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‘It left a scar on me’: Locked up in the UK’s women-only immigration centre

A year after Derwentside detention centre opened, one woman reveals the impact that being held there had on her

Lauren Crosby Medlicott
14 December 2022, 11.21am

Jasmine was held in four UK immigration detention centres in 13 months


Akın Özcan / Alamy Stock Photo

During her first four days at Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre, Jasmine* rarely left her room, only occasionally going to the canteen to eat.

“I was always crying,” she told openDemocracy. “I felt trapped. When I opened my door, there were officers staring at me. When I opened the window, it would only open an inch. We were under lock and key, being controlled.”

Jasmine found this lack of freedom particularly distressing, having previously been a victim of modern slavery – a fact that staff at the Home Office-operated detention centre were aware of.

When she was taken to Derwentside, in County Durham, earlier this year, it was the fourth detention centre Jasmine had been held at in the 13 months she’d been in the UK.

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Her experiences of being passed around the UK’s crisis-hit immigration system – despite having been classed as a vulnerable adult by a Home Office doctor – have severely impacted Jasmine’s mental health and left her struggling with depression and trauma.

Jasmine was first detained when she arrived in the UK to visit a male friend in early 2021, from a country that openDemocracy is choosing not to name. Her luggage was confiscated and she was taken to an airport holding centre, before being transferred to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. 

Days later, Jasmine was moved to Yarl’s Wood, the infamous detention centre for women in Bedfordshire, which was “repurposed” as a centre for migrants in 2020 after years of controversy – including complaints about sexual abuse and mistreatment, as well as hunger strikes from detainees protesting their indefinite detention.

During the time Jasmine was held at Yarl’s Wood, much of the centre was being used to detain male migrants, and Jasmine was held in a separate unit for a small number of women.

“It was like a prison,” Jasmine said, describing her six-week stay at Yarl’s Wood. “It was traumatic. There were high walls, barbed wires, cameras everywhere. Everywhere you went there were locked doors.

“There was only a small amount of food to eat – for example, a piece of chicken and a few potatoes – at mealtimes. It was like you were begging them for food. Everywhere you go, there is an officer behind you.”

A report by the prison watchdog found that one in five women at Derwentside felt suicidal, while more than two-thirds felt depressed

Anna Pichierri, an organiser in Movement for Justice, an immigration rights campaign group that has been vocal in calling for Yarl’s Wood’s closure, told openDemocracy that Jasmine’s experience at the centre is not unusual.

She said: “All the women in Yarl’s Wood were subjected to mental torture simply by being locked away from any community and disempowered. It was designed, like all detention centres, to break their spirits.

“Everything that happened to them – lack of care, mental torture, racial abuse by guards, violence, sexual assaults, and denial of legal assistance and healthcare – was done to break them and make them not to fight for themselves.”

Jasmine was released on bail several weeks after arriving at Yarl’s Wood and told she would need to report to an immigration reporting centre every two weeks. “They didn’t tell me anything else – just hurried to get me out,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Following her release, Jasmine was exploited by a man she knew. At the time, Jasmine didn’t know she was a victim of modern slavery and said she “didn’t think anything was wrong” with the conditions she was living in.

‘I felt like a prisoner’

In early 2022, just shy of a year after being released from Yarl’s Wood, Jasmine went to her usual check-in at an Immigration Reporting Centre and was informed she was being detained again, which she later found out was due to an issue with her visa application.

“I went into shock,” Jasmine said, recalling that moment. “I was blaming myself. I just couldn’t stop crying.”

This time, Jasmine was taken to Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre, which opened in November 2021, replacing Yarl’s Wood as the main centre for detained women.

A report by the prison watchdog published earlier this month – almost exactly a year since the first detainees arrived at the site – revealed that nearly one in five women held at Derwentside felt suicidal at some point while detained, while more than two-thirds felt depressed.

The HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ findings, based on an unannounced inspection in August, highlighted a number of other problems. These included a male staff member being tasked with the “constant supervision” of a woman whose triggers for self-harm included the presence of men, and an incident in which a 38-year-old woman was restrained “using unapproved and risky techniques, particularly around the head and neck area”.

Inspectors’ other concerns included the fact that vulnerable women continued to be detained despite evidence of a deleterious effect on their health and well-being, and that Derwentside's remote location means very few women have received face-to-face legal visits from solicitors.

Many of their findings ring true to Jasmine, who told openDemocracy the centre’s remoteness made her “feel like a prisoner”. She added: “It was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by high trees, with high gates. It felt like they wanted to kidnap us.”

They asked how I was and even though my eyes were red from crying, I would tell them I was OK and they would just leave

After reading the HMIP report, Pichierri felt the government hadn’t addressed concerns raised about Yarl’s Wood. “Derwentside is a detention centre – it’s a leopard that can’t change its spots,” she said. “There is no humane detention. The only humane demand and fight are to shut them all down.”

The report is particularly worrying, explains Gemma Lousley, policy and research manager at Women For Refugee Women, because Derwentside was nowhere near full when the inspection took place.

Lousley said: “At the time of the inspection there were 25 women in Derwentside – so it was significantly under capacity, because 84 women can be detained there at any one time. Worryingly, the chief inspector of prisons has warned ‘there is a real risk that, as the number of women held there rises, the fragilities that our inspection identified could lead to real harm.’”

‘Long-lasting damage to mental health’

A routine medical review undertaken at a short-term holding facility the day before she was taken to Derwentside had categorised Jasmine as a vulnerable adult. This was not explained to her until she arrived at Derwentside and was quickly ushered to the facility’s healthcare unit.

Jasmine was placed on suicide watch and told an officer would check on her every hour around the clock – though she did not feel the staff provided her with support, despite knowing her history of trauma and torture.

“They {either a man or woman} knocked and asked if they could come in,” she remembered. “If I didn’t answer, they would say they were coming in and used the key to open the door…

“They asked how I was and even though my eyes were red from crying, I would tell them I was OK and they would just leave.”

Jasmine said her mental health declined while she was at Derwentside, and felt she was reliving the abuse she suffered previously.

She said: “[The women in the centre] were all running from stuff and they are putting us in prison like we have done something wrong. It felt similar to what I had gone through before I was detained.”

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This is a familiar experience among detainees at Derwentside, according to Women For Refugee Women, which has spoken to a significant number of women detained there.

“The distress caused by being locked up in detention has been clear in so many of those conversations,” said Gemma Lousley. “There is no statutory time limit on immigration detention in the UK, so women simply do not know when they will be released – and this uncertainty exacerbates the trauma of being locked up in the first place.

“Our research has shown that the majority of asylum-seeking women who are detained have survived rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Locking up women who have already survived violence and abuse retraumatises them and causes long-lasting damage to their mental health.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office told openDemocracy that the department “takes the welfare of people in our care extremely seriously and has specific guidance on how to safeguard women in detention”.

They added: “We have policies and procedures in place to safeguard vulnerable people and we remain committed to further improving these. Individuals have access to health care provided by doctors and nurses and support is provided to those with mental health concerns.”

I still have depression and anxiety. I get counselling, have three support workers, and am on anti-depressants. I can’t sleep at night

While Jasmine was in Derwentside, a legal aid lawyer picked up her case, beginning the process of going through the National Referral Mechanism, the UK’s framework for identifying and supporting trafficking survivors, as well as claiming asylum.

But Jasmine wasn’t able to meet with him face-to-face, due in part to Derwentside’s remote location. Instead they had phone calls, but even these were challenging. “I couldn’t find signal so I had to wave the phone around in the yard just to get the signal,” she said.

The Home Office spokesperson said: “Individuals have always been able to contact their legal representatives easily by telephone, email and video call – and also receive 30 minutes free advice through the legal aid scheme. Face-to-face legal visits can also be facilitated.”

Shortly after arriving in Derwentside, Jasmine was told her young daughter, who is living with relatives, was very unwell. “I went back to my room and was on the floor screaming and crying,” she remembered. “I felt so helpless. The officers got really alarmed. A few days later, I was released.”

Jasmine is now staying in Home Office accommodation while she claims asylum. “I still have depression and anxiety,” she said. “I get counselling, have three support workers, and am on anti-depressants. I can’t sleep at night. I’ve been in so many detention centres – it has left such a scar on me.”

*Jasmine’s name has been changed

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