Today on International Women’s Day, we take a look at Yarl’s Wood IRC, the UK’s only facility established to detain women for immigration purposes. 

At the end December 2018 there were 163 women detained in Yarl’s Wood. Most of us can barely imagine the horror of being taken from your home and locked up for an indefinite period and to experience the utter powerlessness that goes with it.  Immigration detention is a black hole.  The decision to detain someone is taken by an immigration official and is not sanctioned by a court. There’s no limit as to how long anyone can be detained for. 

BID has been visiting Yarl’s Wood and providing free legal assistance on bail to those detained there since it opened in Bedfordshire in 2001. We have closely followed its controversial history and campaigned for its closure along with all other detention centres in the UK.

Since opening, the management of Yarl’s Wood has passed between three private contractors concluding with Serco who, shortly after a string of sexual abuse allegations, was controversially granted a contract renewal worth £70m in 2014.[1] Several women alleged centre staff sexually abused them while they were detained and the claims led to the dismissal of at least 3 officers and an out of court settlement. [2] 

In 2002 a riot triggered a devastating fire during which guards claim they were instructed to lock detainees in the burning building.[3] The then contractors Group 4, were initially investigated for the offence of corporate manslaughter but no charges were brought after it was confirmed that there were no fatalities. 

At least six hunger strikes at the centre have been reported since as early as 2001, protesting indefinite detention and deportation as well as drawing attention to allegations of sexual, racial and physical abuse committed by centre staff.  The largest hunger strike came in February last year and involved over 120 women protesting what they described as “inhumane conditions” at Yarl’s Wood.[4] 

A HM Inspectorate of Prisons report in 2017 raised questions about the “justification  for detention” after they found the majority of women detained at Yarl’s Wood were not removed from the UK but instead released back into the community. Inspectors also raised concerns about breaches of Home Office policy resulting in the continued detention of women who had been tortured, including instances where officials had refused to accept rape as a form of torture.[5]

BID has supported thousands of women over the years whose rights have been routinely breached and whose welfare has been treated with utter disregard. Earlier this year we supported Lorene to successfully secure her release from Yarl’s Wood. [6]  

Lorene, who had been living in the UK for over 40 years and has a UK-born child, has been detained twice at Yarl’s Wood for a cumulative period of 13 months. Her first period of detention was found to be unlawful but, despite this, Lorene found herself detained for a second time. She was detained despite her well-documented worsening mental and physical health as well as a rule 35 report (an assessment used by the Home Office to identify vulnerable individuals) classifying her as a “Level 3 adult at risk” (the highest level of vulnerability).

“It wasn’t good for me. At some point when I came from the hospital, my leg was so big that I couldn’t walk. And they refused me a wheelchair. I need to take my medication and I need to go and eat. So that day I didn’t eat, I didn’t even go for my medication. I’ve been in prison and they didn’t even do that to you.”

“When you are in there, you are not very fit, they don’t have proper mental health training – the treatment is rubbish, they don’t know what they’re doing. I could have even died and they wouldn’t even care less.”

Lorene is still suffering from medical conditions that worsened during her detention and her experience is not unique. Data released in February this year showed that just 6% of detainees classified as “vulnerable and at risk” including those with a history of torture, sexual violence or trafficking were subsequently released from UK immigration centres.[7]   

Our July 2018 report Adults at Risk: the ongoing struggle for vulnerable adults in detention found serious problems with both the design and the implementation of the Adults at Risk (AAR) policy. [8] The findings exposed failures at every stage of the implementation of the AAR policy (which was supposed to safeguard vulnerable adults) including the routine ignoring of reports from medical practitioners under “Rule 35” - designed to draw to the Home Office’s attention concern that an individual is unsuitable for detention.

Stephen Shaw’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2015 report on vulnerable adults in immigration detention was published in July 2018 and highlighted many of the injustices that BID’s clients face on a daily basis. 

He criticises serious failures to protect vulnerable adults; the failure to prevent long term detention;  poor case-working processes; the use of prisons for immigration detention; precariousness of release accommodation; and the blanket deportation of ‘FNOs’ who have grown up in the UK. He even called into question the very necessity of immigration detention. However although the report draws attention to the many problems with immigration detention, it falls short of recommending the wholesale change that is so desperately needed.

BID’s vision is of a world free of immigration detention, where people are not deprived of their liberty for immigration purposes. We work towards this by challenging immigration detention in the UK through the provision of legal advice, information and representation alongside research, policy advocacy and strategic litigation. This includes giving free legal advice and representation to some of the most vulnerable detainees at Yarl’s Wood. If you want to help us #EndDetention this International Women’s Day why not download our template to write your MP or make a donation to support our work.

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[6] Pseudonym



Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) is a registered Charity No. 1077187. Registered in England as a Limited Company No. 03803669. Accredited by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner Ref. No. N200100147. We are a member of the Fundraising Regulator, committed to best practice in fundraising and follow the standards for fundraising as set out in the Code of Fundraising Practice.
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