Campaigners are set to gather at Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire tomorrow (Friday) to call on the Home Office to permanently close Yarl’s Wood and to stop detaining women for immigration purposes.
Tomorrow (November 19) marks 20 years since the centre opened as an immigration detention centre where women are locked up - and women who have previously been detained there, along with other campaigners, will be gathering at the site.
The detention centre has been the subject of criticism and repeated calls for closure due to widely documented harm to the mental and physical health of women detained there.
But the Home Office says all its centres have a 'range of safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable'.
The Home Office has acquired the former Hassockfield Secure Training Centre in County Durham and will open it as Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre for around 80 women by the end of the year.
The planned changes to the immigration removal estate, which also include closure of Morton Hall IRC and the change of Yarl’s Wood to a predominantly male IRC, will mean that the future detention capacity for women will be substantially reduced.
The Set Her Free campaign says it has exposed the harm that immigration detention causes women, enabled many women in detention to speak about their experiences and brought together Parliamentarians from all parties to demand change.
Agnes Tanoh, detention campaign spokesperson at Women for Refugee Women, said: “Being locked up in detention when you need protection destroys a woman. I know this because I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood for more than three months by the Home Office, before they recognised that I am a refugee."
She added: "I don’t want any more of my sisters to be locked up in this way or for their families to be ripped apart. That is why I am using my experience to speak out against Yarl’s Wood and the Home Office’s latest cruel plan to start detaining women in County Durham next month.
"I want to live in a kind and welcoming society where women are free to get on with their lives in safety. If you agree, please join me and call on the Government to stop locking people up in immigration detention.”
Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women, said: “No matter who we are or where we come from, we all want to live in safety and freedom with our families. We want to be treated equally and have the opportunity to contribute.
"But that can’t happen while the government continues to lock up women who are seeking protection indefinitely in immigration detention.
"Women for Refugee Women works with women who have survived rape, torture and trafficking but instead of finding safety here, the Home Office treats them without humanity and locks them up. Over the last 20 years, thousands of women have been irreversibly harmed and traumatised at Yarl’s Wood.
"We have a key opportunity to end this harm now. Since summer last year, the numbers of women in detention have been very low. This shows that detention is unnecessary and that it’s time to abolish this injustice.
"Right now, it is easy for the Home Office to shut down Yarl’s Wood, scrap its plans for Hassockfield and start supporting women to resolve their immigration cases while they live in the community instead.”
Emma Ginn, director at Medical Justice, said: "A number of our clients have deteriorated in Yarl’s Wood IRC, requiring transfer to secure psychiatric units. It has been particularly distressing that some were later taken back to Yarl’s Wood IRC.
"There has been no shortage of credible criticism over the last 20 years of Yarl’s Wood IRC, including the HM Inspector of Prisons dubbing it “a place of national concern”, a High Court judgement finding “inhuman and degrading treatment”, and Channel 4 undercover video footage of guards boasting about their use of force and racist abuse of vulnerable women.
"The response from the Home Office has been an occasional flurry of new ‘safeguarding’ policies but this has amounted to little more than window dressing; our doctors continue to encounter the same issues, year after year. The response from the public has, largely, been to simply look away.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Immigration detention is a necessary but limited part of our immigration system, encouraging compliance with the law, as 95 per cent of those liable to removal are managed in the community.
“Our focus will always be on those who have no right to be in the UK but are persistently non-compliant, likely to abscond, or are Foreign National Offenders who present a risk to the public, with a range of safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable.
"The planned changes to the immigration removal estate include Yarl’s Wood becoming a predominantly male centre and the opening of the modern Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre in Hassockfield for around 80 women by the end of the year.
"We have robust statutory scrutiny in place to ensure that those detained in Derwentside are held in safe and decent conditions.”
In an annual report for 2020, the Yarl’s Wood Independent Monitoring Board said that 2020 was a year of constant change with many new challenges, but commended the Centre’s planning and management of the Covid 19 pandemic.
The changing status of the Centre and the frequent influx of large numbers of men also caused additional pressures, but the IMB welcomed a number of positive events which occurred during the year, including the prompt release or transfer of the IRC population at the start of the pandemic, improvements in the preparation for removal or release of detainees, including more timely information given to them and the extensive measures put in place to protect detainees and the workforce from Covid 19, resulting in only six positive cases.
However, despite the effective systems set up to process the many small boat migrants arriving simultaneously, the IMB has concerns about aspects of their arrival and onward journey.
In May 2020, HM Inspectorate of Prisons visited four immigration removal centres - including Yarl’s Wood - and found population numbers had significantly reduced.
When the Set Her Free campaign began in 2014, there were over 300 women in detention.
Following Stephen Shaw’s follow-up review of detention in 2018, the number of women in detention started to fall, and just before the pandemic started, in December 2019, there were 121 women in detention.
During the pandemic the number of women in detention fell even further, with the most recent official statistics showing that at the end of June 2021 there were just 37 women in detention.