunger strikes as well as numerous reports of racism and assault.” The report includes a detailed timeline, which I have summarised on my website.

We know 93 pregnant women were held in Yarl’s Wood in 2011. The primary purpose of detention is removal, yet this research and a previous Medical Justice audit show that only around five per cent of pregnant women were successfully removed. This is because in the majority of cases, there is no medically safe way to return them.

The report backs calls made by Asylum Aid in its women’s charter, which was signed by 337 different organisations, for an end to the detention of pregnant women. Asylum seeking women have poorer health outcomes during and after childbirth than others. Many women in the report were victims of rape, torture and trafficking. The healthcare they received was inadequate and fell short of the NHS equivalent. Healthcare staff failed to identify and manage some of the complex cases.

The Royal College of Midwives has responded to the report: “We believe that the treatment of pregnant asylum seekers in detention is governed by outmoded and outdated practices that shame us all. Midwives must care for and serve all mothers and babies regardless of their immigration status. We, therefore, encourage and urge the Home Office to act on the report’s recommendations without delay.”

And the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has also added its voice: “It is unacceptable that pregnant asylum seekers and refugees are being incarcerated. We support Medical Justice’s humane recommendations and urge the Home Office to agree to these proposals. NICE should update its clinical guideline Pregnancy and complex social factors to respect these recommendations.”

It is done in our name, it is paid for by our taxes. It’s us, and the Governments we elect, that history will judge.

All names have been changed.