Female detainees at Yarl’s Wood routinely humiliated, claims report
Male staff often invade privacy at immigration detention centre, says charity, and many women already victims of sexual abuse.
Women detained in the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre are routinely humiliated by male staff who monitor them while they are dressing, showering and using the toilet, or are naked in their rooms, a report into the treatment of female asylum seekers reveals.
The report, by the charity Women for Refugee Women, noted that many female asylum seekers detained at Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire, have been victims of sexual violence in their home countries.
Nineteen of the women interviewed said they had been raped, and 28 women in total indicated they had experienced forced marriage, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation or some other form of sexual violence before coming to the UK.
The report also found high levels of depression among detainees, with 19 of the 38 interviewed saying they had been put on suicide watch for all or part of their time at the centre. The study also raises concerns at the use of solitary confinement.
The report follows earlier research into sexual assaults by staff on detainees in Yarl’s Wood. In June 2014, the centre’s management said 31 allegations of sexual contact had been investigated and a number of staff were dismissed.
Serco, the outsourcing firm that runs Yarl’s Wood under contract to the Home Office, had its contract renewed last November to run the centre for another eight years.
In a statement, Serco said the allegations were “uncorroborated”. Norman Abusin, Serco’s contract director at Yarl’s Wood, said: “We take all complaints seriously and we have strict procedures for dealing with them. They are always fully investigated and, if appropriate, disciplinary action is taken.”
The decision to detain women who have been trafficked, tortured or suffered sexual abuse has already caused controversy and Labour has promised to prohibit the detention of pregnant women and women who have experienced torture or sexual abuse if it wins the election.
Researchers focused on the problem of male staff intimidating detainees, by routinely invading their privacy. “Almost all [of the women interviewed] said men watched them in intimate situations, such as while naked, partly dressed in the shower or on the toilet,” the report says.
“Of the 38 women, 33 said they experienced men seeing them in these situations. Of the 33, 13 said men saw them naked, 29 said men saw them partially dressed, 29 said men saw them in bed, 16 said men saw them in the shower and 14 said men saw them using the toilet.”
Serco guidelines say staff should not enter detainees’ rooms for searches without knocking. The women said such searches made them scared, uncomfortable, angry and ashamed. Detainees also reported high levels of bullying, with 29 saying they felt they had been bullied and 25 saying a member of staff had been racist.
“They always come in without knocking … even if you are in the shower or toilet,” one woman said.
“Men enter your room without knocking and see you in bed every day. I have been seen partly naked more than once,” another detainee said.
“One day I was in the bathroom taking a shower, they asked me to come out. I was naked,” another told researchers.
A fourth woman said: “Because of sexual abuse, I used to feel very uncomfortable with male officers in my room when I was in bed. I felt very vulnerable. They said they don’t have to give you warning. They all enter and search.”
Researchers interviewed “Margaret”, not her real name, who fled to the UK two years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo, after being kidnapped and questioned by soldiers about her brothers’ political affiliations; she was later repeatedly gang-raped by her questioners.
She was detained in Yarl’s Ward a month after arriving in Britain and claiming asylum.
“I came here only just to ask asylum, I’m not a criminal,” she said.
I am so depressed, that they think I am going to kill myself here, and I am watched by men and women night and day.
“When the men watch me it makes me have so many bad feelings about myself and my body. I feel full of shame about what happened to me and what is happening to me. Being in prison here is a torture in my head.”
Detainees report requesting that female staff should carry out searches, and being told this was not possible.
Abusin said: “Our male staff are not allowed to enter women’s bedrooms and bathrooms without any warning, nor do they watch women showering, nor when naked, nor when in the toilet.
“We have not had the opportunity to investigate any of the allegations that have been made. Staff will only enter a resident’s room without knocking if there is deemed to be a risk to the safety and welfare of one or both residents in there.”
The Home Office said the latest independent inspection by Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons found Yarl’s Wood to be a respectful and safe place.
A spokesman said: “Detention and removal are essential elements of an effective immigration system. We are committed to treating all detainees with dignity and respect, and take any allegations to the contrary very seriously.
“We have invited Women for Refugee Women to supply details of the cases in question so that they can be investigated fully.”
Asylum seekers can be detained at any point in the asylum process if they are deemed “likely to abscond”, or if they have been refused asylum and their removal from the UK is imminent. In 2013, 2,038 women were detained after seeking asylum in the UK; 43% of them were held for more than a month.
Asylum seekers are often unaware of the reasons for their detention and most women interviewed found the arrest process traumatising. Fourteen of the women interviewed in the report said there were more than five members of staff involved in their arrest, and one said there were more than 10.
Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, said: “Survivors of sexual violence who come to the UK seeking protection are routinely being locked up and are denied privacy and dignity in detention.
“The behaviour of staff, particularly male staff, in Yarl’s Wood detention centre is adding to the trauma of survivors of sexual violence.
“Detention has no place in the asylum process. It is expensive, unjust and inefficient to lock up people who have come here to seek asylum.
“Women who seek protection in the UK should be able to live in the community while their claims are considered.”