‘A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.’

Families with children were regularly detained at Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel detention centres until the change of policy in 2010 drastically reduced the number of children detained.  Now, a smaller number of families with children are detained in an unit within Tinsley detention centre.  But what happened to many children who were detained at Yarl’s Wood and who are turning into adults in the UK?  Ijeoma Datha-Moore, from Let Us Learn, looks back on her 15-year-old self who suddenly found her and her family detained at Yarl’s Wood.  When she finished writing this piece, Ijeoma said I’ve done it. I can’t tell you how odd it felt, but empowering. I am so proud of myself for being able to do this.’ A big thank you to Ijeoma for sharing her story with Unlocking Detention. 
I was detained in October 2009, at the age of 15, my brother was about 11.  It was in fact two days after I had turned 15. I was never informed of where I was being kept, but I firmly believe it was Yarl’s Wood.
I had no idea such things (as immigration detention) even existed before I was detained.  It was so peculiar to me, I felt like a prisoner in a country I called home.  My first impression was that it looked nice, it most definitely didn’t look like a place you’d be terrified of being in from the outside and the inside was decent. It was clean, I could still smell cleaning chemicals. In places it was bright, I believe this was for the benefit of the children.
I remember the smell of food – I think it was lunch time when we arrived. I remember the first meal we had was some chicken and rice. That was the only good thing about the place, the food. It felt very clinical in some areas, a little too white, which made me feel uneasy, but the spaces dedicated to children were bright and beautiful.  You could always hear people talking.  The only real dull moment you had was when everyone went to sleep.
I remember when I walked in with my little brother and my father; there was a room they kept you in before you were called.  It was so bright; it made me feel at ease, as if I’d have a good time or that it was a place filled with laughter.
In the detention centre we were kept in, as there were kids there, they had a make-shift school. Honestly, the first couple of days I was up for going to ‘school’, but after the first three days or so, I hated it.  I wanted out.  They mixed kids from 11 to 17 in one class.  I was missing my actual school for what I considered, and what was clearly, a bullcrap ‘school’.  Aside from so-called school, I spent time with other kids in the game room along with my brother and that was pretty much it…
I was angry at the system for keeping me in such a place at such a young age. I know 15 may not seem young, but in the eyes of the law I am not an adult, so why treat me like one?!  My heart broke for my brother, he had no clue what was happening!  I basically had to be mum and dad for him and try to keep us both strong. We were estranged from our father, so it was the worst possible situation. He was only detained with us because he had come to visit me for my birthday and stayed for the weekend celebrations. It was horrendous. A country I had called home for 13 years had imprisoned me.
My mum had to run away from the flat we had as she didn’t want them (the Home Office) to get her too.  She had been working hard on regularizing our immigration status and had been doing so for a number of years to the best of my knowledge. She was never one to burden me with such information.
After we were released, my brother and I were sent to live with a family my father knew, while he was detained and then later deported.
When I got back to school I told my friends I had just been away due to it being my birthday…  I didn’t care if they believed me or not, I just didn’t want to re-live the trauma.  I never spoke about my experience to friends until I was 17…  Even then I only told about two people.  They were so shocked, but what could I do.

My mum was affected the most; she spent almost two years apart from her children. That had never happened before; the most she’d spend away from us was a few days, or at the longest, a week. Those around her made her more frightful and on the off chance she came to see us, she would be terrified when police went by in case they would snatch her.  She would shake!  Imagine being so scared about being taken away that you shake at the sound of sirens or when a police officer walks by.  She didn’t even look like she was getting enough sleep.
I don’t recall getting any one to one support inside the detention centre. The only people that were nice were other kids!  I mean it made sense seeing as we were all going through the same travesty. There was a room for worship, no matter the religion. You could set it up how you wanted. This was beneficial to those of faith, a way of helping them cope. It was a place I went to for quiet time and to pray. Even after I got out, I never received professional support. It was needed, especially for my younger brother.
I didn’t really witness anything in the centre because I stayed in my room.  It was my coping mechanism.  I didn’t want to be around other people, I was very reclusive.  However, after coming out of there and as I got older, I wanted to know more. I read about people who had died in detention.  I was shocked!!  I also heard about a guy that tried escaping a couple years back and when trying to scale the fence, he impaled himself. It is a TRAGIC place.
This experience of detention changed me.  I wasn’t as open as I was before.  I was very distrustful of lawyers or those working with the law in general.  I hate G4S to this day.  Before I went inside, I loved to cook and be around family.  Now I’ve lost my zeal for cooking, I’d much rather be on my own.  It’s made me a more inward person.  Although I’m glad to say that I’m coming out of this now…  it’s only taken almost 10 years.  Detention is very damaging, to both children and adults alike. I now work at Just For Kids Law, which is the best place for me after all my experiences.
To people who are reading this and feeling angry about immigration detention, I would say challenge it!  Many people in detention will be like me, awaiting a Home Office decision or putting their papers in.  The government doesn’t care.  I mean I saw a four-year-old in detention.  4?!
You should petition, you should protest.  Just get out there and do what you can. I most definitely think we should find a different way of dealing with immigration detention, it shouldn’t even exist. The Home Office is terrible at response times which is why many families are in the situation.  What you should really do is challenge people’s way of thinking.  If people have connections with MP’s, use them…  Something needs to be done about how much we pay to get our official documents and how much we pay to renew them. Many families cannot afford the cost and they only keep increasing every April.
I am now involved in Let us Learn, which is a youth led movement campaigning for higher education for all.  We develop young leaders through the work we do for a better and brighter future.  We wanted to change the way the system looked at those with limited leave or discretionary leave to remain.  If we wanted to go to university, we would be charged international fees, going upwards of £15,000 even though a lot of us had been here from around 6 or 7 years old.  We were young, gifted and blocked.  If we wanted to wait to be able to access home fees, we needed to wait 10 years with legal leave in the country.  By then most would be almost 30.  In 2015, we changed the law, with the help of the lawyers at Just for Kids Law and now we only have to wait 3 years!  You can read more about our story here.
I have been the only one detained within Let Us Learn, which I am happy about. I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the sort of trauma I was put through.  As there are so many groups that deal with issues about detention, it is not a primary focus for us at the moment.  Possibly in the future we will focus a little more, but for now, we will help other organisations in their plight.

Ijeoma Datha-Moore at Let Us Learn

Exceptional circumstances? Detention at Campsfield House

This piece was written by Melanie Griffiths, a trustee at Asylum Welcome.  Asylum Welcome are a long-standing Oxford charity supporting men detained at Campsfield House. She is also a researcher based at the University of Bristol.

Asylum WelcomeAsylum Welcome is a small charity in Oxford with a wealth of experiencing supporting people in immigration detention. We have our roots in a community-led movement that started in 1991 to help refugee children and their families. Two years later, when people started being detained under immigration powers at Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, local people again came together, this time in order to support people held or recently released from the detention centre. In response to the increasing need, Asylum Welcome and Detainee Support was established and we have been supporting people detained at Campsfield House ever since.

We support hundreds of men at Campsfield each year and it is not at all unusual for our volunteer visitors to meet someone who is vulnerable, for one reason or another. We see men who have mental or physical health problems. We have supported men who are in their later years and we have also supported very young men, some still in their teens. Indeed, occasionally we meet lone young men who are later age-assessed as being under 18, and therefore who should never, legally, have been in detention at all. In his last report, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that three children were detained by “mistake” at Campsfield between 2012 and 2013. One boy, who was just 16 years old, was detained without his family for 62 days.

Such people are detained in the UK despite the fact that the Home Office has policies to protect vulnerable people from the hardships of immigration detention. On top of the supposed general presumption in favour of release, that should apply to everyone, there are certain specified groups that should only be detained under very exceptional circumstances. These include families with children, unaccompanied minors under the age of 18, the elderly, pregnant women, people with serious medical conditions, disabilities or mental illness, and victims of trafficking and torture. Although – and quite controversially – since 2010, Home Office policy is that although people with serious mental illness and health conditions should not normally be detained, they still can be if it is considered that their conditions can be “satisfactorily managed within detention”.

Enduring torture

Almost all the men we support in detention talk of depression, stress, decreased appetite and insomnia. Some enter detention with existing problems, but it is important to remember that immigration detention itself, with its extraordinarily uncertain length and outcome, is highly damaging to people’s mental health and is a source of vulnerability in itself. People who are detained with existing issues may well have these worsened by being detained.

Recently we have been working with Hassan (not his real name), an Iraqi man detained at Campsfield. Hassan fled Iraq last year, travelling across Europe to reach the UK, a long and dangerous journey that involved several periods of imprisonment in European countries along the way. To his great distress, and knowing the dangers of the journey to Europe, Hassan was forced to leave his wife and child in Iraq. When he finally entered the UK, Hassan was immediately discovered and arrested, eventually being taken to Campsfield, where one of our team members met him.

Hassan’s father has been murdered in Iraq, in an incident which also saw Hassan being imprisoned and tortured by the authorities. Despite multiple operations on the wounds after his escape from torture, he still experiences severe pain in his leg and has mobility problems. This is on top of the emotional scars of the torture and of the atrocities inflicted on him and his family. Under Home Office policy, as a torture survivor, Hassan should not be detained. His physical symptoms require medical treatment and his mental health problems are exacerbated significantly by being detained. The slamming doors, bars on the windows and uniformed officers bring back terrible memories and fears.

C'field850

Struggling for release

One of our volunteers started visiting Hassan in Campsfield every week, offering practical help, emotional support and credit for his phone, so he could reconnect with his family back home. Once Hassan felt safe enough to tell us about his past torture, Asylum Welcome referred his case to the medical charity Medical Justice. But rather than being released, Hassan’s detention stretched longer and longer. As the weeks started adding up, Hassan found detention increasingly hard and his health started to deteriorate. His friends become worried and told us that Hassan was no longer sleeping. The terrible pain and nightmares he was suffering kept him up every night and haunted the daytimes. With Hassan’s permission, we informed the Campsfield authorities and his solicitor of his worsening condition.

After several months, the Home Office finally released Hassan. But the relief was short lived and just a few weeks later, Hassan went through the trauma of being picked up and deprived of his liberty all over again. This time he was told that there was no doubt about the outcome, he would definitely be forcibly returned to Iraq. Hassan suffered greatly during this second bout of detention, struggling with both the experience of being incarcerated, and of living under the constant fear of removal.

After two long and extremely difficult months in detention, Hassan was released once again. Last time we spoke to him, he was still in the UK and living in the community. He was, however, exhausted and traumatised by his experience in the UK and very confused about what was happening to him. He told us that his mental health had been badly affected by the uncertainties of his immigration case and of the experience of being detained, especially given all he had already lived through and escaped in Iraq.

A growing problem?

Despite the Home Office’s own policy safeguards, we have helped numerous men like Hassan, who suffer from mental or physical problems, who self-harm and talk of suicide, or who are victims of torture. Moreover, those of us who visit people in immigration detention know the harm that indefinite, administrative incarceration does to people. We see how it makes fit young men vulnerable, and further harms those who enter detention with existing scars, trauma and mental or physical health problems. Vulnerability is a dynamic phenomenon and people’s ability to cope with their detention changes over time. Someone who enters detention relatively fit and well may be in quite a different state a few weeks later. This may be especially so when the person has previously been tortured or abused.

In just a couple of decades, immigration detention has transferred from a once emergency technology of wartime, to a normalised aspect of the UK’s growing immigration system. In 2014, more than 800 places were added onto the detention estate as the result of adding more beds to several existing detention centres, and redesignating the 595 bed prison HMP The Verne, as an Immigration Removal Centres. The expansionist trend is close to home for us as the Home Office has been intending to drastically expand Campsfield House, to make it one of the biggest detention centres in Europe.

However, the Home Office plans for Campsfield have been met by a dedicated campaign by Asylum Welcome and other concerned local organisations and individuals. Together we formed the coalition, Stop Campsfield Expansion, and sought the advice of lawyers, who found several issues of legal concern in the planning application. As a result, the expansion application was withdrawn.

Rethinking ‘vulnerability’

The Home Office has suspended its expansion plans for Campsfield for now, but we are concerned that detention across the country is set to remain on its trajectory of increasing each year. And as the number and range of people detained ever-expands, so we can expect more and more ill, vulnerable and traumatised people to be incarcerated.

In the face of this, we will continue to support all those affected by detention at Campsfield, whilst also advocating for community-based alternatives to detention to be developed, and for a time limit on detention be introduced. Indeed, in our briefing for the Immigration Bill 2015, we called for the Bill to include restrictions on the length of time that a person can be held in detention. We support the Detention Forum’s report Rethinking ‘Vulnerability’ in Detention: a Crisis of Harm and echo its findings that we need to move away from understanding vulnerability to be a static, ‘category based’ phenomenon, towards seeing it as a dynamic condition that is the result from multiple factors and that changes over time.

Fundamentally, we will continue to call for immigration detention to be employed strictly in line with the Home Office’s own policy. In other words, only when absolutely necessary, for the shortest periods possible, and never when the individual is – or becomes – vulnerable.

Looking behind the labels: vulnerability and immigration detention

This blog post was written for Unlocking Detention by Ali McGinley. It was first published on the Justice Gap.

Ali is director of AVID – the Association of Visitors of Immigration Detainees – and has managed AVID since 2009. Ali is a member of the Detention Forum coordination group, and co-convened the Vulnerable People Working Group of the Detention Forum. 

fence- picture courtesy of AVID

Working on immigration detention requires a delicate balance. It is all too easy to forget what language can do when it becomes a political tool, as we’ve seen with the terms refugee or asylum seeker, so terribly misunderstood. And yet, in order to ensure we achieve the changes we want to see, to be taken seriously, we must use terminology that is understood by the audience we are trying to reach – the public, the policy makers, those who make the decisions about who is detained and who is not.

What we must not forget is that behind these labels are individuals, with stories to tell, and experiences which help us shed light on the injustices which would otherwise remain hidden. Every individual in detention is just that, and we should be careful to avoid categories which may disempower them further.

This is particularly the case when discussing vulnerability in the detention context. Arguably everyone in detention is vulnerable, in that they are without freedom, totally disempowered by a system that keeps them in legal limbo, without time limit. Detention is hugely traumatic for anyone who goes through it. But it is particularly traumatic for certain groups of people, for a variety of reasons, which make them more at risk of harm than others. How this is defined, understood and acted upon by the Home Office has been a great concern to the Detention Forum for many years. Visitors groups and others supporting detainees have seen numerous people in detention who have been trafficked to the UK, or who have survived torture, or who have severe mental health needs. We have also been in contact with young people under 18, with pregnant women, or people with disabilities. All of these are – according to the Home Office’s own policy guidance – groups who should only be detained in exceptional circumstances, because they meet the criteria and can be allocated to a particular ‘category’ of vulnerability.

But having researched this topic for the last two years as part of the Vulnerable People’s Working Group of the Detention Forum we have concluded that this category based system is fundamentally flawed. Many end up in detention despite being part of one of these so called groups, and equally, others may also be vulnerable although they don’t meet the definition of a ‘torture survivor’ or a ‘seriously mentally unwell person’ as set out by the Home Office. These are individuals, with complex histories and experiences, who may also be at risk in detention. As a result, many vulnerable people remain in detention, unable to access the support they need and at risk of further harm.

Locked up and at risk

Over 18 months, we gathered 31 case studies from various Detention Forum members, all involving men and women who were detained at some point in 2013. All 31 cases were people who were locked up despite, in our view, being vulnerable and at risk. The findings will come as no surprise to those familiar with the realities of the detention system; 77% of our sample had experienced a mental health issue, and all described their mental health worsening throughout their incarceration. In five of the cases, there had been a diagnosis of severe mental health need prior to detention. One man, Jacques, was detained for over two months, despite suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. There were very serious indications that he was unwell in detention, including blackouts, dizziness, running around naked and shouting incomprehensibly. While detained, he was regularly placed in isolation which only made his confusion and paranoia worse.

Around a third of our study had experienced torture. Three had declared this in the substantive interview, but were detained anyway and this was never followed up with either a Rule 35 or a medical review. They all described difficulties in detention in accessing medical services in order to corroborate their claims of torture. Sam, for example, had a history of torture and imprisonment in his home country. Once detained, his PTSD deteriorated so rapidly that he became suicidal.

We also discovered cases of people with serious disabilities, people like Claire, who suffered a stroke and is paralysed on one side so she can only walk with a stick. She was released after 15 months having been found not fit to fly. She still finds her time in detention too painful to discuss. We were shocked by the case of a woman who had been trafficked to the UK and forced into prostitution, who was then put on to the Detained Fast Track process. A boy of 15 was detained and held for six months. The list goes on. And yet, these are all people who would, by the Home Office’s own criteria, be defined as ‘vulnerable’.

Outside predefined categories of vulnerability

We also looked at cases of people who would not fall under one of these predefined ‘categories’ of vulnerability, but who arguably were at risk of harm in detention and who became more ‘vulnerable’ over time. One man reported that he was not treated for a physical injury until his symptoms became so serious as to merit a hospital visit. Living with this pain impacted hugely on his wellbeing and mental health. There were other factors that affected how well someone coped in detention, such as literacy and language barriers.

Those who had come from a prison background were more likely to experience long term detention and described the deterioration in their mental health as detention continued. Unlocked bannerAll of these cases demonstrate that vulnerability in detention is complex and goes way beyond pre-determined categories. Vulnerability is a dynamic interplay between a range of factors: personal, social and environmental, all of which are fluid and change. As such, vulnerability needs to be assessed both holistically and individually – and over time. How well you cope or otherwise can be affected by your family situation, your own coping mechanisms, your living conditions, your health, your past experiences. There is more to vulnerability than can be assessed in one screening interview.

A new vulnerability tool

Our research concluded that the Home Office has failed to follow its own guidance and continues to detain those who, by their own definition, are vulnerable individuals, and that detention centres are inadequate to meet these people’s basic care needs. We also found that the guidance itself is inadequate, as it doesn’t take into account the variety of factors which combine to make someone more or less vulnerable, nor does it consider changes over time.

We call into question how reliable this category based approach is, and suggest a rethink of this model, and a move towards a more comprehensive and holistic assessment using a vulnerability tool that takes into account the variety of factors that make someone more or less vulnerable, but is also flexible enough to allow assessment over time. There are various examples internationally and nationally of good practice in vulnerability assessment which we outline in our report, and the Home Office should consider these as a priority, particularly in light of the rising concerns about the welfare of the most vulnerable which led to the commissioning of the Shaw Review earlier this year.

Use of such a vulnerability tool would also effectively reduce at one stroke the number of people detained.

A key finding of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Immigration Detention earlier this year is that detention is used far too frequently. Far from a last resort, immigration detention is the norm. We now detain over 30,000 people a year. This includes people like Claire, or Jacques, or Sam. Is it really necessary to lock up children, or people who are seriously mentally unwell, or pregnant women? We don’t think so, and neither did the 26 MPs who spoke up in the recent Parliamentary Debate on the Inquiry’s recommendations and called for reform. The introduction of a holistic vulnerability assessment would be one such reform, and a first step away from the ‘detain first, ask questions later’ approach which has led to the disproportionate numbers locked up around the UK. It would also reduce the number of cases of unlawful detention, which continue to rise, and to shame our country’s human rights record. And, importantly, it would ensure that individuals are assessed as individuals.

Women in detention – a troubling reality

This blog post was written by Rosa Heimer, an intern at René Cassin – a charity working to promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values, and a member of the Detention Forum.

A considerably high number of women seek asylum in the UK on the grounds of gender-based persecution. Among those cases, the specific reason to claim asylum often relates to their past experiences of rape, torture and/or other forms of sexual abuses. The physical and psychological trauma arising from such experiences often leaves them in an extremely vulnerable position, which only deteriorates further when put through the detention system.

Although the detention of women who have suffered severe gender-based harm is unacceptable, it remains a common practice in the UK. A recent study by the organisation Women for Refugee Women (WRW) with 46 women who experienced detention while seeking asylum in the UK has found that 52% of those women felt that they were persecuted because they were women, while 18% felt they were persecuted because they were lesbians. An even more disturbing figure is that 33 of those women (72%) had been detained despite having been victims of rape.

‘Worse than prison’

The experience of being locked up in a detention centre has often been compared to being worse than being in prison, largely due to the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will be in detention or when they might suddenly be deported. An ex-detainee who spent 2 years in detention and was interviewed by René Cassin said that:

Detention is exactly like in prison but I would say even worse. I can tell because I spent 6 months in prison but prison is better than detention for two reasons. In prison I felt more useful because I was repaying my debt to the society and I was also working there. In prison, I knew when my detention will end; it even ended before because of my well behaviour. But in detention, you never know when it will end, you just wait and you are put from a centre to another.  [Ex-detainee]

In the particular case of women, many of who have sought asylum due to rape and torture, being imprisoned in a detention centre is doubly distressing if they go on to receive further discrimination according to their gender. WRW’s study reported that 61% of women had suicidal thoughts, 93% were depressed, 83% were lonely and 85% felt scared while in detention.

Compelling evidence

As part of René Cassin’s work, we collected testimonies from migrants who have experienced detention to be submitted as written evidence for the Parliamentary Detention Inquiry. Those willing to retell their stories have been brave enough to denounce the inhumane conditions of detention centres. Among the recounted stories, lack of gender sensitivity in detention and the serious damage it can cause on women appeared as a recurrent issue.

The testimony given by Clair to René Cassin powerfully illustrates some of these seriously unacceptable issues. Clair had been victim of sexual abuse by close family members since the early age of 17, after her father died she received death threats from her brothers and fled to the UK to seek asylum. Here in the UK her asylum claim was denied even though she was a victim of sexual violence. She was finally receiving appropriate help from the organisation Rape Crisis, when she was detained and sent to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Clair’s description of the conditions and mistreatment found in this centre and their impact on her is disturbing:

The way I was treated in detention was inhuman and degrading. I can never exactly explain how awful it was because I was physically and psychologically mistreated in detention. The conditions of detention are so awful that my health, especially my mental health, started deteriorating very quickly. I had nightmares, sleep disturbance, difficulties to eat and suicidal thoughts. [Clair, ex-detainee]

Despite being a victim of sexual violence, during her time in detention Clair never had access to counselling, even after several suicide attempts.  She describes the precarious access to health care in the centre:

In detention centres you don’t have real access to doctors, it’s just a formal access to respect the rules. When you manage to have an appointment, the doctors are there, in the room, you can see them but you cannot speak to them. You are just allowed to speak to a nurse but never directly to the doctors, the nurses always speak on your behalf and you have a limited amount of time so you can’t explain everything. […] Also even after my suicide attempts, I never had access to counselling or to psychiatric or psychological care. I was never able to speak to a psychiatrist or a psychologist to tell how I feel and I was just receiving medication despite the fact that I was in suicide watch.  [Clair, ex-detainee]

Male guards

It is clear that detention centres present a lack of appropriate health treatment for victims of sexual violence and women detainees in general. Furthermore, although the Yarl’s Wood Centre is a detention centre for women, it is predominantly staffed by male guards. The relation between detainees and guards is already intrinsically hierarchical and unequal gender relations only reinforce these dynamics.

WRW’s research found that 70% of women, guarded by male staff reported feeling uncomfortable. In addition, in Yarl’s Wood, it is common practice that male guards enter women detainees’ rooms without previous warning, clearly violating their right to privacy and often catching them while still undressed. Clair, for example, suffered a shocking humiliating attempt of deportation in which she was taken out of her room by several male guards while still being naked:

… in one attempt to remove me from the UK, I was dragged naked out of my room by several male guards. The conditions of my deportation were so shocking that it led to spontaneous protests by more than 100 woman detainees from the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. [Clair, ex-detainee]

The predominance of male guards in Yarl’s Wood Centre especially puts at risk those women who are the most psychologically vulnerable, namely, those who have attempted suicide. The centre operates a so-called ‘suicide watch’ system which is highly controversial. During the first UK Parliamentary Detention Inquiry oral evidence session, on 17th July 2014, two women previously detained in Yarl’s Wood Centre spoke about the way in which ‘suicide watch’ creates the conditions for women’s sexual harassment.

Because I’m very angry about the suicide watch so I have to say a little bit about it. Suicide watch, I think, they just made it to put you under even more mental torture. If you’re on suicide watch and your health is not good, but it’s not that bad, suicide watch can make it more bad. And I can tell you, anybody who is suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl’s Wood, because those male guards they sit in there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked.’  [Maimuna Jawo, ex-detainee]1

Alice who experienced first-hand sexual harassment while being in suicide watch also confirms Maimuna’s statements when giving her oral evidence in the Parliamentary Inquiry:

Yes, it’s true sometimes when you are washing, you need to remove something or, even if you need to go to the toilet, the guard will stay. After they are staying they are laughing and they are saying “she have big boobs”, “She have big breasts”. They are just laughing between themselves; they are just looking at you. [Alice, ex-detainee]2

Ongoing ordeal

Women with a history of sexual abuses and suicidal tendencies should not be kept in detention in the first place but this is even truer when the conditions in detention subject them to sexual harassment. Traumatising experiences with male guards are recurrently reported by women in detention. In WRW’s study 50% of women said they were verbally abused by male staff, three women reported being physically assaulted, and even more shockingly, one woman said she was sexually assaulted3.

It is outrageous that women asylum seekers fleeing their country due to persecution based on their gender are likely to suffer persecution based on this same aspect of their identity while in detention. In reality their persecution rarely ceases once they arrive in the UK, but is further perpetuated by the asylum system. The UK detention system is in need of urgent review.


1. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

2. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

3. Women for Refugee Women, ‘Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked Up in the UK’ by Marchu Girma, Sophie Radice, Natasha Tsangarides and Natasha Walter. Available here.

Artwork courtesy of Detention Action – created by an individual who has experienced detention first-hand.