Yarl's Wood detention centre shames Britain - when did "refugee" become a dirty word?
By Laurie Penny / newstatesman.com

A security guard stands at the gates of the Yarl's Wood detention centre

They take everything from you when you go into Yarl’s Wood. Even on a visit to a friend or family member, you have to turn out your pockets and stand in line to have your biometric data recorded and stored. You hand in everything you are carrying, down to pens and chewing gum, and then you go down a bare corridor plastered with warning signs, passing through a rub-down, a metal detector and three sets of locked doors – almost as if this were a prison, rather than a holding facility for some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Hundreds of female asylum-seekers are housed in Yarl’s Wood. The centre opened in 2001 and is run by the private security company Serco, tucked away on an industrial estate among the rolling Bedfordshire fields. The people locked up here have done nothing wrong, unless it is now considered morally abhorrent to come to a new country with nothing and ask for shelter.

To arrive in Britain seeking asylum today is to sink into a bureaucratic nightmare in which you are no longer a person. You are a problem to be dealt with. You are a drain on a system that forbids you to work and insists on keeping you locked up at great expense – the former immigration minister Damian Green estimated it at £100 per person per night. You don’t know when, or if, you will be taken from your room and forced on to a plane in handcuffs, screaming and crying.

I visited Yarl’s Wood with help from the charity Women for Refugee Women and was able to speak to several of the inmates. Mary* is from Zimbabwe. She was at college when she was kidnapped and taken to the Border Gezi militia training camp. After a dangerous journey, she made her way to the UK and claimed asylum, and was staying with friends when she was picked up without warning and taken to Yarl’s Wood.

She has been here for five months and describes to me how the windows open only a crack, how you put your face against them to suck in fresh air from a world without locked doors or guards.

Across Europe, attitudes to refugees are hardening. In a climate of job losses and social unrest, anti-immigration parties are gaining popularity; mainstream politicians with little else to offer echo their rhetoric, promising to secure the borders. But imagine running from your home in fear for your life. Imagine making a long, hard journey that takes you far from your family and arriving in a strange new country you have been told is safe. Instead of the refuge you longed for, you are treated like a criminal, paraded in front of a series of border guards, most of them men, and made to repeat your story of trauma and abuse before being told that you’re a liar. Many of the women who arrive in this country as asylum-seekers have been victims of horrifying physical violence, some of it sexual.

“They ask you about it again and again,” Mary said. After she escaped the Border Gezi camp, guards tracked her down to her home, kidnapped her, raped her, beat her and left her to die in the bush. She tells this story almost without emotion, with the weary ease of somebody who has repeated it countless times and not been believed. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it with the men,” she said.

Last year, the Yarl’s Wood facility faced allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual contact between female inmates and Serco guards, several of whom were disciplined. Inmates described how vulnerable women allowed abuse to continue because they were led to believe it was the only way to get out of Yarl’s Wood. Serco maintains that alleged sexual contact is not “widespread” nor “tolerated”.

But another detainee to whom I spoke on the phone disagrees. She told me that one current trend is to burst in on women in the showers, especially when roll-call is going on.

This week, the campaign group Women for Refugee Women will protest outside the Home Office to demand an end to the inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers, and especially to indefinite detention in centres such as Yarl’s Wood. The novelist Zadie Smith called the facility a “shame to any civilised nation”. “I hate this place,” said Mary. “The way they are treating us, they treat us as if we are criminals, as if we are murderers.”

Yet even most murderers know that they eventually will be released. The people held in immigration detention centres across the country don’t know how long they’re going to be there, or if they will ever get out. That’s what makes indefinite detention so inhumane. In a week’s time, it might be Mary’s turn to be taken from her room in the middle of the night, forced on to a plane in cuffs and shipped out against her will, like so much industrial waste.

“If they give me my stay I’ll go to school,” Mary says. “I want to become a midwife. It’s always been my dream.” The NHS currently has a shortage of 2,300 midwives, and training one of them costs less than it does to hold a female prisoner in a detention centre at public expense for six months. Yet even for a nation that calculates the lives of human beings in pennies and finds the most vulnerable least deserving of care, this was never about the money. This is about political positioning.

At some point in the past ten years, “refugee” became a dirty word. At some point, “asylum-seeker” started to be spoken as a slur, as if to seek asylum – to flee persecution for a chance to live and work with dignity – were a shameful thing to do.

It should be an insult to anyone’s idea of justice that victims of persecution, torture and rape are imprisoned and treated as if they were worse than criminals. It’s time to shut down Yarl’s Wood and expunge everything it stands for.

*Names have been changed

3.5 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
Welcome to Marinaleda: The Spanish Anti-Capitalist Town With Equal Wage Full Employment and $19 Housing
Jade Small · 9,931 views today · With virtually no police, crime or unemployment, meet the Spanish town described as a democratic, socialist utopia. Unemployment is non-existent in Marinaleda, an Andalusian...
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 8,908 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
How a Trump Presidency Would Unleash a Torrent of Racist Violence-And Devastate the Left
Arun Gupta · 8,809 views today · The Left should take the Trump threat very seriously.
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 8,391 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
11 Traits of People With High Emotional Intelligence
Raven Fon · 6,830 views today · Lately, new ways to describe human interactions, social behaviours, and many facets of psychology have emerged on the social network scene. One of those descriptions is “high...
Maya Angelou's 3-Word Secret to Living Your Best Life
3 min · 5,168 views today · Dr. Maya Angelou says that in order to be the best human being you can be, you must follow one simple directive: "Just do right." Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals how you can never...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 5,141 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Forest Man
16 min · 4,802 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
Doctors Response to Daily Mail Bigotry is Beautiful
Neil Tiwari · 3,993 views today · A poetic open letter to the Daily Mail newspaper from Dr. Neil Tiwari, in response to a bigoted attack on his colleagues, is going viral and it's beautiful.
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 3,535 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Superblocks: How Barcelona Is Taking City Streets Back From Cars
5 min · 3,462 views today · Modern cities are designed for cars. But the city of Barcelona is testing out an urban design trick that can give cities back to pedestrians.
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 3,337 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Ilze Peterson · 3,328 views today · Many years ago, the late Judy Guay, a low-income woman from Bangor, founded the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods in order to advocate for the neediest in our...
Fighting Trump - Residents Opposing Donald Trump's Scottish Golf Resort
14 min · 3,313 views today · Documentary on the residents protesting against Donald Trump's golf development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Directed and Presented by James Trosh.
10 Provocative Quotes from Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society"
Daniel Lattier · 3,292 views today · Ivan Illich’s groundbreaking book Deschooling Society (1971) offers a radical critique of the institutionalization of education within modern societies. Illich believed that we...
Alan Watts: What If Money Was No Object?
3 min · 2,879 views today · How do you like to spend your life? What do you desire? What if money didn't matter? What if money was no object? What would you like to do if money were no object? Spoken...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 2,197 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 2,079 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
Capitalism Is Just a Story - Rise Up and Create a New One
6 min · 1,631 views today · How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of...
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 1,570 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Yarl's Wood detention centre shames Britain - when did "refugee" become a dirty word?