The women from Avocet and Dove units, along with a few men on the family wing, are refusing food and are planning further protests. They have issued a statement which describes conditions inside as ‘torture’. They say: ‘At any point an officer could turn up and take your room mate; you’re constantly on edge, not knowing what will happen next.
‘Those who are suicidal have their privacy taken away because officers come in without warning.
‘You don’t know if an officer is coming to check on you or take you away. ‘Our rooms are searched at random and without warning; they just search first and explain later.’
Ms L commented: ‘Some of us are victims of rape and other torture, including human trafficking.
‘Even when we have scars and other physical injuries and suffer trauma we’re told by staff who have no qualifications that there is nothing wrong – all to justify keeping us locked up.’ Ms L continued: ‘A lot of medical conditions are going untreated here. ‘We can’t get appointments to see doctors… women fall ill with low or high blood pressure but all we’re given is paracetamol – it is very dangerous.
‘Last month one woman was ill for days and ignored until she collapsed. They rushed her to Bedford hospital at 3am and she needed a blood transfusion. ‘Detention is mental torture… Some have been there a year… We try for bail but even when we have all the documentation we are turned down and left in limbo. ‘One judge routinely refuses everyone’s applications no matter what.
‘Some of us have paid thousands of pounds to private lawyers – it’s a money-making racket’.
Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape has reported that over 70% of women in Yarl’s Wood are rape survivors and has documented that women have endured ‘a regime of predatory sexual abuse’ from guards over years. The government’s refusal to investigate and hold those to account has led MPs to describe it as ‘state sanctioned abuse.’
A 35-year-old Algerian woman, held at Yarl’s Wood after living in the UK for 24 years, said she feels like she has been kidnapped. The detainee, who wants to remain anonymous, arrived in the UK when she was just 11 years old. Twenty-four years later, when applying for a passport, she found out she was undocumented and has been held at Yarl’s Wood for the last three months.
‘My life is just in limbo, it’s the uncertainty as well. You don’t how long you’ll be locked up, you don’t when you’re getting out, you don’t know where you’re going, I can’t describe that feeling.
‘I feel like I have been kidnapped basically, I don’t know where I am going, I don’t know what’s going on.’
Natasha Walter, the director of Women for Refugee Women, said: ‘Locking women up for indefinite periods in immigration detention is inhumane, unjust and pointless.’ She alleged: ‘Our research has shown that the Home Office is breaking its own rules.
‘Most women put in detention after seeking asylum are survivors of gender-based violence, and Home Office rules say that such women should not be detained.’
Following a 2017 inspection of Yarl’s Wood, a report by the chief inspector of prisons said increasing numbers of women were being detained there despite professional evidence that they are victims of torture, rape and trafficking. The fact that two-thirds of the women at the centre were released rather than deported after a period of detention ‘raised questions about the justification for detention in the first place’.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti had to wait more than a year before being granted access to Yarl’s Wood last week. ‘We went in on a supervised visit – it’s very difficult for us to get under skin as undercover journalists can,’ said Chakrabarti.
‘I think the media need to be allowed regular access to these women. They’re not getting proper access to decent legal advice and that’s a massive problem and the establishment probably needs to be shut down in due course.’ Women held at the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre feel desperate at being kept there indefinitely, Abbott said.
It took over a year to persuade the Home Office to grant her access, despite repeated requests to visit ‘some of the most vulnerable women in your care and control,’ said Abbott. Before the trip, Abbott said she was told she would not be able to speak to detainees during her tour. However, on her arrival women crowded around her in the corridors wanting to tell her about their situation. Staff made a sports hall available so she could talk to a group of around 30.
One woman said she had lived in the UK for 30 years, had five British children and had been detained for seven months pending removal to Nigeria, a country where she no longer has any family. ‘We met another woman who had been held there for nine months,’ said Abbott.
‘For most of them, the biggest concern was the amount of time they had been in the centre.
‘The striking thing was that they had no release date. These women were clearly desperate. Indefinite detention, with no release date, is just wrong.’
Abbott and Chakrabarti were accompanied by Home Office staff: Serco staff – the privateer which is contracted to run the centre – and G4S, the privateer which runs healthcare at Yarl’s Wood.
The centre in Bedfordshire holds up to 410 detainees. Abbott said she would raise the issue of the women’s detention in parliament this week.
‘Many of them are released to the community after spending time in Yarl’s Wood, so why do they need to be in detention?’ she asked. Chakrabarti added: ‘The women we met felt forgotten.
‘The thing that touches my heart is that I met so many people from really messed up places and they go through things – “corrective rape”, I didn’t even know such a thing existed, and they lock up trafficking victims and victims of forced labour.’
The hunger strikers have issued a list of demands which include:
1. Shorter bail request period. Legally bail applications should only take 3-5 days to come to court. Delays of up to a month are common. 2. Amnesty to give legal status to those who have lived in the UK 10 years and more. 3. End indefinite detention so that no-one stays inside for longer than 28 days. 4. End Charter flights. These are inhumane because women get no prior notifications, which leaves no time to make arrangements with family members. 5. No more re-detention. No-one should be re-detained if you are complying with the law. 7. Stop separating families. Some women inside are married or have British partners and children outside.
8. No detention of people who came to the UK as children. They should not be punished for their parents’ immigration histories. 9. The beds need to be changed. Some of us have been here for a year on the same bed and they are the most uncomfortable beds. 10. LGBT+ persons’ sexuality be believed. It should be understood that explaining your sexuality is difficult. 11. Fit emergency alarms in every room in the detention centre. Only some rooms have them, and people have got very ill in places where they can’t call for help.
12. Access to proper healthcare. Women with serious conditions have been left for days without treatment. 13. Give us proper, nutritious food. 14. Release people with outstanding applications. 15. We want to speak to Alistair Burt, MP for the constituency.