What will it take to shut down Yarl's Wood?

Hundreds of people will protest against the locking up and abuse of women at Yarl's Wood detention centre.

Gemma Lousley
5 June 2015
 Demotix/Peter Marshall

Protesters demand that Yarl's Wood is shut down following sexual violence and racism allegations. Credit: Demotix/Peter Marshall

Today hundreds of people will hold a mass rally at the gates of Yarl’s Wood detention centre to speak up for the women who are locked up there.

Speakers including refugee activists Lydia Besong and Maimuna Jawo, comedian Josie Long, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty will join with hundreds of others to demand that the government takes action.

Women for Refugee Women is calling for an end to the detention of women who seek asylum. As an interim step, we want an end to the detention of survivors of sexual violence and pregnant women.

The Home Office must drastically rethink their policy, but this also means a change in how people think about migrants.

An undercover investigation revealed the inside reality of the detention centre on TV for the first time this year. Trauma and abuse is rife at Yarl's Wood, including male guards watching women who are on suicide watch, or ‘constant supervision’. Women deemed to be so mentally distressed they may kill themselves are watched by men as they lie in bed, go to the toilet, get dressed and undressed, and shower.

The majority of women we spoke to for our 2014 report were survivors of rape, sexual violence or other torture. They had come to the UK to seek protection, but were subsequently locked up.

Being locked up is in itself traumatic. Women have told us how detention forces them to relive the trauma they experienced in their home countries. Levels of mental distress in Yarl’s Wood are unsurprisingly high: one in five of the women we spoke to told us that they had tried to kill themselves in detention, and 40% said they had self-harmed. More than half had been placed on suicide watch while detained.

“There are always male staff. You have to have the shower door open – when you go to the toilet too. It is another way of torturing you. They do anything they can to break you down.”

Following the Channel 4 News investigation Serco, the private contractor that runs the centre, set up what it has termed an ‘independent’ review into the ‘culture and practices’ there. The government stated that guards would start wearing body cameras.

The inadequacy of these responses continues a longstanding pattern of denial and failure when it comes to Yarl’s Wood. Many have been raising serious concerns for some time, well before the abuses there were captured on camera.

Following the publication of our report, the Home Office denied that male guards were watching women, insisting that they “would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm.”

But over 85% of the women we spoke to for our follow-up report said men watched them in intimate situations in Yarl’s Wood. One woman told us: “There are always male staff. You have to have the shower door open – when you go to the toilet too. It is another way of torturing you. They do anything they can to break you down.”

We have also documented ongoing allegations of sexual exploitation by male guards, the racist abuse women are subjected to, instances of physical assault by staff and poor standards of healthcare. The harms of Yarl’s Wood are real. In June last year, Serco admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee that 10 staff had been dismissed as a result of sexual contact with women held there.

More recently, during its most recent inspection visit in April, the Prisons Inspectorate voiced its “considerable concern” about an alleged assault on two women by a male guard with his riot shield.

The abuse of women at Yarl's Wood is shocking. But we don't just want reform to their treatment while they are locked up. The underlying policy allowing their detention should not be in place at all. The use of immigration detention is expensive, and completely unnecessary: two-thirds of asylum-seeking women who are detained are subsequently released to continue with their claim in the community.

But most importantly, the policy of detaining vulnerable women seeking protection is damaging and harmful to the women concerned.

The demonstration on Saturday will be a vocal response to the dismissal, disbelief and silencing of the harms experienced by refugee women. By coming together around Yarl’s Wood, we will also be protesting with the women detained there, demonstrating solidarity with those who are locked up.

We are modelling the change we hope to see on a broader scale in society – supporting people who happen to have been born outside the UK, rather than treating them with suspicion and fear. Women’s rights are not privileges to be earned or awarded to a few. To have meaning they must be afforded to all women, wherever they are born.

There is a powerful movement building around this issue, with diverse groups and individuals demanding that the practice of locking up women seeking asylum must come to an end.

On Saturday, hundreds of people from across the country will gather around the fences of the detention centre, singing the words of Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST) Manchester’s song: “We want Yarl’s Wood to close, not just today, or tomorrow, but forever”.

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