Campaigns Feminism Human Rights



Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is a detention centre in Bedfordshire. It is usually described as being a place to detain failed asylum for women and families who havent commited a crime, prior to deportation, but around 2 thirds of detainees are usually granted asylum. Its occupants are primarily women and families, many of whom came to the UK fleeing torture and abuse, including sexual violence.

Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and prospective parliamentary candidate for Sheffield Central, told Ungagged:

“Many, probably the majority, of women in Yarls Wood are the victims of torture and abuse, often by officialdom, in their home countries. By holding them in indefinite detention, a practice used in no other European country, we are subjecting them to torture again. And in conditions that official report after official report have found to be unacceptable. This must end. It is a blot on the British state.”

In early February 2002, the building was burnt down following a protest by the detainees. The protest, which came after months of accusations of sexual violence, rough handling and forcible separation of lactating mothers from their breastfeeding babies, was sparked after a woman was physically restrained by staff. According to custody officer Darren Attwood, officers complied with orders to “lock the detainees in the burning building”

Yarls Wood has been plagued with human rights abuse allegations, with detainees going on mass hunger strike at least 6 times since 2001. In 2010 a group of women went on hunger strike in protest at their indefinite detention. One of them had been held for fifteen months. Instead of calming the situation, Yarls Wood locked the protesting women in an airless corridor with no toilet facilities.

A number of allegations of sexual abuse have been made against the centre, and the Home Office has refused FOI requests asking to reveal the number of rape allegations from within the prison. Women have reported being touched sexually, male guards entering women’s rooms late at night and male guards in positions of power over the women propositioning them that sexually. A 2006 Legal Action for Women (LAW) investigation into Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre found that: 70% of women had reported rape, nearly half had been detained for over three months. 57% had no legal representation, and 20% had lawyers who demanded payment in advance. Women reported sexual and racial intimidation by guards. LAW’s Self-Help Guide has been confiscated by guards depriving detainees of information about their rights. 10 years later, there has been little, if any, improvement. During a 2016 protest by local people and women’s groups, detainees hung a sign out of a window saying “Yarls wood officers in relationships with vulnerable detainees”.

Serco, the outsourcing company which operates Yarl’s Wood for the Home Office, denies that such instances are widespread, which suggests that they aren’t unheard of. This is an unacceptable abuse of power.

In April 2009, the Children’s Commissioner for England published a report which stated that children held in the detention centre are denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and left at risk of serious harm. The report details how children are transported in caged vans, and watched by opposite-sex staff as they dress. This follows earlier allegations in 2005 by the Chief Inspector of Prisons that children were being damaged by being held in the institution, citing in particular an autistic five-year-old who had not eaten properly in several days.

Janelle Brown, a member of Sisters Uncut, an activist group protesting state sanctioned violence against women, said:

The devastating sign we saw being hung from the windows by the women inside saying ‘officers in relationships with vulnerable women’ confirms what we already knew- Yarl’s Wood is the embodiment of racist, sexist state violence against women.

Immigration detention replicates the torturous, coercive powers of domestic violence- male guards that control and abuse women trapped at Yarl’s Wood are no different to the perpetrators of domestic violence who abuse women trapped in their own homes. No woman should ever have to face such invasive brutality. Yarl’s Wood should be shut down.

In 2009, then Children’s Commissioner for England Sir Al Aynsley-Green released a damping report into Yarl’s Wood.

It stated that basic safeguards for children in Yarl’s Wood were failing, welfare issues raising “serious concern” were ignored, with children forced to remain in custody even when they were seriously ill or in danger from parents with mental health problems and criticised the “scant regard to basic welfare needs” during arrest and transportation to the centre.

The commissioner found that seriously ill children were denied hospital treatment, while bureaucracy substantially delayed others with critical conditions from getting to hospital. A baby with pneumonia and a teenager with severe mental health problems were among those affected. Despite being the main detention centre for children, no one on the Yarl’s Wood health team has child health qualifications, the report said.

Sir Al found major healthcare shortcomings at the centre, describing safeguards, records and professionalism as inadequate and below NHS standards. He reports that two children with sickle cell disease were not allowed to bring their penicillin with them when they were seized from their homes. As a result they became seriously ill and required urgent treatment. Instead of being referred to hospital for intravenous fluids and antibiotics they were simply given paracetamol. Under the NHS this would be categorised as a life-threatening “Serious Untoward Incident”.

Children suffering from serious medical conditions and the mentally ill were routinely kept in detention despite guidelines stating clearly they should not be. One diabetic child had three emergency treatments in the 24 days she was detained – including two occasions where her blood sugar left her “un-rousable” – but was still not released. An eight-month-old baby with asthma was neither released nor given an inhaler.

Immunisations were denied to children documented as needing them, creating a health risk. One child was even given the wrong vaccine, while the centre’s policy for preventing malaria was described as containing “serious errors” and being “unacceptably poor”.

Doctors working for Medical Justice, an organisation that provides voluntary medical assistance for Yarl’s Wood families, insist there is wider evidence of medical abuse beyond the commissioner’s report. They say they have documented evidence of a child under 12 being given his mother’s anti-depressant drugs on removal; of a young person in severe pain with sickle cell disease being denied painkillers because he was unable to walk to the clinic to receive them in person; and of children contracting severe malaria on being returned to their home country because they were refused suitable preventative medicine.

Paediatrician Dr Fred Martineau said:

“The detention of children, whether newborn babies or adolescents, almost invariably causes them physical or emotional suffering. Doctors from Medical Justice regularly see the effects of this, ranging from a failure to give immunisations against potentially fatal diseases, through to clinical depression …The only way of preventing this harm is to end their detention.”

During the investigation young people told how traumatised they were by the experience, noting that officers seemed to be laughing at them and “taking pleasure in the family’s distress”. The study said: “In a large majority of cases, children reported that officers’ behaviour had been aggressive, rude and, on a few occasions, violent.”

Children were even watched by officers of the opposite sex while they dressed, which the report called “an unacceptable safeguarding risk which must be addressed immediately”. They also had to watch parents being handcuffed and heavily restrained – a direct flouting of UKBA guidelines.

Caged prison vans were routinely used to transport children to the centre near Bedford, despite promises that people carriers would be used for families. Children were denied toilet breaks or food and drink. The vans, the report said, are “stained with urine and vomit”.

The Children’s Commissioner concluded that the detentire of children had to end, saying that detaining around 2000 children annually for administrative purposes is unaccaptable, saying:

“The average length of time children and young people are being detained is increasing, and, crucially, the decision to detain them is neither being used as a last resort nor for the shortest period of time as required by Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child”

Key meetings between social services, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and Yarl’s Wood staff designed to discuss the welfare implications of keeping a child locked up for more than 28 days dwelt instead on PR and legal concerns.

In April 2014, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, was barred from Yarl’s Wood by the Home Office when she tried to investigate complaints about the centre as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK. In her 2015 report, Manjoo said that her being barred from Yarl’s Wood reminded her of when the Bangladeshi government refused her access to investigate alleged crimes against women at a notorious refugee camp and when the Indian government forbade her entry to state-run facilities.

The facility also draws criticism for its treatment of pregnant women. The stories of two women in particular highlight the level of inadequate healthcare and the impact guards have on pregnant women in detention. Firstly, a former Medical Justice client, who was due to be deported, was prescribed Mefloquine, an anti-malarial medication that the Home Office states should not be given to pregnant women in the early stages of pregnancy. According to Medical Justice, the woman was given this too late to test her tolerance to the medication if deported, and had not had a scan. Her deportation was stopped by the High Court, but she remained at Yarl’s Wood until the 20th week of her pregnancy, when she began experiencing abdominal pain and bleeding. She sadly gave birth to a stillborn baby, for which a guard was present throughout; she was later transferred to a psychiatric unit due to feeling suicidal. Secondly, a former Women for Refugee Women client who was 3 months pregnant and hospitalised for 3 days stated,

I had three men guarding me. Even when the gynaecologist was doing an examination on me there were male guards in the room watching me. When I went to the toilet they were the ones who took me. When I sat down on the toilet the male guards were there. It made me feel ashamed”

These cases clearly demonstrate how health care services in detention are inept, how the dignity and respect of pregnant women are frequently violated by intrusive behaviour, and the detrimental effects of detention on the mental health of pregnant women. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents, as many other expectant mothers have faced problems with accessing healthcare services in detention, according to advocacy reports.

The House of Lords voted to ban the detention of pregnant women altogether, but Theresa May has only agreed to a 72 hour time limit, extendoable to a week. This was promised in April,  but it has not come into effect yet.

We still detain families at Yarl’s Wood.

Women are still alleging sexual abuse, violence andabuse at Yarl’s Wood.

How much longer will we allow human rights abuses to go on under our noses?

UK chief prisons inspector Nick Hardwick said conditions were worsening and called Yarl’s Wood a “place of national concern”.

It’s business as usual in Yarl’s Wood.

How to Help:

Please help support the work of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders,  who offer advocacy services, dignity and compassion to detainees.

You can also get involved with activist groups protesting inhumane dentention, such as Sisters Uncut,  Movement for Justice  and Shut Down Yarl’s Wood (there are many others).

Please once again, write to your MP. There are lots of different ways to apply pressure. All of them help.

If you want to contact Serco directly, their details can be found here.


No human is illegal.

Image by Debra Torrance 

Written by Victoria Pearson 


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