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Yarl’s Wood: legal black hole

Women in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre have become increasingly desperate as repeated rounds of legal aid cuts introduced by the UK Government have made it more difficult for them to access justice.

Last Monday 2nd March, Channel 4 news screened disturbing footage from an undercover investigation into Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire, England. Staff were filmed referring to the asylum-seeking and migrant women held there as "animals", "beasties" and "b**ches." In one case, a detainee threw herself down a staircase, apparently attempting to kill herself to avoid being forcibly removed from the UK. Channel 4 continued to screen fresh footage from detention centres throughout the week.

By now, many of the women referred to in the film will have been forced onto planes by Home Office contracted staff, and will be facing an uncertain future in the countries they’ve been returned to. Others remain in detention, held without time limit.

Channel 4’s revelations are all the more disturbing when one considers the extreme vulnerability of women in Yarl’s Wood. A recent study found that 40% of the female detainees surveyed had self-harmed. They included survivors of rape, forced marriage, forced prostitution and female genital mutilation. Research shows that people in detention can experience severe distress, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

The charity that I work for, Bail for Immigration Detainees, goes into Yarl’s Wood every two weeks. We have seen women become increasingly desperate as repeated rounds of legal aid cuts have made it more and more difficult for them to access justice.

The Channel 4 footage raises two questions: why do staff in Yarl’s Wood feel able to treat these women in such an appalling manner? And why are these women being detained in the first place, and without access to appropriate legal pathways out?

Unnecessary incarceration  

The Home Office can detain anyone subject to immigration control – including asylum seekers and undocumented migrants - without time limit. People are only supposed to be detained in order to be forcibly removed from the UK. But the reality is that many people are detained when it is not possible, lawful or appropriate to put them on a plane.

In 2014, nearly 30,000 people left immigration detention. Of these, 15,658 were forcibly removed from the UK. But 13,739 were released back into the community, their detention having served no purpose. These people had their lives marked by detention unnecessarily. A parliamentary inquiry on detention published this week, and covered in 50.50 by Eiri Ohtani, found that the UK Government’s use of detention is 'disproportionate and inappropriate.'

My organisation has dealt with numerous cases where asylum seekers and migrants have eventually won their cases after the Home Office has detained and tried to deport them.

Like Christine, a single mother. During her detention, her two children were cared for by their grandfather. He became seriously ill and was admitted to hospital three times. Her older daughter, Beth, had to stop attending school to care for her brother and grandfather and missed her GCSE exams. Beth found it very difficult to look after her seven year old brother Daniel, who is disabled and has severe behavioural problems. Children’s Services deemed Daniel to be at risk of emotional and physical harm, and found that: ‘Daniel has found it very difficult being separated from his mother…  [A] concerned neighbour rang to report that Daniel was playing alone in the road at 8pm... he walks into people’s houses.’

Two months into Christine’s detention Daniel was hit by a car.  Despite receiving reports about the welfare of these children, the Home Office detained their mother for 160 days before she was released on bail by the courts. She then successfully appealed her deportation.

Untold suffering was caused to Christine and her children by the Home Office’s pointless decision to incarcerate her. Ironically, Christine is one of the ‘lucky’ ones who was able to get legal representation to challenge her detention and deportation. Since the legal aid cuts introduced by this Government, far fewer women in Yarl’s Wood are able to access lawyers.

Legal aid cuts

Without legal representation, women in detention stand little chance of beating the Home Office in a battle for leave to remain in the UK. Many cannot speak English well, have limited education and are traumatised by past experiences of violence.

Yet following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, legal aid is no longer available for the vast majority of immigration cases. In theory, legal aid remains available for asylum seekers, but in practice the advice sector has been decimated by years of cuts and people are often unable to find a competent representative. Women in detention often have nowhere to turn for help. In September 2013, it emerged that guards who sexually harassed, coerced and abused women at Yarl’s Wood told these women that they could help them win their case and stay in the UK. 

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Yarl’s Wood staff feel able to maltreat women with impunity. They may correctly assume that these women will soon be bungled onto a plane, with few questions asked about why they were detained or how they were treated. In 2012, the Government promised that ‘exceptional case funding’ would provide a safety net for those affected by the legal aid cuts, and estimated that 3,700 cases per year would be granted funding.

In reality this ‘safety net’ is inaccessible and unfit for purpose. The High Court has found that the Legal Aid Agency has made unlawful decisions to refuse funding, including in a case where the Home Office planned to deport a single mother without her child. Only 22 immigration cases have been granted funding since April 2013. My colleagues speak to detainees don’t know what exceptional funding is, much less how to go about making an application. There is an urgent need for radical changes to the exceptional case funding scheme, if detainees are to have any chance of accessing justice.

Unanswered questions

Following the revelations from Channel 4 this week, the Government has committed to carrying out a review of the conditions women face in Yarl’s Wood. While there is clearly an urgent need to improve the treatment of women by guards, this is not enough. The bigger question is why so many people are being locked up unnecessarily in immigration detention, at great personal cost to themselves and considerable financial cost to the state. So far, this is a question the Government has entirely failed to answer.

About the author

Sarah Campbell is a Research and Policy Manager at Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID). At BID, she has published research on issues including the detention of children and the separation of families by immigration detention. She was previously a Policy Officer at The Fawcett Society, and a Research Associate at King’s College London. 


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