“They rob you of your dignity and treat you like criminals, and they can storm into your room without any caution or notice,” said a former detainee regarding the treatment that security guards mete out at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration and Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, UK. Having received refugee status in 2012 and now soon-to-be a proud law graduate this summer, the 34-year-old Pakistan-born looked back to the first time she entered the UK. Having applied for asylum at the airport, she was driven to Yarl’s Wood, which she described as a “prison cell”. “An asylum seeker is equal to a criminal in the UK,” she told me.
Her account of treatment at the hands of the security officials at the Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre echoes with the excruciating, unforgettable and unspeakable experiences of hundreds and thousands of those who went through similar trauma. The Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre is one of the largest detention facilities in the UK, which houses women facing deportation. At least 30,000 people are held in detention every year in the UK, with the Yarl’s Wood Centre regarded as one of the worst after years-long reports of abuse, hunger strikes and shocking healthcare access.
A report by the Women for Women Refugee last year highlighted that the detainees’ right to privacy is violated by security guards with regularity. Women detainees claimed that they are stared at by the male members of the staff all the time while using toilets. Last year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, was denied access to the centre. She wanted to record an inquiry into the reports of violence against women at the centre.
The right to healthcare is a basic fundamental human right. However, detainees have widely reported that they have only limited access to this right. Last year, Christine Chase, a 40-year-old Jamaican woman, died of a heart attack at the facility as she was denied medical attention. She was provided with a Paracetamol to cure her heart disease, which sadly led to her death.
The most recent case of abuse of women was highlighted by a Channel 4 investigation, which unveiled various serious examples of inhuman and racial abuse at the hands of the officials. The UK’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Right, Alex Neil, has acknowledged the abuse at the centre by saying that “it is unlawful for any public authority to act in a manner that is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The allegations made by Channel 4 raise serious concerns about the management and operation of the Yarl’s Wood Centre. It is also regrettable that the Home Office last year refused to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women to visit the facility.”
Sarah Campbell, who works for a charity that helps detainees and prepares their applications for bail, told me that the recent cuts to funds that go towards providing legal aid to detainees in the UK have further compounded problems for them. She said: “In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that detention centre staff have felt able to maltreat detainees with impunity. They may correctly assume that these people will soon be bungled onto a plane, with few questions asked about why they were detained or how they were treated.”
Another factor which contributes to the trauma of the detainees is to ‘live a life on hold’ due to the current asylum system which has an indefinite period of detention. The Labour Party has promised to introduce a time limit on the detention period if it comes to power. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, told The Guardian that the current system is inefficient and “deeply scarring” for those trapped in asylum detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood. Rights groups claim that Britain should introduce a time frame for thousands of detainees trapped in indefinite periods of detention.
Britain, being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, has failed to keep its standards. Those fleeing persecution, instead of finding a safe haven, are conversely subjected to both physical and psychological scars, which leave lasting impressions on the detainees. Detaining people with no time limit is a cruel and unjust part of the British immigration and asylum system. It has already claimed many lives. Change is long overdue.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2015.