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Inhumane, ineffective, indefinite: Life for vulnerable women inside Britain’s detention centres

Inhumane, ineffective, indefinite: Life for vulnerable women inside Britain’s detention centres

By Lubnaa Joomun for the UK’s Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers which offers legal aid support for asylum-seekers, detainees, sex trafficking survivors and victims of domestic abuse.  

Among the 2,000 women seeking asylum in the UK who are detained every year, between 77% and 85% are victims of gender-based violence. This includes rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced prostitution, and sex trafficking.

Whilst their applications are processed, these women are kept indefinitely in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), detention centres likened to prisons, where they suffer more abuse, oppression and discrimination, according to several reports by Women for Refugee Women (WRW).

For many of these women, the process of being indefinitely detained is a re-traumatising experience.

Between May and September 2017, as part of its ongoing campaign ‘Set Her Free’, WRW interviewed 26 women detained in the infamous Yarl’s Wood IRC, following the government’s ‘Adults at Risk’ policy in 2016 advising against the detention of vulnerable adults, and exposed the ongoing cruelty of Britain’s detention centres.

There have been many campaigns for detention centres to be shut down, including by Movement For Justice, who argue for a community-based approach to the UK’s immigration system – one that does not treat asylum seekers like criminals, but with dignity, justice and humanity.

Exacerbating trauma and mental health

The UK is the only country in the EU not to have a time limit on detention. Vulnerable women continue to be detained.

For survivors of gender-based violence, indefinite imprisonment is a re-traumatising experience. It is very common for abuse victims to have been held in captivity in some form by their abuser; detention replicates this.

Research by Amnesty International and many others has revealed the serious harm indefinite detention causes to mental health, including re-traumatisation, as highlighted by WRW in its 2017 report, ‘We are still here’. Of the women interviewed by WRW, 85% had claimed asylum as survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced marriage and forced prostitution. Every woman interviewed said that they were experiencing depression as a result of their detainment, with 88% saying their mental health had deteriorated since. Almost half said they had considered suicide, and two women had attempted suicide on more than one occasion.

In Dungavel House, Scotland’s only IRC, figures obtained by BBC Scotland show that almost 40% of the people detained are classed as vulnerable.

Abusive, racist and inhumane

Ongoing investigations inside detention centres have exposed poor living conditions, abuse, torture, and discrimination, as presented by Medical Justice in their report A Secret Punishment.

Many detainees describe being controlled by staff and rarely having access to the outside world. Women are watched by staff members while showering/getting changed. They suffer abuse psychologically, physically and sexually. In Dungavel, detainees speak of being treated like prisoners. The majority of inmates at detention centres, however, are asylum seekers, not criminals.

As part of a Europe-wide day of action against detention centres, pressure group We Will Rise organised a demonstration outside Dungavel in 2016, with members branding the centre “racist and inhumane” and “barbaric”.

In 2015, Channel 4 News uncovered the shocking scale of violence against women of colour at Yarl’s Wood, where staff openly expressed misogynistic and racist views.

Allegations of sexual and physical assault from guards are even more chilling. Women have reported being propositioned or touched sexually by male guards, placed in a position of power at their place of imprisonment, and having male guards enter their rooms late at night. Mixed communal spaces at Dungavel have been criticised for the risk they pose to sexual and physical assault victims.

Between 2013 and 2015, ten allegations of sexual assault were made from women in detention centres. The Home Office refused to reveal if any female detainees were raped or sexually assaulted inside Yarl’s Wood, one of the centres where the allegations were made.

Medical Justice believes that the conditions of detention are so harmful that the only remedy is to close IRCs.

Yarl’s Wood

In Yarl’s Wood, the largest detention centre for women, detainees’ experiences combine racial abuse, torture and horrific living conditions, including being forced to relive the traumatic experiences that led them to apply for asylum in the first place. Detainees even fear meetings with Home Office officials, by whom they are met with scepticism and pressure to ‘go back’.

It is not a place for a human being. People leave here with more problems than when they came,” an asylum seeker spoke to the BBC of her experience of Yarl’s Wood in April this year.

Alongside protests for the centre to be shut down, in February last year the women of Yarl’s Wood launched a hunger strike to protest against the abuse of their human rights and indefinite detention, with some being ‘dragged’ back by the Home Office to countries no longer their home, from one hostile environment to another.


Indefinite detention is abusive and inhumane. It also costs far more than granting asylum-seekers the right to live in the community while making their claim, where they could contribute to society and feel safe. If an asylum seeker qualifies for financial support, assuming the maximum, they would receive £37.75 per week while they live in the community. In contrast, detainment costs an average of £87.71 a day – a difference of 1154%. In 2016-17 the cost of running detention centres in the UK equalled £118 million.

WRW has also highlighted that detaining vulnerable women serves no purpose; in 2016, 85% of the asylum-seeking women were released back into the community to continue with their claims, with many going on to apply for British citizenship and settling permanently in the UK afterwards.

Reform is needed

Studies show that there are no real benefits for detention, though it comes with a huge moral and financial cost.

Most of the women seeking asylum in the UK are survivors of gender-based violence. Imprisoned in detention centres, they find further abuse and trauma. A more humane, cost-effective community-based alternative is needed, including an improvement to detention conditions, and an end to indefinite detention and the detainment of vulnerable people entirely. As an advocate for gender equality and human rights, the British Government should protect vulnerable women.


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