Shortly after approximately one thousand people gathered outside Yarl’s Wood in the biggest protest to date calling for its closure, I went inside Britain’s notorious female detention centre. I met two detainees while I was there: they were both victims of human trafficking.
Laura* had served a prison sentence before being detained. She told me that Yarl’s Wood is worse. Instead of counting down the days, she is counting up.
It was her 40th birthday the day I met her and she had been in Yarl’s Wood for just short of eight months. Eight months without knowing.
Laura told us how, just a few days previously, she was physically attacked by her roommate, and had visible marks under her eyes to show it. They were both taken down to the Kingfisher Isolation Unit following the attack. Laura was there for a few hours; her roommate was there until she was placed on another ward. Laura told me the longest she had heard of a woman staying in Kingfisher was 24 days.
Laura said the worst thing about Yarl’s Wood was healthcare. She is on medication for depression and says illnesses are not taken seriously. Another woman I met, Priya*, said the same. She was six months pregnant and was detained a month ago, for the second time. She told us she had recently thrown up, passed out and been taken down to the doctor in a wheelchair, who did nothing to help her. She also told us detainees had not been tested for TB, despite a confirmed case in the centre.
Priya’s history of being trafficked and detained has seriously affected her mental health. She had not eaten for days because the food made her feel sick, and was visibly weak as a result. She said that except for being given milk, she has received no special treatment to help her through her pregnancy. It’s unclear how long she will remain there.
The Home Office justifies detention as long as there is “a reasonable prospect of removal in a reasonable timeframe”, but this is an insufficient basis upon which to take away someone’s freedom. Britain is the only country in the EU not to impose a time limit on detention. Today’s Immigration Bill includes an amendment to introduce such a time limit, and it has cross-party support.
I visited Yarl’s Wood without revealing that I was an MP so as not to risk being rejected a visit by the Home Office, as happened to the MP Catherine West - a barring supposedly exercised “to preserve the privacy and dignity of the individuals who are detained”. The impression I got from detainees was that privacy was an issue inside Yarl’s Wood, but not in terms of visitors. The problem is being shut away, hidden from the public eye. Meanwhile, according to the I Am Human report by Women For Refugee Women, detainees report being watched in intimate situations such as while naked, partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet by the guards, 51 per cent of whom are male.
Because, indisputably, Yarl’s Wood is shut off from the outside world. You are searched one by one upon entry; you can’t take in a phone; you can only see the visiting room. Tucked away at the back of a business park, you can’t even see it from the entrance on the countryside road. There is no disguising the fact that this is, to all intents and purposes, a prison.
Priya, Laura and other women detained in Yarl’s Wood came to England for a better life; Women for Refugee Women, who organised the social visit,have also reported that the majority of women they speak to in Yarl’s Wood have experienced persecution in their home countries. Their hope has turned to disillusionment in the face our immigration system. Subjecting people to imprisonment without a time frame is simply inhumane. How can any of them continue to believe that Britain is a place of justice, fairness and sanctuary in the face of such treatment?
As Alex*, a regular visitor to Yarl’s Wood who accompanied me said, “It's hard to really imagine it until you see for yourself what it's like - and hard to imagine that we really treat people this way.”
*Name changed to safeguard identity