Radio Four’s “File on Four” examines reports of mistreatment of detainees in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, which holds up to 400 women and is run by private company, SERCO. The programme asks, “Is it time to close down Yarl’s Wood?”
To help us answer, it details medical neglect, a dismissive attitude towards mental health issues and numerous instances of sexually inappropriate conduct by staff towards female detainees.
The programme records the funeral of Christine Case, a Jamaican woman, who died in Yarl’s Wood on 31st March 2014. Her family tells the programme that Christine’s medical problems were neglected.
Post traumatic stress disorder and psychotic episodes are not treated seriously. Noel, a psychiatric nurse, resigned in 2013 after raising concerns about the systems to protect vulnerable Yarl’s Wood detainees. Speaking publicly for the first time, he recalls that his concerns about the mental health of a detainee were dismissed. The detainee subsequently harmed herself but received no medical treatment for 16 hours.
On questioning SERCO about this incident, the programme received the response: “a member of staff was consequently dismissed following disciplinary proceedings”. As the program progresses, it appears that SERCO habitually disciplines individual staff, while denying underlying institutional issues.
We hear testimonies from women about a culture where sexual favours are traded between guards and female detainees. One woman recalls how a guard “made advances” on her. She is asked whether “consent” can exist between staff and detainees? “Hell, no!” she exclaims. “They promise these vulnerable women that if you open your legs for me, then you will get your leave to stay”.
SERCO denies an endemic culture of sexual exploitation. But according to Labour’s Keith Vaz, Chair of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee, which is currently investigating sexually inappropriate conduct by Yarl’s Wood staff, there have been 15 complaints against SERCO. Seven employees have been dismissed in six years. To him, this is just “the tip of the iceberg”.
The trigger for the Parliamentary investigation was an allegation by a woman from Pakistan, whose case was made public last month. The woman told the programme how a male nurse had touched her “private parts” against her wishes. Showing characteristic disbelief of a woman’s word, SERCO and Bedfordshire police investigated and dismissed the allegations; internal investigators thought she had invented them to assist her immigration case. As she put it, “They said I am making up stories. I don’t understand. If I made it up, then why did they pay me compensation?”
For Keith Vaz, the root of these problems lies with SERCO. His recommended solution is that the Government should not renew SERCO’s contract. In his words, it’s not “money well spent”. For him, there is no alternative to detention; the issue is that women should be treated “fairly” while they are detained.
But what would it mean to treat women “fairly”? Yes, women should not be neglected or sexually abused at the hands of the state. That should be a given. But detention is inherently laden with injustice. At the beginning of the programme, a current detainee describes the view from her window: “You can only see the gate, the first is huge and the second is barbed wire….you see nothing, just fields and gates surrounding. It just looks a prison”. Detention essentially means that people are put in prison for applying for asylum or crossing a border. There is no way of making this “fair”.
So, the answer to the programme’s question is yes. In light of the evidence of abuse and fundamentally because migrants are not criminals, yes, Yarl’s Wood needs to close.