“Survivors of sexual violence who come to the UK seeking protection are routinely being locked up and are denied privacy and dignity in detention.” – Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women.
Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre operating in Bedfordshire deals with detainees awaiting their ordeals during the asylum process. In 2013, 2, 038 women were detained after claiming asylum and 43% of these women were detained for more than a month.
A report claimed that women detained were subjected to racism and humiliation as they were denied basic privacy on a daily basis by the male staff. June 2014 saw 31 allegations of sexual assault, which lead to full investigations, and dismissal of several members of staff.
Male staff regularly invades privacy of the women detained. “They always come in without knocking … even if you are in the shower or toilet,” one woman said. “Men enter your room without knocking and see you in bed every day. I have been seen partly naked more than once,” another detainee said. “One day I was in the bathroom taking a shower, they asked me to come out. I was naked,” another told researchers.
Male staff carries out routine searches, which leaves the detainees ashamed, uncomfortable humiliated.
Serco, the contractor in charge of running the facility on behalf of the Home Office, claims that strict guidelines forbid male staff to enter rooms of detainees without knocking. Serco further added that the allegations were “uncorroborated”. Serco’s contract director, Norman Abusin added: “We take all complaints seriously and we have strict procedures for dealing with them. They are always fully investigated and, if appropriate, disciplinary action is taken.”
During interviews, out of the 38 women interviewed, 29 said they faced bullying and 25 say they felt the members of staff were racist. In most cases, asylum seekers are not aware of reasons behind their detention; they are expected to wait while their claims are processed. Many claim that at the time of their arrest there were unto 10 members of staff involved, the process is traumatising for the detainees.
A lot of the detainees have suffered sexual violence in their home countries, because of previous encounter with sexual abuse; most women are intimidated by male presence in their personal and private space. It is traumatising for them to have male staff walk in, unannounced. Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women adds, “The behaviour of the staff, particularly male staff, in Yarl’s Wood detention centre is adding to the trauma of survivors of sexual violence.”
The latest independent inspection conducted by the Home Office and Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons found the environment to be safe, respectful and in line with the guidelines issued. However, detainees’ request for female staff paints a different picture. Their requests have been largely denied as they are told that it wasn’t possible.
Following these allegations, Women for Refugee Women has been asked to supply details for an in-depth investigation. Walters does not support the idea of detention while legal procedures are carried out, “Detention has no place in the asylum process. It is expensive, unjust and inefficient to lock up people who have come here to seek asylum.” She further adds that, “women who seek protection in the UK should be able to live in the community while their claims are considered.”