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UK government deports sexual assault witnesses

Witnesses to alleged sexual abuse at Yarl's Wood detention centre are being put on a mass deportation flight to Pakistan, leaving tonight.

Clare Sambrook
1 October 2013

The UK government is about to deport five women who have experienced or witnessed sexual abuse at Yarl's Wood detention centre, according to the campaign group Movement for Justice.

A spokesman for the group, protesting outside the Home Office this afternoon, said:

“Five of the eight women facing deportation to Pakistan tonight have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment from male officers in Yarl's Wood. The attempt to deport the witnesses is part of the Home Office's desperate attempts to cover up the scandal."

It would not be the first time. In 2009, the Home Office expedited the deportation of a five year old boy who was sexually abused at Yarl's Wood. His mother's pleas for a specialist’s opinion, for therapeutic help for her son, for an independent investigation, were all refused.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, in a report published this morning, said that people who made allegations of assault were deported even when medical evidence supported their claims:

“If allegations of assault were made by a detainee during removal, which were supported by medical evidence, the Home Office did not delay removal pending a police investigation."

The Observer's Mark Townsend has lately published compelling testimony from former and current Yarl's Wood detainees alleging sexual assault by guards employed by commercial contractor Serco.


Protesters at the Home Office today. Source MfJ

'Tanja', a 23 year old held at Yarl's Wood for 110 days until 20 March this year, claimed that one guard had forced oral sex upon her, and another guard exposed his genitals. She said guards targeted vulnerable young women newly arrived at Yarl's Wood.

'Tanja', who is represented by Harriet Wistrich of Birnberg Peirce, claimed that after she reported the abuse Serco guards bullied her to drop the allegations and the Home Office tried repeatedly to deport her.

Eventually the UK Border Agency admitted that there was "sufficient evidence to suggest that [names of three officers] did behave in the unprofessional way that you allege". The Agency claimed that 'Tanja' had failed to tell its investigator that the sexual contact was "anything other than consensual".

In response to an FOI request, the Home Office told the Observer that it had received four complaints "of a sexual nature from detainees" relating to contractor staff since 2008.

Harriet Wistrich said that was the "tip of the iceberg"; women were fearful to testify or deported before their case was sufficiently examined.

About 30 women locked up in Yarl's Wood are said to be on hunger strike in protest at tonight's mass deportation to Pakistan. Fifteen women issued a statement from inside Yarl's Wood yesterday. They complained that the high numbers of asylum seekers involved in the "mass roundup" of asylum seekers left people unable to get legal advice.

This morning's report from the Prisons Inspectorate  — on Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, near Gatwick — reveals continuing abuse by commercial contractors of immigration detainees. The inspection team “saw physical and verbal intimidation of a detainee”. They described how:

“an escort, taller and bigger than him, came close to him and said that if he had to be placed in handcuffs he would need to explain to the receiving authorities why he did not want to return to their country, implying that he would experience rough treatment."

The commercial contractor was Tascor. That's the new name for Reliance, the company that in April 2011 replaced G4S, the contractor responsible for the unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga during an attempted deportation three years ago. Gigantic outsourcing company Capita bought Reliance last year and renamed it Tascor in January. Reliance/Tascor retain many G4S personnel.

The campaign group Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), which has supported Yarl's Wood detainees for years, said yesterday:

“Sexual and racist abuse and other violence by guards have prompted regular protests, even hunger strikes, by women detained in Yarl’s Wood. The same names of guards having sex with women in their care come up over and again. It appears to be so widespread that it is impossible for the authorities, including the Home Office, not to have known about it until it was publicly exposed. Women have been deported without the alleged rape being investigated – a cover up?"

The most recent HMIP report on Yarl's Wood, published in 2011, noted that half the guards were male, many women felt unsafe, especially on their first night, and women complained that male guards entered their rooms without knocking. The Inspectorate's detailed "staff-detainee relationship questionnaire" contained no questions about inappropriate sexual behaviour by the guards.

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