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A Damning Report and Angry Protests Highlight the UK's Most Infamous Immigration Center

VICE News attended a recent protest at the Yarl's Wood center, which contains hundreds of detainees and has been subjected to allegations of abuse — both physical and sexual.
August 12, 2015, 5:17pm
Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Britain's most notorious immigration removal center has come under fire again for its treatment of inmates, most of whom are female asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected and are being held indefinitely without trial pending deportation.

Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, some 35 miles north of London, contains hundreds of detainees, and allegations of abuse — both physical and sexual — have been made previously.

A report released on Wednesday after a surprise visit by UK prison inspectors expressed concern that 54 percent of women in the facility said they felt depressed or suicidal on arrival and 45 percent of women said they felt unsafe in the center. The document also stated that there is no counseling service in Yarl's Wood, that health care screening of women was sometimes carried out by a male nurse, and an officer appeared to use excessive force in at least one incident.

Related: 'Everyone Will Make It One Day': Meeting the Calais Migrants Who Dream of England

In 2014, 99 women were detained despite UK Home Office policy stating that they shouldn't be in normal circumstances, and the report noted that some of the "most vulnerable" women were detained without clear reason.

In a clear invasion of privacy, staff also often enter women's rooms without knocking.

A Yarl's Wood detainee waves a hand and leg out a window during the demonstration on Saturday. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Recent high-profile incidences in Yarl's Wood include the case of a couple who arrived in the UK on a 10-day holiday from India but were stopped at London's Heathrow airport before being taken to the center. The husband, Pinakin Patel, died a month into their detention, reportedly after suffering shortness of breath and being forced to wait 15 minutes for healthcare staff to attend to him.

"Yarl's Wood is rightly a place of national concern," Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK, said in a statement sent to VICE News. "We should not make the mistake of blaming this on the staff on the ground. While there have been instances of unacceptable individual behaviour, most staff work hard to mitigate the worst effects of detention and women told us they appreciated this. However, Yarl's Wood is failing to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women held."

Hardwick said the conditions in the center had deteriorated since the last inspection, and that the issues raised needed to be addressed at a policy and strategic management level. "Pregnant detainees and women with mental health problems should only be held in the most exceptional circumstances," he said, while adding that there needed to be more female staff.

Detainees wave scarves and hold signs up to the windows at Yarl's Wood detention center. One reads: "Picked from airport with valid visa." Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

Attempts to find out the exact conditions that women experience in the center have been difficult. Last year, the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was even barred from entering.

Earlier this year an undercover investigation by Channel 4 recorded a guard at the center calling the women detained there "caged animals," "beasties," and "bitches." "Take a stick with you and beat them up," he advised another person who was working there.

As VICE News's recent reports from Calais have shown, a minority of migrants and refugees that come to Europe dream of making it to England, but may not be aware of the treatment of some of those who are successful in getting there.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters from across the UK took buses and trains to Yarl's Wood to air their disapproval. In the fourth such demonstration since April, the crowd — including several recently released former detainees — chanted, sang, and sprayed graffiti on the high fences surrounding the center. Meanwhile, inside the facility Serco — the private company that has run Yarl's Wood since 2007 — held a "disco" in an apparent effort to distract inmates from the commotion outside.

A protester at Yarl's Wood immigration removal center on Saturday. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

During the protest, some of the women held in the center waved their hands, legs, and scarves out the windows, and held signs against the glass.

Several phoned those outside and were subsequently put on loudspeaker. "The ladies in here are pregnant," one said. "Some of them are elderly. We are traumatized." The woman said she had spent 16 years in the UK already. "Our personal life and private life is here."

Another said: "We don't need anything, we just need God. Please pray for us in the name of Jesus." A sign held to one of the windows read: "Picked from airport with valid visa."

Protesters sprayed slogans on the high fencing that surrounds Yarl's Wood. Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

A female protester who attended the demonstration told VICE News that she felt Yarl's Wood and centers like it were "prisons" and needed to be shut down. "How can we stand by while innocent people are locked up all because they sought protection from the UK, who most likely had a hand in their own country's instability?" she asked. "People are at risk of developing depression, they have limited access to treatment, visitors aren't even allowed to bring them home comforts."

Yarl's Wood was opened in 2001 at a cost of £100 million ($156 million), and currently has facilities to detain 410 people. It has been the site of several protests since, including hunger strikes. Part of the center was also burnt down by detainees shortly after it originally opened.

Related: What We Witnessed at a French Migrant Camp Allegedly Controlled by People Smugglers

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd