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Out of sight, out of mind: truth behind UK’s secretive Yarl’s Wood detention centre

Yarl's Wood detention centre is home to a secret scandal, according to campaigners. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

According to campaigners, Britain’s immigration detention system is a secret scandal. WikiTribune’s LYDIA MORRISH visits the crisis-hit Yarl’s Wood centre to investigate.

In a nondescript industrial estate just north of Bedford, a privately-run detention centre – some call it what it looks like, a prison – has become a focal point for the European immigration crisis. Yarl’s Wood is the best-known of nine removal centres around the country where the UK holds people with uncertain migration status, while they await either deportation or acceptance as refugees.

More than 4.7 million people have come to Europe since 2015, in part of the biggest movement of people since the Second World War, and many have headed to Britain, with its a reputation as a safe haven. In response, the UK has created one of Europe’s largest networks of immigration detention facilities. It has also created the continent’s only system in which migrants are routinely detained without a time limit.

Yarl’s Wood’s status as the best-known of the UK’s sites is largely down to its notoriety. Within three months of its opening, part of the centre was destroyed by fire during an outbreak of violence by a group of detainees. In the years since, it has been the subject of allegations of abuse, inappropriate sexual activity by staff, and conditions described by activists as degrading, abusive and hellish. Within recent weeks, more than 100 detainees at the site have been on hunger strike in protest against their detention and conditions. Inquiries into the site since its opening have identified various problems, although Serco, the company in charge, points to the recognition in an HM Inspectorate of Prisons report last year that conditions have improved.

But despite the notoriety of this particular site, Yarl’s Wood is an emblem of a bigger problem. Governments across Europe have come under growing pressure to manage migration by increasing deportations and cutting immigration. But many analysts see detention as ineffective in dealing with immigration. The decision to detain or deport is often arbitrary, critics argue, while the psychological and physical trauma of detention places immense strain on already vulnerable people.

The centre’s location in Twinwoods Business Park, set in countryside, seems out of place as a secure holding pen for 410 mostly women and some men, predominantly from South Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries. Taxis transport family members and visitors from Bedford train station through green fields into the industrial estate. The entrance to the immigration centre is between concrete commercial buildings, including a wind tunnel facility used by the Red Bull Racing F1 team.

Inside, the visitors’ room in Yarl’s Wood is large and dimly-lit. Floor-length windows make up one wall. Vending machines line another. Most of the floor space is occupied with worn purple armchairs arranged around coffee tables. A woman we will call ‘Vivian’ – not her real name – sits in one of them.

She was taken into detention last year, when eight uniformed officers arrived at her house early one morning and took her away in handcuffs. Days earlier, she had missed an appointment at her local immigration reporting centre. She arrived at Yarl’s Wood in the middle of the night and was placed in a room with another woman. The room held two single beds, a kettle, and a wardrobe, while a toilet was separated off by a curtain. Vivian says she was a victim of torture, trafficking and female genital mutilation in her native West Africa and that her open-ended detention at the site, and intimidating conditions, made her suicidal, she says.

‘I don’t sleep,’ she says. ‘It is so closed-in I feel like someone will pounce on me. I don’t have the urge to eat. My whole body is at war… I’ve never been convicted of any crime, but I am treated like a criminal.’

Since our meeting, Vivian has a new lawyer and has been released from detention – after six months – to continue work on her claim for asylum.

I also meet another woman, Elizabeth – again, not her real name – who has also since been released from detention at Yarl’s Wood and now works for Refugee Women’s Voice, a group of asylum-seeking and refugee women campaigning for change to the system, under the umbrella of the charity Women for Refugee Women. She says she was trafficked to England 19 years ago but was detained in 2015, after she was found to be working illegally. When she arrived at Yarl’s Wood, she says, she had her iron supplements (she says she is anaemic) taken away on arrival and never replaced. The centre’s policy is for new arrivals to be stripped of their belongings, with medication provided after a health check.

During her time in detention, she says, another inmate set herself ablaze, after being told she would be deported.

‘I woke up in the morning and there was ambulances everywhere. And I found the ladies who were telling me that she had set herself on fire.’

Elizabeth was held for five weeks before her release, which is not far from the average period of detention, which is about a month. But of the thousands of people who enter Britain’s immigration detention centres each year – in 2017, this was 27,331 people – some remain inside for months, or even years. One man I spoke to, Sergey, was detained for two years. He is now living back in the community while he awaits the outcome of his asylum case.

Along with the conditions in the detention centres, it is this lack of a time limit which causes most controversy among critics of the system. A parliamentary inquiry in 2015 found it came at ‘significant mental health costs for detainees’, and led to the introduction of a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women in July 2017. Measures have also been introduced to reduce the numbers of children being held.

The Home Office says a formal time limit on detention would be unworkable, since, it would ‘allow individuals to frustrate the system and would significantly impact on our ability to enforce immigration controls and maintain public safety’. A spokesman added: ‘When people are detained it is for the shortest time possible, with no-one detained indefinitely and time limits applying to the detention of pregnant women and families with children.

‘Detention is an important part of a firm but fair immigration system… [The Home Office] will help those with no right to remain in the UK by offering them to leave voluntarily. But where they refuse we are determined to ensure that they are returned to their home country swiftly in the most cost-effective way possible… The welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.’

Activists campaigning against the system, though, say it is fundamentally flawed. Groups like Women for Refugee Women and Detention Action call for an end to detention and for those awaiting immigration decisions to stay in secure housing, in more humane – and less expensive – conditions. Ben du Preez, campaigns coordinator at Detention Action, says the current arrangements are ‘in crisis’. ‘Detention is not a refugee/asylum issue,’ he says. ‘It is a human rights and civil liberties issue.’
For critics, there is also another problem with the system – but one which is convenient to the government. By detaining people, and keeping them tucked away behind high fences on industrial estates in the Bedfordshire countryside, the country is able to push this awkward topic out of sight, and out of mind.

At Yarl’s Wood I also meet Sophie Beech, part of a group from the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London, who travel to Bedfordshire to support those held at the centre. ‘Not enough people know about detention centres, or what happens in detention centres,’ she says. ‘I can be standing at the bus stop [outside Yarl’s Wood] and people will ask me, ‘What are you doing here? There’s nothing around here’. And I’ll tell them. They don’t even know it’s there, and these are local people.’

• WikiTribune is a new collaborative news platform where professional and citizen journalists work side-by-side; the reporter’s visit to Yarl’s Wood was arranged by Women for Refugee Women

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