The horrors of Yarl’s Wood: why immigration justice is a feminist issue

[Trigger warning: sexual violence, child abuse and neglect, hyperskepticism, violence against immigrants.]

This week, new information came to light about the brutal sexual abuse of detainees by guards at the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, a hellish privately-run detention camp fenced off with barbed wire where nine hundred people, most of them women of colour, are held. A young Roma woman has come forward to expose the sexual assaults she experienced at the hands of three male guards, facilitated and covered up by the management. Her description of her experiences, which may be triggering for many readers, is a stark insight into a deeply sick and abusive institution.

This is the most recent in a long line of horrors in the history of Yarl’s Wood, and I have documented some of them in a previous post. In 2010, fifty women detainees, many of them rape survivors, went on hunger strike to protest the hellish conditions of their detention. The guards responded by locking them in corridors without access to water, medical treatment or toilets. This came on the heels of a 2009 report by the Children’s Commissioner for England which condemned the abuse and neglect of child detainees at Yarl’s Wood. The report painted a harrowing picture. Children were arrested in dawn raids along with their families, and forced to watch their parents handcuffed and humiliated by immigration officers. They were caged in prison vans stained with urine and vomit, denied water and toilet breaks, and taken to Yarl’s Wood, where they endured a living hell. Children with critical illnesses were given paracetamol instead of being taken to hospital. Basic preventative care was not provided, and people in chronic pain were denied painkillers.

Conditions were so bad that in January 2011, two families with children who had been detained at Yarl’s Wood sued the Home Office, and won. Yet despite the best efforts of lawyers, journalists and campaigners to expose the horrors, Yarl’s Wood has not changed for the better. Samantha, who came to Britain to seek asylum, was detained at Yarl’s Wood with her fourteen-month-old daughter while pregnant with a second child, and has spoken out about the inhuman, degrading and hostile conditions she faced.

Yarl’s Wood is not a unique aberration. It is a symptom of an immigration enforcement system which is, in the words of the women of the Yarl’s Wood Movement for Justice, “racist, sexist, homophobic and rotten to the core”. Every year the British state sends thousands of migrants to the detention camps behind barbed wire which it euphemistically calls “immigration removal centres”. Some of them are asylum-seekers who came to this country to exercise their internationally guaranteed right to seek sanctuary from oppression, and find themselves held in detention on the so-called “Detained Fast Track” while their claims are being processed. Others are detained because the Home Office intends to deport or remove them. They are treated this way simply because they are non-citizens – a status acquired by the accident of birth – and the British state does not want them here. And they are denied the most basic of human dignity and respect. Those who are not in detention are intentionally made to feel unwelcome, with posters at immigration offices exhorting them to go home, and a government committee mandated to create a “hostile environment” for irregular migrants. Recently the Home Office has ramped up enforcement, targeted along racial lines, with immigration officers stopping people of colour on the street and arresting them as suspected “immigration offenders”.

This virulent anti-migrant prejudice intersects in many ways with racism, sexism and homophobia, and an independent study by Asylum Aid, among other sources, has revealed the ways in which women and girls in the asylum system are particularly victimized and their needs disregarded. The term “hyperskepticism” was recently coined on a Pharyngula thread to describe the knee-jerk disbelief and denialism with which allegations of rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse are often met. In the immigration enforcement system, anti-migrant prejudice intersects with sexism, racism and homophobia to create a particularly stark and unyielding instance of hyperskepticism. Asylum-seekers who recount horrifying experiences of rape and sexual violence, torture, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex trafficking, and other abuses are frequently disbelieved by the authorities, and are subjected to a second traumatizing ordeal. Emiola, an asylum-seeker interviewed by Asylum Aid who had been trafficked into Europe to work in the sex trade, was immediately detained at Yarl’s Wood on her arrival in Britain. Interviewed by a male screening officer despite her request for a woman, she was asked inappropriate questions about how many men she had slept with and whether she enjoyed being a sex worker; and like most others, her asylum claim was refused. The hyperskepticism of the authorities is often laced with homophobia, too; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans asylum-seekers fleeing violence are frequently disbelieved, and accused of fabricating their sexualities in order to avoid deportation – especially if they don’t fit decision-makers’ narrow stereotypes of how LGBT people behave. Any minor inconsistencies are invariably seized on as an excuse to conclude that an asylum-seeker is lying, and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, even when diagnosed, are rarely appreciated by decision-makers – even where they have injuries consistent with their account of the torture they have suffered. However strong the evidence, and however horrible and traumatizing their past experiences, asylum-seekers are often simply assumed to be lying to stave off deportation.

And the consequences of being disbelieved can be deadly – as they were for Jackie Nanyonjo, a Ugandan lesbian woman and former detainee at Yarl’s Wood, who died as a result of injuries inflicted on her by immigration enforcement personnel during her forcible return to Uganda. She was not the first to die at the hands of the immigration enforcement system – and we cannot tell how many failed asylum-seekers have died at the hands of their oppressors after being forced to return to their home countries. Nor can we measure the other great tragedy of immigration control, the people separated by force from their families in this country – like Leicester grandmother Evenia Mawongera, currently detained at Colnbrook immigration removal centre and facing forced return to Zimbabwe, separated from her daughters and grandchildren who are British citizens.

An intersectional feminist critique of immigration controls is urgently needed. We need to challenge the laws and social norms which stigmatize some people as “illegal”, and deny them basic human and civil rights, merely because of the way in which they entered the country. We need to expose and challenge the deep-seated racism, sexism and homophobia which underlie the immigration enforcement system, and the abusive culture in which migrants are subjected to physical and sexual violence with impunity. And we need to challenge the hyperskeptical narrative in which migrants who relate their experiences are assumed to be lying for their own benefit.

David Neale is a law graduate and future barrister who plans to specialize in immigration and asylum law. He is writing in a personal capacity and his posts represent his personal views and opinions, not those of his current or past employers or any other person or body.

4 Thoughts on “The horrors of Yarl’s Wood: why immigration justice is a feminist issue

  1. Thanks for writing about this, David. It’s horrifying enough when anyone is exploited and abused in these ways. But there are no words to describe my feelings when the victims are some of the most marginalized people on Earth. It’s important to call it out for the grave evil that it is, and I’m very grateful that you are committed to writing about it.

  2. David Neale on September 21, 2013 at 9:51 am said:

    Thank you, Iris!

  3. Evenia was detained at Loughborough Immigration Reporting Centre on Friday, 13 September. From there she was taken to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre where she was held for 4 days before being moved to Yarl’s Wood.

    Her daughters and grandchildren are going to submit an application so that she can be released to them on bail. They appreciate and are grateful for the support they have received so far and they urge more people to get involved with the campaign to have mother and grandmother Evenia released.

    For more information, please see and/or .

  4. In that last sentence, we had wanted to include links to the online petition that is being hosted on Change[DOT]org and a link to the facebook campaign event page. Both can be accessed by searching “Evenia Must Stay” online.

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