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What It's Like to Live in Limbo in an Immigration Detention Center

We spoke to some of the asylum seekers stuck in Yarl's Wood, Britain's most notorious detention center, about being detained when you haven't actually committed a crime.

by Ben Gelblum; Photos: Chris Bethell
Apr 9 2016, 12:00am

A woman at the protest in March, outside Yarl's Wood. Photo: Chris Bethell

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

It's been almost a month since a mass of protesters from around the UK headed to a barbwire-ringed complex on a Bedfordshire industrial estate for the biggest-yet demonstration outside Yarl's Wood, Britain's most notorious detention center. With their placards, noisemakers, and feet banging against the center's metal fence, the protesters demanded the release of the women asylum seekers currently being held indefinitely.

We spoke to some of the women currently stuck in Yarl's Wood, and those supporting them, to see how much things had changed since we last reported on particular cases of vulnerable women affected by a life trapped in the scandal-hit immigration detention center.

Carol Namuzira, 27, from Uganda claimed asylum in the UK based on her sexuality. Back home she says she would face a sentence between 14 years imprisonment and the death penalty, for being a lesbian. "My visa was running out and I tried to kill myself because of the fear of going back. So I turned to the Home Office for help to claim asylum—but instead I was taken into detention and locked up, despite my suicide attempt."

Carol was at the protest at Yarl's Wood in March—her first time back at the center since she was released in 2012—and says detention has left her traumatized. "I saw women in there who had been in Yarl's Wood so long they were broken. Women who'd lost their hair; women on suicide watch who had given up on life."

A year ago VICE spoke to former Yarl's Wood detainee Aderonke Apataa about what she described as "fearful" experiences in the center. Since then Serco, the company that staffs the center, commissioned a report by barrister Kate Lampard on the culture of staff behavior and detainee wellbeing inside the detention center after staff were dismissed in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct with detainees in 2014. The report found "the majority of staff appear to be sympathetic to the concerns and needs of residents and to deal with them in a caring and supportive manner".

But UK Home Secretary Theresa May responded to concerns about the state of the UK's 10 detention centers with a January 2016 report of her own, by former prison ombudsman Stephen Shaw. The review found the system an "affront to civilized values," and called for a drastic reduction in the 30,000 people detained each year, a ban on detaining pregnant women, and a "presumption against detention" of victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Mabel Gawanas, 42, from Namibia who says she was tortured and raped before seeking asylum in the UK, has so far spent 22 months in Yarl's Wood. "We are so happy about the demonstration," she says. "To know there are people supporting us outside although we are locked up—it's a great feeling."

According to Mabel, there were instances of women being held only to be later released. "We protested when a woman who was tortured in Kenya, and all her family tortured or dead, was due to be deported," Mabel recalls. "Ten of us filled her room with furniture so she missed her flight. She was later freed; we saved her that day."

Not all women held in the centre leave unscathed. Theresa Schleicher, acting director of Medical Justice—a charity that monitors healthcare provision in detention centers—spoke about how mentally ill women are allegedly mistreated. "For some the effect is catastrophic. We have some people who we do not know if they will ever recover—whose lives are literally destroyed by it." A woman from Guinea, whose name has been withheld since a High Court case, spiraled into a depression after being detained for 17 months. She'd flown to London Heathrow with a family reunion visa to join her husband, who was in the UK with refugee status, and went from being questioned to spending more than a year in Yarl's Wood.

A Yarl's Wood detainee waves a banner during March's protest (Photo: Chris Bethell)

She repeatedly self-harmed, including cutting her face and strangling herself with phone cords, according to the High Court judge. Doctors examining her warned that detaining and repeatedly segregating her in handcuffs was causing her mental deterioration, and she was eventually assessed as lacking capacity under the Mental Capacity Act, with an official solicitor appointed to act on her behalf. The court found her detention to be "inhuman and degrading treatment" in 2014.

Theresa said that Medical Justice charity treats pregnant women and survivors of abuse—none of whom should be detained according to the Home Office's own guidelines. After an unannounced visit HM Prison Inspector's report in August 2015 found 99 pregnant women held in one year, of whom only nine were ever deported, and criticized the indefinite detention of vulnerable women in what Shaw's report deemed a "place of national concern."

"We take the welfare of our detainees very seriously," a Home Office spokesperson told VICE, when we asked if the Shaw findings would be acted on. "As a result of his findings, we are adopting a policy whereby all decisions on immigration detention will consider whether an adult is at risk. We are also publishing a mental health action plan and will implement a new approach to the case management of all those detained.

"We expect these reforms—and broader changes in legislation, policy and operational approaches—to lead to a reduction in the number of detainees and the length of time they spend in detention before removal."

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