UK Politics

How vulnerable women are suffering abuse in Britain’s detention centres

BY Luna Williams   /  17 July 2019

Around 2,000 women seeking asylum in the UK are detained every year. Between 77 and 85 per cent of these women are victims of sexual or gender-based violence, including rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution or sex trafficking.

For many of these women, the process of being detained – especially indefinitely – re-traumatises them.

In 2014, the pressure group Women for Refugee Women started its ongoing campaign “Set Her Free”. This campaign focussed on women who had been detained in Yarl’s Wood, Britain’s most infamous detention centre, based near Bedford. The group conducted a range of in-depth interviews with asylum-seeking women; some of whom were currently detained and others that had been detained and were now released into the community. From 2014–2017, the group interviewed women in three batches, with the aim of examining the issues and flaws within the UK’s detention & removal system.


The report was produced in 2017 and it highlighted ongoing issues to do with the re-traumatisation of sexual and gender-based abuse and violence victims. Many of the women they spoke with had been victims of rape, FGM, torture, domestic violence and trafficking in their home countries, and were seeking asylum on these grounds.

Every woman interviewed said that they were experiencing mental health issues as a result of their experiences – many were experiencing depression, anxiety and PTSD. The vast majority of women (88 per cent) said their mental health had deteriorated because of their time in detention, with almost half saying they had considered suicide, and two women having actually attempted suicide.

Most women who seek asylum in the UK have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence in their home countries, at the hands of men. Many have also been imprisoned by their abusers. With this in mind, the experience of being detained can often cause women to re-live their experience, something which is especially common with PTSD sufferers.

With male guards and staff positioned in the centre, this can trigger and exacerbate mental health issues, since it is most commonly men who were the perpetrators of this abuse. Some female detainees have talked about being directly abused by male members of staff.

Poor conditions

In February last year, the women of Yarl’s Wood went on a hunger strike, to protest against poor living conditions and mistreatment.

According to “We are still here”, 8 in 10 of the women at Yarl’s Wood said that they had had suicidal thoughts during their time in detention, and 3 in 10 had attempted suicide.

Many women who have experienced Yarl’s Wood talk about similar experiences. This tends to revolve around being interrogated; the default Home Office response to asylum seeking women seems to be scepticism, with many reporting that guards and interviewers treated them as though they were scammers or con artists.

This experience only increases the trauma for women who are locked up in detention; abuse victims feel as though they are criminals, and do not get the support they desperately need.

“There are no people going in there who come out without trauma”, one female ex-detainee told NewStatesman last November. “They lose their brain. It costs them their senses”.

Allegations of sexual and physical assault from guards make matters even more troubling. Between 2013 and 2015, there were ten allegations of sexual assault from women in detention centres. Male guards from governmental contractor Serco were found to be sexually abusing vulnerable women in their care at Yarl’s Wood. Just this February, Beatrice Guessie, a former detainee, spoke out at her charity’s conference, saying that many more women were still being sexually abused by staff and were too afraid to come forward, for fear that they would risk losing their asylum claim.

Many human and women’s rights campaigners have spoken out against the conditions in Britain’s detention centres, including the chair of Women for Refugee Women, Natasha Walter.

“I’ve been visiting Yarl’s Wood for more than ten years”, Walter states. “It never ceases to shock me that this country will lock up women who have already been through so much, for no reason, causing so much anguish to such vulnerable people”.

Cost & effect

In “We are still here”, Women for Refugee Women outline the inefficiency of the detention process. According to their findings, only 15 per cent of asylum-seeking women who were detained in 2017 were actually removed from the UK. The other 85 per cent were released back into the community, with many going on to apply for British citizenship and settling permanently in the UK afterwards. Detention, then, is ultimately an ineffective process; it would make much more sense for vulnerable asylum-seekers to wait for their claim to be resolved while living in the community.

As well as being both inhumane and inefficient, detention is also extremely expensive – far more expensive than letting asylum-seekers live in the community while making their claim. If an asylum seeker is eligible for financial support while waiting for the results of their claim for refuge, they will receive up to £37.75 per week each. Pregnant women are granted an extra £3 per week, and parents with a child under the age of three can receive an extra £3-5 per week.

By contrast, it cost an average of £87.71 per day to hold one asylum seeker in detention; amounting to £576.22 per month.

Women seeking asylum are some of the most globally vulnerable people in the world. The reason most of them are seeking refuge in safe countries in the first place is because they have been the victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Keeping these women detained in any form is inhumane, illogical and uneconomic. The Government must make significant steps to change the state of Britain’s detention and removal process, by placing a permanent ban on detaining all victims of sexual and physical assault and ending indefinite detention entirely. Detention can no longer be the default way to deal with vulnerable individuals who are looking for safety in the UK.

Luna Williams is political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers which offers free advice and support from asylum-seekers and detainees


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