Detention is imprisonment says Natasha Walter, director of Women For Refugee Women
“Welcome to Yarl’s Wood,” says the sign on the wall of the detention centre in Bedfordshire. Whenever I visit, I find it extraordinary that this country welcomes some of the most vulnerable women who come to our shores by locking them up in what is, effectively, a prison.
'Fatima' came to the UK recently as a refugee from Sudan after travelling through Libya, the Mediterranean and Calais. She told us that she had been through a “journey through hell”, and when she was taken to the detention centre at first it felt like paradise. “There were beds and warm showers. It was only gradually we understood that we could not leave or go out. We realised it was a prison. This was terrifying.”
Many people believe that detaining people in places like Yarl’s Wood is just an administrative issue. They might believe that it isn’t too hard on the women themselves and that it's necessary so that we can control our borders effectively. But these beliefs do not stand up to scrutiny.
Detention is imprisonment, and just as you or I would suffer if we were locked up without knowing when we would be released, so do the women we meet in Yarl’s Wood. What’s more, most of the women we have spoken to are already victims of sexual violence and torture in their countries of origin. Being locked up again in the UK only exacerbates their trauma.
For instance, 'Margaret' was raped over many weeks in prison in her home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She fled to the UK for safety but was locked up in Yarl’s Wood. In the detention centre she was put on suicide watch, and was watched day and night by male staff. She found herself constantly reliving her experiences of her torture at home. “Being locked up here is a torture in my head," she told us. You can watch Margaret’s story here.
Many of the women we visit tell us that they are self-harming and trying to kill themselves while they are locked up. In one sample for our research report I Am Human, we found that out of 35 women, 40% said that they had self-harmed in Yarl’s Wood.
Detention is not only traumatic for individual women, it is also completely unnecessary in the asylum process. Although the government says that detention is only used prior to removal, only a quarter of asylum-seeking women leave Yarl’s Wood to be removed from the country – the rest re-enter the community in the UK, their detention having served no purpose. As the Women's Equality Party's objective to end detention points out, women’s asylum cases can be heard much more efficiently – and more cheaply – while they are living in the community.
We have been particularly concerned about the situation of pregnant women in Yarl’s Wood; in 2014, 99 pregnant women were locked up in the centre. The poor healthcare and the stress of detention make the experience particularly hard for pregnant women. And their situation really brings home how pointless detention is: only nine of these 99 women were deported from the country at the end of their detention – the rest re-entered the community to continue their immigration cases.
We at Women for Refugee Women have been campaigning to challenge the detention of women since January 2014. We have seen some great positive steps. When we started the campaign, male staff were watching women on suicide watch in intimate situations such as in bed or in the toilet; now staff guidelines state that male staff should not watch women.
When we started the campaign there was no mention of survivors of sexual violence in the categories of people deemed unsuitable for detention; now a new policy states that those who have “been a victim of sexual or gender-based violence” should be seen as vulnerable and should not usually be detained. And a new time limit on the detention of pregnant women has just been agreed by the government. This will mean that pregnant women can only be detained for up to 72 hours, which is a real step forward.
What we need now is to build on these first steps so that there is genuine progress for women seeking asylum. Even today vulnerable women, many of them survivors of sexual violence, are being locked up for weeks and months at a time. This is an expensive, inefficient and unnecessary practice which is extremely traumatic. We need to work together to challenge this, and begin to provide a real welcome for refugee women in the UK.