How We Treat the Desperate: Some of the World's Most Vulnerable and Abused Women End Up in the Yarl's Wood Detention Centre Awaiting Deportation. Alice O'Keeffe Reports on the Inhuman Treatment They Receive at Our Hands

Article excerpt

"Welcome," reads a sign in the waiting room at Yarl's Wood. "Bienvenido"; "Bienvenue"; "Willkommen". Under each word is a smiley face. It is an empty gesture, as in every other respect the sterile white space provides the antithesis of a welcome. Visitors are photographed and searched by uniformed guards and have their fingerprints taken. Just like the inmates (now only women and children, after the prison riots of 2002 which burned half of Britain's most notorious detention centre to the ground), visitors are made to feel like criminals, separated from the outside world by layers of bureaucracy.

A report launched this month by the charity Medical Justice Network and backed by Lord Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons, highlights extensive abuse of detainees at centres including Yarl's Wood. Entitled Beyond Comprehension and Decency, it is a shocking document, detailing the UK's systematic failure to respect the most basic human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in its care. Doctors working for the charity examined more than 500 detainees and the report focuses on 56 detailed case studies. Medical Justice found that more than 20 of these were survivors of torture or rape--in violation of the UN's, and the Home Office's own, guidelines, which state that torture victims should be held "only in very exceptional circumstances". The report also chronicles widespread "medical abuse" of detainees, who are not entitled to NHS treatment, despite often suffering terrible after-effects from illness or torture sustained in their home countries.

Medical Justice recorded cases that, according to its small team of expert doctors and lawyers, illustrate "neglect, discrimination and abuse on a scale that is saddening and frightening". In addition to the 20 torture victims, they found that 33 of the 56 detainees spotlighted were depressed, self-harming or suicidal, three had had their HIV treatment disrupted, with potentially fatal results, and three had tuberculosis, which in two cases was not properly treated. Further case studies highlight even more serious abuses: just a few days after suffering a miscarriage, one woman was put into a holding room, even though she had been classified as in danger of self-harm, because she kept asking for her baby and saying she wanted to die. There was no health care available on site.

Yarl's Wood is Britain's most documented detention centre, but there are nine others around the country, through which about 30,000 people in total pass each year (and roughly 2,000 of these are children, as the UK government, uniquely in Europe, retains the power to detain children indefinitely). Detainees are usually put into detention either upon arrival in Britain, or when they are waiting to be "removed" following the failure of an asylum application. A large proportion do not have legal representation. Few, despite Home Office guidelines to the contrary, get a thorough medical examination when they are first detained. The government subcontracts management of seven of the ten centres to private companies, including Global Solutions Ltd (GSL) and Serco, which, in turn, may subcontract health care services. Consequently, according to the Medical Justice doctor and torture expert Dr Frank Arnold, "the quality of medical care is dire, often resulting in actual harm due to failure to diagnose, refer and treat".

This had been Sarah's experience. I met her in the large visiting hall, filled with little round tables and cheap foam armchairs. The smell of detergent and unwashed bodies hung in the air. After a few minutes, a set of thick doors opened and Sarah, a small, hunched figure, was brought in flanked by two guards. All around us, sad-faced women greeted their loved ones with tears and hugs.

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An outspoken and intelligent 45-year-old from Uganda, Sarah told me she had experienced beatings, rape and torture at the hands of the Ugandan army. …