Yarl's Wood: Years of misery and controversy

Danny Shaw
Home affairs correspondent
@DannyShawBBCon Twitter

Image caption,
Yarl's Wood has been a hotbed of controversy

Fourteen years ago, the Home Office invited me, along with other reporters, to see its brand new immigration removal centre, Yarl's Wood, in Bedfordshire.

Stung by criticism of its failure to deal with a huge backlog of asylum claims, the then Labour government wanted to demonstrate how it was getting to grips with the problem, by locking up rejected claimants and immigration offenders before sending them back to their home countries.

So we toured the rooms, which looked more like basic student accommodation than anything you would find in a prison, and noted the soft furnishings, library and courtyard.

Some of the tabloid journalists on the trip thought the £100m centre, on a former Ministry of Defence site, was rather cushy.

But the thousands who have been held there since, behind fences and barbed wire, tell a very different story.

Within three months, Yarl's Wood went up in smoke, as fire partially destroyed the building during an outbreak of violence by a group of detainees.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Detainees set fire to the centre in 2002

In the years that followed there have been protests, including hunger strikes; allegations of abuse and inappropriate sexual activity by staff; repeated concerns about healthcare; and most recently, examples of the contemptuous attitude which some guards have allegedly shown towards those in their charge, highlighted during undercover filming by Channel 4 News.

'Horror stories'

Emma Mlotshwa, of the detainee rights group, Medical Justice, says: "It's been a continual cycle of horror stories that have been disbelieved."

Yarl's Wood was the third immigration detention centre to open in 2001, after Dungavel, in south Lanarkshire, and Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport.

But unlike Dungavel and Harmondsworth, both of which have had their difficulties, it is Yarl's Wood that has been a consistent source of controversy.

Image source, South Beds News Agency
Image caption,
Yarl's Wood has never operated at full capacity

Originally designed to hold 900 immigration detainees, the fire, and subsequent safety concerns, have meant that it has never operated at full capacity: it currently has space for 410 people, the vast majority of them women.

Many of those held at Yarl's Wood have suffered abuse in the past, at the hands of trafficking gangs or in violent relationships, and most are fearful of the future - of the possibility of having to return to their homeland.

'Sad place'

In October 2013, the plight of the female detainees prompted Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, whose remit extends to monitoring conditions in immigration centres, to describe Yarl's Wood as a "sad place".

Following a snap inspection that year, Mr Hardwick said it was "the progress, or lack of it" of the detainees' immigration cases that caused them most stress.

Yarl's Wood detainees aren't there because they have been charged with a criminal offence: they are people, many of them vulnerable, whose claims for asylum or right to stay in Britain have been rejected or are being challenged.

Image caption,
Theresa May ordered a review

As visitors to Yarl's Wood testify, the centre is filled with an air of uncertainty and anxiety.

Mr Hardwick pointed out that seven women had been detained for more than 12 months, while their cases were processed, including one detainee who'd spent almost four years at Yarl's Wood, due to legal delays and problems obtaining travel documents.

Indeed, Yarl's Wood is far more than a departure lounge before the flight home, as ministers perhaps intended it to be.

The legal battles and procedures that are being played out while the detainees are there are very real.

In the six months before Hardwick's 2013 inspection, only 38% of those detained there were removed from the UK.

A further 9% were transferred to other detention units. The majority, 53%, were released - raising the question as to why they'd been incarcerated at all.

That sense of grievance about being locked up appears to fuel the anger of detainees and undoubtedly contributes to their distress.

Wellbeing review

Stephen Shaw, a former prison and probation ombudsman, says it is an area he is focusing on in his review of the health and wellbeing of detainees at institutions across the immigration estate, which was commissioned in February by Theresa May, the Home Secretary.

"One of the issues I'm looking at is the impact of the fact of detention, the length of detention and the indeterminacy of detention on physical and mental health," says Mr Shaw.

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Campaigners want Yarl's Wood closed down

"There's significant evidence that we've been given which indicates that detention affects physical and mental health in a damaging way."

Shaw's report won't be completed until September, but it's understood he's already been struck by the very high numbers of women in detention who have health problems.

A separate inquiry is looking specifically at Yarl's Wood.

The private firm Serco, which has been awarded an eight-year, £70m contract to continue running the centre, established the review in March when allegations against its staff emerged following the secret Chanel 4 filming.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Shami Chakrabarti has concerns about Yarl's Wood

In a statement at the time, the company said: "Serco works hard to ensure that the highest standards are maintained at Yarl's Wood.

"We recognise that the public needs to be confident that Yarl's Wood is undertaking its difficult role with professionalism, care and humanity.

"This is why we have asked the highly respected former barrister, Kate Lampard CBE, to conduct an independent review of our work at Yarl's Wood."

Call for closure

Lampard's review is also likely to be finalised towards the end of the year, by which time Nick Hardwick will have published his latest Yarl's Wood inspection report.

The findings are keenly awaited, particularly whether his previous recommendation that more female staff be recruited has been acted upon.

Yarl's Wood inquiries:

September 2003: Inspector of prisons found provision was "not safe".

March 2004: Prisons and probation ombudsman found evidence of a number of racist incidents.

October 2004: Prisons and probation ombudsman found use of sprinklers could have prevented fire damage that resulted from a disturbance among detainees in 2002.

February 2006: Chief inspector of prisons found substantial gaps in services.

2006: Legal Action for Women found that 70% of women had reported rape, nearly half had been detained for more than three months, 57% had no legal representation, and 20% had lawyers who demanded payment in advance.

April 2009: Children's commissioner for England found children held in the detention centre are denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and left at risk of serious harm.

April 2014: UN's special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, was barred from Yarl's Wood by the Home Office when she tried to investigate complaints as part of her fact-finding mission into violence against women in the UK.

In 2013, when 58% of custody officers at the mainly female Yarl's Wood were male, Hardwick said the issue needed addressing as a "matter of urgency".

In the meantime, a campaign to close Yarl's Wood is gathering momentum.

Last weekend, several hundred protestors, most of them women, staged a noisy rally outside the centre, tearing down outer fencing, waving placards and shouting: "Shut it down."

The move has high-profile backing - from Lady Helena Kennedy QC; Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty; Natalie Bennett, leader of the Greens - as well as from Conservative MP Richard Fuller, who represents Bedford and Kempston.

But the campaign has broader aims - to improve the overall treatment in Britain of asylum seekers and immigrants: Yarl's Wood has become a symbol for it, which is not what government ministers can have envisaged when we were shown around the gleaming new building back in 2001.

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