“Why am I still here?” This is the question I’m most frequently asked by detained women who I’ve befriended at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire. The centre is mainly for women, but also holds families with children over 18-years-old and has a short-term holding facility for men.
For nearly two years, I’ve been researching and volunteering as a “befriender” and trustee with Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a charitable volunteer visitors’ group that offers emotional and practical support to women migrants and asylum seekers detained in Yarl’s Wood. Detainees are allocated a befriender who visits them weekly until they leave the centre. But most of them don’t know when that will be, as detention is indefinite under current UK immigration policy.
On February 21, a group of women at Yarl’s Wood began a hunger strike against these conditions, boycotting the dining services at scheduled meal times. Befrienders have also reported that some women are boycotting other services and activities in the centre, such as the library and IT room. Some women have been told by the Home Office that they may be removed more quickly because they are refusing food.
I’m finding out at first-hand about the harmful effects of immigration detention on everyone involved in this complex system. But those who are detained, or re-detained, experience the most damage to their mental health from the lack of knowledge and understanding of when and how they will leave the centre, either released in the community or removed from the UK. And although the government changed the name of “immigration detention centres” to “removal centres” in 2002 – suggesting detainees have imminent departures – the 222 befriended women in 2016-17 were detained for an average of 95 days. Contrary to its revised name, in 2016, 79% of the people held in Yarl’s Wood were released, not removed.
Anyone subject to immigration control can be detained. Although about half the people in detention are seeking asylum, there are also foreign offenders, visa over-stayers, and disputed age and identity cases. Young adults who arrived in Britain as unaccompanied minors, but who have turned 18, can also be deported.
Some are awaiting notice about whether they will be transferred back to a European country through which they travelled – where the Home Office can pass responsibility for their asylum claim under rules called the Dublin Regulations.
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And contrary to popular misconceptions, EU citizens are not immune to the British detention system. In August 2017, the Home Office sent 100 letters “in error”, threatening the detention of EU citizens living in the UK, which left a lingering tone of hostility amid the uncertainties of the post-Brexit immigration landscape.
There has been a history of dissent at Yarl’s Wood. It was purpose built in November 2001 to house 900 detainees as part of the government’s plan to remove 30,000 failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Three months after the centre opened, opposition to staff restraining a detainee escalated to riots and arson that eventually destroyed half of the centre.
A fire destroyed part of Yarl’s Wood in 2002. Andrew Parsons/PA Archive
In a system where migrants have little to no control over the processing time and outcome of their immigration or asylum cases, and may lack English skills, detainees have demonstrated collective acts of dissent in the few ways they can inside detention centres. Collectively refusing food– also known as “hunger strikes” – has been a more common act of disapproval of Home Office policies and practices.
With limited access to the internet, detained women have found alternative ways to individually show their dissent. I’ve been told about one woman who resisted her enforced removal back to the country she fled by covering her body in oil, in order to be too slippery for officers to handle. Another appeared in pyjamas and “bed hair” when required to attend an interview with the high commissioner from her country of origin.
Sadly, other pleas for help have been through acts of self-harm and attempted suicide. One woman I befriended in 2016 ingested a corrosive substance in the middle of the night. Another befriender witnessed a woman swallow some pills in front of the immigration judge who denied her release on bail. In 2014, a woman detained for over two years threw herself over a stairwell. Fortunately no lives were lost, but these upsetting stories show how desperate the situation is for some of the people detained.
Throughout my volunteering and research I’ve mostly been in discomfort and shock from the stories I’ve heard. The criticisms and reasons for detainees protesting are clear to me. If no time limit is put on a person’s detention and they are separated from their family – including mothers separated from their children – this leaves them in mental anguish. People released from detention often live in fear and anxiety of being re-detained at any time, to the extent that one woman I befriended said she was afraid to go outside. This raises wider questions about the morality of the system, including whether the current regime is contributing to mental health problems in society.
Despite collaboration among scholars and independent monitoring groups, as well as concerns and recommendations voiced to MPs, progress on any reforms centred around the human rights of detainees has been slow.
It has been 16 years since the fire caused millions of pounds worth of damage to Yarl’s Wood, but it’s not surprising that organised protest and dissent continues.