Reflections on my visit to Yarl’s Wood Immigration detention centre

20 Apr 2018
In February, I went to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre after a year of asking the Home Office to be allowed to visit some of the most vulnerable women in their care and control.
Yarl’s Wood is on the outskirts of Clapham, Bedfordshire, and is a place where foreign nationals who may be subject to deportation are held. It is one of 13 such centres currently in Britain.
Having tried to arrange a visit for some time, I was glad to finally get the opportunity to see the conditions myself, especially as my visit came just after the news that 120 of Yarl’s Wood detainees had begun a month-long hunger strike.
One woman at Yarl’s Wood recently summarised the strike to campaigners as “a desperate measure in desperate circumstances.”
She added that the reason for the strike was that “we feel voiceless, forgotten, ignored. This is how we had chosen to be heard … the Home Office does not want the world outside to hear our voices.”
Before the trip, I had been told I would not be able to speak to detainees during the tour but on arrival women crowded me, wanting to tell me about their situation and staff made a sports hall available so we could talk to around 30 women.
It became clear to me that many of the women held at the centre are in a desperate situation and we owe them a duty of care.
What I found particularly striking was talking to women with no release date and the biggest concern for most of them was the amount of time they had been in the centre.
To give just two examples, we met one woman who had been held there for nine months and another woman said she had lived in Britain for 30 years, had five British children and had been detained for seven months pending removal to Nigeria where she no longer has any family.
Specific additional concerns were that the healthcare system does notmeet the needs of most detainees. Also contrary to government undertakings, I was also told that victims of trafficking and sexual abuse are being held at Yarl’s Wood.
Home Office Minister Brandon Lewis is on record as telling the House o f Commons: “We don’t have indefinite (immigration) detention in this country. We just keep people as long as necessary.”
As with so many other issues, here was a government minister showing that the Tories are in denial about the effects of their own policies.
Yet the reality is that over 200 immigration detainees were held for over a year in 2016 and Britain is the only EU country that does not set a specific time limit on immigration detention.
Victims of torture, human trafficking, modern slavery, asylum-seekers and sick and disabled people are among those who are detained.
Within this system, more than half of all immigration detainees are eventually released and allowed to remain in Britain, which raises the question of why it was necessary to deprive them of their liberty in the first place.
In terms of the discussion around indefinite detention, the overall length of detention has been increasing since the beginning of 2010 when the coalition came to office.
The number of those held has also been rising. Contrary to Lewis’s aforementioned assertions, some of these are held for 12 months or more.
There are even cases of detaining people for more than 48 months.
The most important thing to remember about immigration detention is that was never meant to be long term.
I was an MP when the legislation was introduced in the 1990s and Parliament was assured that detention would only be for a matter of months.
When some of us raised the lack of safeguards and due process, ministers insisted that this detention would be very short term indeed, but the truth is that, almost from the beginning, it has been for much longer periods of time than Parliament envisaged at the time.
This issue gets far less attention than it should, as in the current t oxic debate around immigration it is hard to excite public and media concern, but I firmly believe indefinite detention is wrong and needs to end.
Faith leaders urged Home Secretary Amber Rudd earlier this year to end indefinite detention, terming it “unjust, ineffective and inhumane.”
The statement, which refers to research by the British Medical Association, Amnesty and others on the mental health cost of the practice, reads: “Evidence shows that it causes huge harm — not only to those detained but to their family, children, friends and community.”
Labour MPs have long been calling for an end to indefinite detention as one of the steps needed to fix the inhumane immigration detention system, which is costly and not fit for purpose, as my visit to Yarl’s Wood confirmed.
As in so many home affairs policy areas, change is desperately needed.
Yet the reason the Tories will not reform immigration detention is becau se it is all part and parcel of Theresa May’s vision of a “hostile environment” where the notion is that, if individuals were detained in this way — quietly, contrary to any due process and with no consideration of their human rights — it would somehow deter others from seeking to come here as immigrants or asylum seekers.
This approach has failed. It’s time for a new, fairer approach.
As I said in my speech on immigration on February 21, we don’t want to detain people for months on end only to find they have a right to stay.
Labour will end indefinite detention and completely review the operation of detention centres.

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