All of the women interviewed had sought asylum and been detained at Yarl’s Wood after the government’s Adult’s at Risk policy came into force last year.
The Home Office policy stated that people most at risk of being harmed by detention, including women who have survived sexual and gender-based violence, should not normally be detained.
But the group argues that, one year after government policy was introduced, “nothing has changed”.
Key findings from the We Are Still Here report: 85% of the women spoken to were survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence, including domestic violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution/trafficking. Women were depressed in detention, and 88% saying that their mental health had deteriorated while they were detained. Twelve of the 26 women had thought about killing themselves in detention, and two women said they had attempted suicide, both on more than one occasion. The vast majority, 23 out of 26, were in detention for a month or more. Nineteen women were in detention for three months or more. Pregnant women are still being detained unnecessarily.
The Home Office defended the policy, saying that detention is an “important part of our immigration system”.
Women for Women Refugees says that there is no screening process which actively identifies the vulnerabilities of women before they are detained, and if women disclose their experiences of abuse after they have been detained, they often remain locked up.
The report states that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are not believed when they disclose their previous experiences, and find it difficult to obtain supporting evidence the Home Office will accept.
Even when they obtain evidence, survivors are kept in detention, the report continues, despite a deterioration in their mental or physical health.
Women for Women Refugees detail a number of case studies of females who are survivors of gender-based violence being detained at Yarl’s Wood.
Gabby was sexually abused when she was a teenager looking after a disabled woman who took her in after her family died. The woman’s son and his friends started sexually abusing Gabby, but she was too scared to tell anyone. After years of abuse she managed to get away and move to the city, but alone and with no money, she fell into prostitution. She was often beaten up by the men she had sex. Eventually she was able to get a visa to travel to the UK but she was arrested and detained after her visa ran out. She was taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre. She said she was never asked about potential experiences of sexual violence and was not aware of her rights until campaigners helped her. “I feel angry that the Home Office has said they aren’t going to detain women who have been raped and trafficked, but then they don’t even try to find out about what women have been through before they lock them up. I still think about detention, and when I report to the Home Office I feel sick; I’m so scared that they will take me back there again. Now that I’ve talked about what happened to me when I was younger I’m having to relive that, which is so hard, but I also can’t forget about Yarl’s Wood: it’s there with me, every day.”
‘Vivian’, from west Africa, was forced into prostitution by her husband. She disclosed this in her asylum interview, which was held when she was in detention, and the Home Office accepted she was a survivor of gender-based violence. In spite of this, she was kept in Yarl’s Wood for six months. “I wasn’t really sleeping or eating at all, and I was having flashbacks about what had happened to me. Sometimes, it felt like I was suffocating, as if the walls were closing in. I had thoughts about killing myself.” She was released in August 2017, to continue with her asylum claim.
Voke, also from west Africa, was forced into prostitution by her stepfather and managed to escape to the UK after enduring many years of abuse. The Home Office accepted the medical report carried out in detention that showed she was a victim of gender-based violence but kept her in Yarl’s Wood. She attempted suicide twice but was in detention altogether for just under 8 months, until October 2017, when her solicitor challenged her detention through judicial review and forced the Home Office to release her. “I hope I will feel better soon, but I will never forget being detained. I will never forget Yarl’s Wood.”
Natasha Walter, founder of Women for Refugee Women and author of the report, said: “When the Home Office put in place new policy that recognised that vulnerable women should not be locked up, we were hopeful that we might see real change.
“The findings of our research are hugely disappointing. Women who have already survived violence and abuse are still being locked up in immigration detention.
“Detention is traumatic for individual women, and it is also unnecessary, expensive and inefficient.
“We need to move away from detention and build a fair asylum process in which cases are heard and resolved while refugees are living in the community, so that they are able to start rebuilding their lives.”
Women for Refugee Women are calling for a proactive screening process to ensure that survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, and others who are vulnerable, are identified before detention.
The group also wants an absolute exclusion on the detention of pregnant women and a 28-day time limit on detention.
Caroline Spelman, Conservative MP for Meriden, said: “It is vital to have a transparent process to ensure that vulnerable women are protected in detention and Home Office policy needs to be properly implemented and monitored.”
Kate Osamor, Labour MP for Edmonton, said: “The government needs a much more humane approach that offers alternatives to detention and assists refugees rather than treating them like criminals.”
A Home Office spokesperson said in a statement: “Detention is an important part of our immigration system, helping to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily.
“We operate on a presumption against detention, and the adults at risk policy aims to improve our approach to identifying individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to harm in detention. When people are detained this is for the minimum time possible, and the dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”