Protests over indefinite detention in British migrant holding centers

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In a nondescript industrial estate north of London, a privately run detention center – some call it what it feels like to inmates, a prison – has become a focal point for the European immigration crisis.

Britain deals with unwanted migration by keeping people with uncertain status in removal centers in one of the largest networks of immigrant detention facilities in Europe (Migration Observatory). It’s the only country in Europe to routinely detain migrants without a time limit (Full Fact). Campaigners say the uncertainty adds to the plight of would-be immigrants who’ve often already experienced harrowing journeys to escape troubled countries.

Since 2015, more than 4.7 million people have come into Europe during the biggest influx of refugees worldwide since World War II driven by the war in Syria, unrest in Afghanistan and Iraq and multiple crises in North Africa and economic chaos in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Many manage to get to Britain which has a reputation as a safe haven but no land border with Europe.

Yarl’s Wood is one of nine barbed-wire-surrounded centers where immigrants, predominantly from South Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries, await either deportation or acceptance as refugees. It has become infamous among advocates who say detainees have experienced physical and mental hardship and may not know if or when they will be sent back to their home country or admitted as refugees.

Uncertainty is the hellish part

Historic cases of sexual abuse, neglect and racism (The Guardian) have been reported to official inquiries. In 2015 the official inspector of prisons called Yarl’s Wood a “place of national concern”. However, a more recent investigation by the same organization recognized improvement in conditions and the climate between staff and detainees . Witness accounts to WikiTribune have described conditions in Yarl’s Wood as “degrading”, “abusive” and “hellish.” Serco, the company in charge in turn points to the recognition in the official report that conditions have improved.

However, while noting the improvement in conditions at Yarl’s Wood, the prisons inspector focused on the distress and uncertainty cause to detainees, stating: “Nearly half of the detainees felt unsafe and this was found to be ‘largely an expression of concern as a result of uncertainty about the future and the prospect of removal from the UK.'”

Yarl’s Wood is run by international commercial services company, Serco, that provides public services such as private prisons, air traffic control and trash collection. Detention policies are set by the government.

Protests against detention policy

On a snowy day in London, about 200 people –- many of them university students from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – protested outside the Home Office (interior ministry) to demand the closure of Yarl’s Wood in support of women detainees who have been on hunger strike since February 21.

Outside the Home Office in the snow, Jenny Gabriel, who is writing her Oxford University PhD thesis on young refugees in Europe, repeated a story she said she had heard from a detainee: “[They] said to me that they wished they’d died in the boat trying to come to Europe rather than the slow death that they were experiencing in indefinite immigration detention. I don’t think you can capture it more than that.”

Around 200 rallied outside the Home Office in London in support of Yarl's Wood hunger strikers. Photo by: Lydia Morrish/WikiTribune
Around 200 people rallied outside the Home Office in London in support of Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers. Photo by: Lydia Morrish/WikiTribune

More than 100 women (The Independent) said they would stop eating and refuse to work to protest against indefinite detention, poor conditions, and the detention of what they say victims of gender-based violence such as genital mutilation in their home countries.

The Home Office responded to the strikers with letters warning of accelerated deportation if they continued with the protest. The letters dated March 2 said the strike “may lead to your case being accelerated and your removal from the UK taking place sooner.” Immigration minister Caroline Nokes defended this stance, confirming cases being sped up was Home Office policy (The Guardian).

Anyone refusing food is being “closely monitored” and supported by a health team at Yarl’s Wood, said a Serco spokesperson.

Deciding who is and who is not a refugee

Yarl’s Wood has become an emblem of a bigger problem. Governments across Europe including Britain’s have come under growing pressure to manage migration by increasing deportations and cutting immigration.

Refugee status is acknowledged when a person is recognized as someone who needs international protection and is unable to safely return to their home country for fear of persecution or violence. Until confirmation of refugee status, the person is an asylum seeker.

But analysts see detention as ineffective in dealing with immigration. The decision to detain or deport is often arbitrary, says Jerome Phelps, director of Detention Action, a campaign group.

Yet, as the Home Office decides who is to be deported or who gains refugee status, advocacy groups say often already-vulnerable immigrants face further psychological and physical trauma in detention. Serco says it can only respond to allegations concerning its operational responsibilities.

‘Treated like a criminal’

Yarl’s Wood’s location in Twinwoods Business Park in the English countryside seems out of place as a secure holding pen for 410 mostly women and some men. Taxis transport family members and visitors from Bedford train station through fields of green into the industrial estate. The entrance to the immigration center is between concrete commercial buildings, and even a wind tunnel facility for the Red Bull Racing car team.

A photo of barbed wire fencing outside Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre
Barbed wire fencing outside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (Photo: Francis Augusto for WikiTribune)

Inside, the visitor’s 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.

“I’ve never been convicted of any crime, but I am treated like a criminal,” Vivian said during her six-month detention in Yarl’s Wood last year. She is out of detention now and working on her case for asylum.

Vivian, not her real name, said that at dawn on a cold morning in February 2017, eight uniformed officers stormed her house and put her in handcuffs. A few days earlier she’d missed an appointment at her local immigration reporting center. She said she was taken to Yarl’s Wood in the middle of the night and placed in a room with another woman. She described the room: it held held two single beds, a kettle, and a wardrobe, while a toilet was separated off by a curtain, she said.

Despite a new policy known as “adults at risk” designed to protect survivors of torture and sexual violence, Vivian, who says she is a victim of torture, trafficking and female genital mutilation in her native West Africa, was detained for six months. She said the Home Office didn’t initially release her because they feared she would abscond.

A photo of Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, UK
Yarl’s Wood is one of nine immigration detention centers in the UK. (Photo: Francis Augusto for WikiTribune)

The prisons inspector’s 2017 report that said conditions were better and the atmosphere there was calmer, more respectful and relaxed. The Independent Monitoring Board’s report from June 2017 equally recognized improvements. But concerns over the detention of vulnerable women are ongoing.

Survivors of sexual violence were routinely detained and became more vulnerable inside detention, a report from Women for Refugee Women published in 2017 alleged. For Vivian, the increased pressure of open-ended detention against a backdrop of violence contributed to her suicidal thoughts, she says.

“I don’t sleep,” Vivian said. “It’s 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.”

Another woman, “Elizabeth” – also not her real name – said she was trafficked to England 19 years ago. After working illegally, she said she was charged and sent to prison for two months before being taken to Yarl’s Wood. There, she says, iron supplements to treat her anaemia were taken away on arrival and not replaced. Wood’s policy is that new arrivals are stripped of their belongings and medication is provided after a health check.

Elizabeth was detained for five weeks in 2015. It wasn’t until she had been in Yarl’s Wood for a month that immigration control recognized her as a victim of trafficking with grounds for release. She was let out a week later, was subsequently granted asylum and now has leave to remain in the UK. She’s now a member of Refugee Women’s Voice, a group of asylum-seeking and refugee women who advocate for change in the asylum system.

Detention firm but fair, says government

Of the thousands of people who enter British immigration detention centers each year – in 2017, 27,331 people – on average people are held for up to a month. Some are detained for months, and even years. One man WikiTribune spoke to, Sergey, said he was detained for two years. He is now living back in the community while he awaits the outcome of his asylum case.

The lack of a time limit has “significant mental health costs for detainees”, a 2015 parliamentary inquiry concluded, leading to a 72-hour statutory time limit on the detention of pregnant women in July 2017. The Family Returns Process implemented in 2011 has led to a fall children being held in the 40 family spaces available in the detention center network.

A photo of fencing outside Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, UK
Fencing outside Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, UK (Photo: Francis Augusto for WikiTribune)

A Home Office spokesperson said in an email to WikiTribune that a formal time limit on immigration detention is unworkable because it “would allow individuals to frustrate the system and would significantly impact on our ability to enforce immigration controls and maintain public safety…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,” said the statement.

“Detention is an important part of a firm but fair immigration system, which is implemented in accordance with legislation agreed by Parliament…[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.”

“Any decision to maintain detention is made on a case by case basis but the detainee’s welfare remains of the utmost importance throughout,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a separate statement.

But Ben du Preez, campaigns coordinator at Detention Action calls the state of detention “a picture of a system in crisis.”

“Detention is not a refugee/asylum issue – it is a human rights and civil liberties issue,” he says. Campaign groups like Detention Action and Women for Refugee Women call for alternatives such as secure housing in a more humane and less expensive manner.

Detention company responds

Serco provides detention center services but is not involved in the policy of detention, so it declines to comment on the state of detention. But a spokesperson pointed to the progress that has been made: “Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons…found that ‘there had been significant improvements at the center’.”

Sophie Beech, a member of student-led detainee support group SOAS Detainee Support (SDS), says that the conditions in detention are being hidden from the public by the government in isolated sites like Yarl’s Wood.

“Not enough people know about detention centers, or what happens in detention centers,” Beech added. “I can be standing at the bus stop [outside a detention center] 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.”

Names of detainees have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

WikiTribune went to Yarl’s Wood with a member of Women for Refugee Women, which arranged the visit.

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