When one thinks of Bedfordshire, the images that spring to mind are usually pretty green pastures, cottages, cute elderly couples and university. The mention of it rarely drums up the picture of barbed wire and iron gates. Yet there is a dark secret of rural England that lurks in the most picturesque of corners.
Welcome to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, Bedfordshire. A place of solitude and despair for refugees, it is Britain’s shameful little secret. It has been the subject of controversy since it opened in 2001. As a detention centre for refugees seeking asylum in the UK, one would think that it makes sure to take a gentle approach to its detainees and attempts to make it a place of comfort for people, some of whom came to the UK to escape abuse in their home country. But the reality is far, far worse. Allegations of sexual misconduct by the centre’s guards have been rife, as recently as last September, the allegations have been corroborated by more women, who say that this behaviour is still going on. One woman recounted her experience in The Observer
“A lot of officers were taking advantage of the girls that were detained. They would promise favours or offer to make life easier, saying they would have more chance of winning their case or staying in the country.” In a formal witness statement she has sent to Bedfordshire police, she states that one Serco official she was involved with sexually told her: “Don’t worry, there is no way they can deport you.”
Most recently, revelations have come to light of the vulgar truths of Yarl’s Wood, most notably from Meltem Avcil, a former detainee who was taken into Yarl’s Wood at thirteen years old. She shares her story with The Guardian:
“I witnessed children under the age of six trying to breathe out of those windows,” she says, “because they wanted freedom, they wanted to run around, they wanted air. There was a small courtyard, I can’t deny that, but how much comfort can you get from a courtyard surrounded by barbed wire?”
After experiencing the horrific conditions that she and her mother endured, she points out that after women have experienced and fled from rape, sexual and physical abuse and harrowing home lives, they escape to the UK only to find their torture being continued in another country – supposedly one of modern humanity and safety.
Acclaimed author Zadie Smith has spoken out about the issue as well, pointing out the covert way in which the centre has escaped real scrutiny:
“It’s no accident that this detention centre is tucked away in a pretty corner of Bedfordshire. Out of sight, out of mind. For how many of us want to wake up with the knowledge that we live in a country willing to imprison victims of rape and torture, who have arrived at our shores to request asylum? …We need urgently to address the outrage of Yarl’s Wood. Its continued existence is an offence to liberty, a shame to any civilised nation, and a personal tragedy for the women caught in its illogical grip.”
Avcil has now started a petition to end the detention of women who seek asylum in the UK. With more than 32, 000 signatures to date, she hopes to achieve 35, 000 in order to attract the attention of home secretary Theresa May and change the lives of refugee women detained in this centre. The Women for Refugee Women report, Detained published in January, paints a harrowing picture. The organisation spoke to 46 women who had been detained, most in Yarl’s Wood, and found over 85% had been either raped or tortured before arriving in the UK; all said detention made them unhappy; 93% felt depressed; more than half thought about killing themselves; and more than one in five women had tried to kill themselves. Forty of the 46 women had been guarded by male staff, and 70% of those said this had made them uncomfortable. One woman, who had fled Uganda, where she had been imprisoned and repeatedly raped by guards, described being under suicide watch, with a male guard who watched her even when she was on the toilet. The conditions that these women endure do not represent the Britain that the government tries to convince us of – freedom and humanity seem to be absent in Yarl’s Wood.
The road to ending this torture and abuse is not a short one – immigration policy in the UK isn’t known for its open-mindedness and compassion. But as they say, every little counts, and the more we talk about this issue the less the British government are able to sweep it under the golden velvet carpet of privilege. Detention of children was banned in 2010, so it’s only a matter of time before the (frankly, antiquated) detention centre ritual is abolished. To help Avcil’s cause and find out more, see the links below.
To sign the petition: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/theresa-may-british-home-secretary-end-the-detention-of-women-who-seek-asylum
To get informed on detention of female refugees: http://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/
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