Patricia and Becky (not their real names) are two African women who have been held in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. They spoke to Ken Olende about the violence they were fleeing and the reality of detention
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine July-August 2016, issue 16. Email UAF to ask for printed copies email@example.com
Serco, the private security firm that runs Yarl’s Wood, refers to people who stay there as “residents”. However, it is officially called an “Immigration Removal Centre”. It is one of a network of such centres where “failed” asylum seekers, people who have overstayed visas and other people thought to be in the country illegally are held.
Becky and Patricia, who come from West Africa, were detained there separately in recent years. They say it is very intimidating.
“The detention centre is not a holiday place,” said Patricia. “I saw a lot of racism there.
“There are lots of people from different places—including black Africans, and people from India and Pakistan. But most of the staff only see you as the other colour, not human with the same head as them. I think it’s racist. This wouldn’t happen if you were born here.
“You are reduced to nothing. It makes you crazy. It is a dark world. You don’t have access to so many things.”
Becky said, “It’s more than a prison. In prison you go to serve a sentence, and then you get out. But often your time in detention will be indefinite. You don’t even know why. People who visit for the first time as befrienders are so shocked.
“When you arrive as a detainee they take everything from you, including your phone. You are given a different phone with no camera. They make you feel like a nobody.”
There are 13 similar centres around the country, but Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire is where most women and people with families are held. It locks up over 350 detainees.
“The centres should be closed,” Becky said. “The asylum process is not quick and people who have done nothing wrong should not be locked up.
“At least half the people held are later released. So why are tax payers paying to support this? If the government really thinks immigration is such an important issue it should put more people to look into cases so they don’t drag on.”
These are not places where people are held for a day or two after all other avenues have been exhausted.
“You can feel you’ll be in Yarl’s Wood forever,” Becky said. “I was held for five months. Later I was detained again for seven months. I met people who had been there for more than two years. At the end people were asked why they are here. A judge asked why people were held that long.”
The two women explained the circumstances that led to their detention.
Patricia is a nurse. “I was living with my husband’s family in Nigeria,” she said. “I am Christian, but they are Muslim and they wanted to convert me. They treated me like a slave. My husband is a British citizen and he was living here. When he arranged for me to join him I thought I was coming to heaven. But really it was getting out of the frying pan into the fire.”
She suffered serious domestic violence, but was unsure what she could do because she didn’t know the system here. But she got to know people at the church that they went to. The church told him to stop his violent behaviour, but he continued and stopped attending. “Sometimes at night I had to run to people’s houses for safety,” she said. “It was very difficult for me to leave, partly because we married back home, not just here. But after some time I was finally kicked out. I had some friends who I used to work with and they took me into their house where I am still staying. Through this period I made three or four applications to the Home Office, but they were all refused.”
In March 2014 the Home Office wrote to her solicitor about her submission. The following week she says it wrote to her directly. “They said I had entered the country illegally. But this wasn’t true and they had seen my details from the day that I entered.” She was told to sign every two weeks in South London. “One day in May 2015 I went to sign at about 9am and they told me I was having an interview.”
She was immediately detained. “I asked what my offence was. I had signed when they asked and obeyed the law, but now they locked me up. I was held in Colnbrook detention centre for two days. But we didn’t arrive there till around 10.30pm in the evening. I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day. When I arrived I asked a young lady on the staff for water. But she just switched off the light and said everybody is sleeping now.
“I didn’t have anything until the next morning. No one told me where the kitchen was until I saw some others. It was the people on day shift the next day brought food.
“I wanted to fax some things to my solicitor, but they said I had to wait to my final destination.”
After two days she was told she was being moved to Yarl’s Wood.
Becky explained her situation: “I came to Britain to study and completed a masters degree. I had a partner from my country who moved in with me while I was a student. We were together for more than five years. Throughout the relationship he was very violent to me and raped me. But because of the background I come from, I just thought that was a normal relationship between a man and a woman. I had seen my dad be violent to my mum.
“My partner had been an EU citizen for more than 20 years so he knew everything better than me. I was naïve at that age and I didn’t know the area where we lived. He warned me not to talk to neighbours because they are not nice. I worked, but he took control of the money. He went on holidays and had relationships with other women.
“I was suffering from depression. But I was working and I started talking to my work colleagues and they told me this was domestic violence. I started speaking out and said I would have nothing to do with him.”
She moved out and found a flat of her own and started to take legal action over the domestic violence. But the five-year visa she got once she finished studying depended on the relationship she was in.
She was stopped by immigration at the airport on the way back from a visit to Germany. “I didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “I was handcuffed. It was really traumatic. I’d always thought that people who were handcuffed had committed a crime, but I didn’t know what crime I was supposed to have committed.”
She was told that her ex-partner had called and said she had ended the relationship, so she no longer had any right to be in Britain. She was given a ticket deporting her back to Germany the next day. She refused to get on the flight and was sent to Yarl’s Wood.
Patricia recalled her experience, “They didn’t even tell me they were detaining me. I was just put in a van. It felt like going to the end of the world. They search you from head to toe. But you have already been searched and you are being transferred. They don’t want to recognise you are a human being. You are treated like an object. They don’t explain why they are taking you. When you are finally finished the process of reception they take you to Crane section, which is for new arrivals. They lock it as you go in, so you don’t have access to see anyone.
“And it can take two or three days before you go through induction.
“If you report sick they have to handcuff you to take you to hospital. But you haven’t done anything wrong. One lady tried to ask about the medicine she was being given and before you know it she was rounded up by guards. We were asked to leave. I don’t know what happened to her after that.”
Becky said, “You’re not allowed to have an opinion. You are just a number among a large number of people they are trying to get out of the country. I became depressed there.
“If you object, even to ask why you are being given a certain medication, if you object to any rules, you will be transferred to Kingfisher—the isolation wing.
“Some of the staff handing out medication were not trained in the medical field. I remember a case when a lady challenged the person giving her medicine about why their medication had been changed and he just said, ‘I’m not trained in that’.”
Patricia said, “I was given some medication. As a nurse I asked her what she was giving me. They just said take your medication. That night I had chest pains and redness. I reported to the unit office. They said they would get the medical team but I waited three hours. When I got there I said I wanted to see a doctor. They acted as if I was making it up.”
Yarl’s Wood has a very bad reputation for inappropriate and abusive treatment of prisoners.
“When the story came out we knew exactly what was going on,” said Becky. “Even some for the staff were upset. One said to us that what he’d seen was not right.
“Yarl’s Wood is a women’s detention centre but when I was there in 2013 the vast majority of staff were men. They push into women’s rooms without even knocking, sometimes when people are dressing. There were times when people were being harassed by male officers talking about women who would comment on things like their breasts.
“There was one staff member who was really sexually harassing women and I think that was known to everybody. Some staff had girlfriends who were detainees and would talk openly about it.
“Some women were really desperate. They thought staff would help and people took advantage of them. While I was there we knew of one room with no CCTV camera where abuse took place.”
In response to the situation and how they were treated women in the centre took part in protests and hunger strikes.
“We were very limited in the kinds of protests we could make as detainees,” Becky said. “The most frequent thing we did was hunger strikes. After the woman died we refused to eat and we sat on the floor and we were constantly in touch with people outside so they knew what was happening. I had seen a good book called A Self Help Guide Against Detention and Deportation by Legal Aid for Women so I rang them and they rang me back and supported me. That was how I got in touch with the Crossroads people.
Patricia remembered another protest. “I witnessed a lady with high blood pressure who almost collapsed,” she said. “I told the unit officer they needed to call the medical team but they did not want to. I had to keep saying how ill she was and eventually they called the team. When the medical team arrived they asked me to leave and said I was being too nosy. But I said she could have a heart attack or a stroke. They said it’s none of my business, but I said of course it’s my business. We refused to go until they called an ambulance.”
Becky said, “Most of the women there are running away from terrible trouble. They are victims of torture or rape. Some have fled to this country. Others were victims of domestic violence here, including a lot of the Asian women. These women don’t always speak English and can’t represent themselves.
“I was shaking to see that people fleeing torture faced what I think is more torture here. I saw women being dragged to Kingfisher House handcuffed—and also being filmed. Staff are racist to your face.”
Patricia added that minor things also show the system is wrong. Detainees are charged high prices for toiletries. “Where do they expect you to get money?”
While asylum seekers aren’t allowed to work in Britain, people can work while they are detained—serving food, cleaning floors and so on. Patricia is angry at the wages. “People were paid £1 an hour,” she said. “That is abuse. Yet Serco is getting nearly £200 a day per person.”
Becky thinks it is sad that so many people in Britain are hostile to refugees. “People don’t just get up and move,” she said. “There is a reason why they leave. If something terrible happened in Britain today you would run away to save your lives. You might not even have time to think what to take with you. You’d just go and look for somewhere where you would be safe.
“And sometimes the terrible things that caused people to run away are problems that others have created. When European governments or America support wars they don’t always think of the consequences. So I think people here should be more open to refugees.
“And remember what the forefathers of people arriving now did to build this country. This kingdom’s wealth came out of the slave trade. Schools should teach this more. We immigrants and refugees are not a problem. We contribute a lot. Look at the health service. How many doctors or nurses were born here?”
Both Patricia and Becky have been released and are still living in Britain, though neither has yet been offered a secure right to remain.
Immigration detention centres
A total of 32,446 people entered immigration detention in Britain during 2015, an increase of 7% on the previous year. But the number who had to leave the country after being detained dropped to 45%.
The first immigration detention centre opened in 1989. Yarl’s Wood, designed for women and families, opened in November 2001—at the time it was the largest detention centre in Europe.
It has always been controversial, and closed for a period after a fire gutted much of it during 2002.
A Channel 4 undercover investigation in 2015 exposed self harm among inmates and racist abuse from some guards.
A report by the government’s chief inspector of prisons last year called Yarl’s Wood a “place of national concern” . It found that 42% of women said they “felt unsafe at the centre”.
A series of protests outside the centre have called for it to be closed.
Anyone interested in befriending detainees at Yarl’s Wood should go to ywbefrienders.org