A woman in custody, suffering from a miscarriage, has to wait three hours before seeing a doctor. Female detainees are called “black bitches”, threatened and sexually humiliated. When they self-harm, guards shout or accuse them of seeking attention. One detainee jumps off a stairwell and breaks her neck, ending up in a wheelchair.
None of these women has committed a crime but they are locked up, some without knowing what comes next. I recently met a victim of mass rape, who claims she was “hand-raped” (her words) by a guard. He told her he was checking how much damage had really been done and if she was OK and still “enjoyed it”. She is now out but too afraid to complain.
This is happening here, in your land and mine, this country which trumpets its great British values and is happily commemorating Magna Carta this year. Don’t believe me? Well watch Channel 4 News tomorrow at 7pm. An undercover reporter has filmed interviews with the women and guards in Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire. What is revealed is chilling – as disturbing as similar secret investigations of care homes. The Home Office keeps these places well hidden from the public eye. I know two serious and award-winning reporters who have tried to get access to Yarl’s Wood and were blocked. So well done Channel 4, which in the past two years has given us some brilliant journalistic scoops and sting operations, including the Dispatches programme which exposed Straw and Rifkind.
Few Britons know much about the 12 detention centres where migrants and asylum-seekers are held until deported. Even fewer care about what happens there. The poor in our country get little pity or understanding. And foreigners who desperately need our help are seen as a threat, a silent enemy.
More than 3,000 men, women and children are currently locked up. A small percentage of them are illegal immigrants, but others just want a better life while many have fled here after being tortured, raped, trafficked or sold. They are all at the mercy of guards and managers. Inspectors of prisons go in from time to time and express tepid concern. They are, after all, employed by the Home Office and must stay within the fold.
Yarl’s Wood is among the worst of these internment camps. It is run by Serco, a private company which keeps getting lucrative government contracts in spite of spectacular proven failures in some bits of the NHS and Prison Service. Women for Refugee Women, led by the erstwhile Independent columnist Natasha Walter, campaigns to get these women basic rights. They have called for the detention to end because so many of the women are not criminals; they are survivors of heinous crimes. Since 2005 there have been four major hunger strikes at Yarl’s Wood. The actresses and campaigners Angeline Jolie, Romola Garai and Juliet Stevenson are among those who have spoken up for these double victims.
Earlier this year a report by Women for Refugee Women shocked even the right-wing press into reporting the worst abuses by staff. Women said they were watched when they went to the toilet or showered, that they were treated as “worse than animals”. Sexual relations with inmates were allegedly instigated by staff. Some were dismissed after the exploitation was discovered. Each revelation is followed by an automated response from the Home Office and Serco spokespeople: “We take all complaints very seriously blah, blah, blah”. Then it is back to business as usual. The same will happen tomorrow.
An excerpt from article written by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown Independent March 2015
A Picture taken from the 2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre