Yarl's Wood: Sexual Violence and Detention Centres

By Amelia A J Foy

Officers at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre have been called into question once more over the treatment of their detainees in the latest in a long list of misconduct allegations. A female detainee accused three officers (Syed Hussain, Bodrul Islam, and Thomas Redmond) of sexual violence, ranging from grooming (where abusers effectively test the waters over a period of time in preparation for abuse) and coercion to Islam even claiming he was single and manipulating her into believing they were in a relationship together. This all happened in late-2012 but has only recently emerged as the detainee didn’t wish to “rock the boat” while appealing to remain in the country.

For those who are unaware, detention centres (also called immigration removal centres) detain immigrants and asylum seekers wishing to live in the country while their papers are approved or rejected. This process is meant to be short-term and is justified by the Home Office as an efficient way to monitor and go about deportation - however, detainees are often held indefinitely. Yarl’s Wood, one of the detention centres, is situated in Bedfordshire, England, and can currently hold up to 410 women and families in this situation. The majority are seeking asylum, for reasons ranging from war in their country to the persecution of their sexuality; others are hoping for a better life in Britain with their families. Some have lived in Britain for years, decades, but their right to stay here has now been called into question. On Yarl’s Wood’s website, they state: “We focus on decency and respect in all aspects of care for our residents.” However, its history - and present day - exposes this as a lie.

To really understand why these recent allegations are so pertinent, it is important to start at the beginning. Yarl’s Wood opened in 2002, was governed by G4S, a private company steeped in criticism (for example, an adolescent detention centre run by them was found guilty of abusing those in their care). Management has since been passed on to Serco, who are becoming increasingly prominent, governing some recently privatised parts of the NHS (National Health Service) and private prisons. Of these two services, their Thameside private prison has been deemed stricter than state-owned ones, with 60% of the inmates’ time spent in their cells, and the Suffolk NHS service they manage has reported a reduction in spending, sick pay, and annual leave, as well as an increase in job losses.

Within 3 months of its opening, a fire had started inside the centre following a protest by detainees about their treatment by officers. Officers were instructed to “lock the detainees in the burning building”. In the years following this, there were a series of hunger strikes as a protest of treatment; the question of children being detained in Yarl’s Wood, and many deaths and miscarriages encountered at the centre, due to inadequate medical help being provided. Inside investigation by Channel 4 further evidenced officers neglecting detainees and degrading them based on race and gender. Sexual abuse, too, has been a continuous issue: between 2013 and 2015, six allegations were made, an eye-witness was deported before being able to testify and, although 90% of detainees are female, half the officers are men. Moreover, with many women having fled their country from sexual violence, this is even more critical an issue.

In early 2016 I attended a protest to shut down Yarl’s Wood with Movement for Justice, Sisters Uncut and many other feminist and queer organisations and independent people. More than 2,000 people attended that day from all across the country. We set up on the grass outside Yarl’s Wood with banners, chants, music and speakers - many of whom were ex-detainees attesting to the horrible treatment they found inside its walls. Women appeared in windows they could barely open and stuck up paper with numbers to call to help them find lawyers to appeal their cases, as they have limited access to resources and also often have to pay for legal help. Others held out t-shirts with messages written on them. One of the most striking ones read:

“Yarl’s Wood officers in relationships with vulnerable detainees.”

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Image courtesy of Twitter
Refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants of any kind deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, not locked up as if they were criminals and subjected to mistreatment. If seeking safety, happiness, and a brighter future is something to be criminalised and abused for, perhaps it is time to assess what our society is doing wrong and what we need to put it right. Perhaps immigration is not the real enemy.