My constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green in north London is a diverse one. One hundred and eighty languages are spoken in our schools and people from every corner of the globe have made it their home. Since being elected in May, I’ve already helped a number of residents with immigration and asylum casework and I’ve heard from many more who are concerned at the way this Government is treating some of the most vulnerable. (Pics by Darren Johnson, www.idjphotography.com of August 15 2015 demo).
It is for those reasons that in June, I contacted the Immigration Minister to request a visit to Yarl’s Wood. It’s a place I’ve heard a lot about over the years. From the distressing Channel 4 undercover footage to the most recent independent inspection, where the Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick called it ‘rightly a place of national concern’. On September 10, Parliament will be debating the findings of a recent cross-party report on immigration detention. Before we do, I wanted to see conditions at one of the most high profile Immigration Removal Centres for myself and the summer recess seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Two months later, I was finally told that after being ‘carefully considered’ my request had been refused.
I suppose it should have come as no surprise after the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, had her request turned down last year. But as an elected Member of Parliament I’m shocked and appalled that I’m being denied the chance to see inside Britain’s biggest Immigration Removal Centre for women and deeply concerned that the Home Office seems so keen to avoid scrutiny. You have to wonder whether the ‘careful consideration’ included discussion of the fact I spoke out during the election campaign against the detention of pregnant women and women who have suffered torture, sexual abuse or trafficking.
Would a Conservative MP have seen their request turned down?
Somewhat ironically, when denying my visit the Home Office cited the need to protect the ‘privacy and dignity’ of the women held there. Sadly, this is somewhat contradicted by the recent independent inspection report and the powerful research carried out by the charity Women for Refugee Women which showed little evidence of concern for privacy and dignity. Some 45% of the women detained there said they feel unsafe. Many spoke of male staff barging into their rooms without knocking or male staff watching them be rub-down searched. Some of the most vulnerable women on suicide watch spoke of sexual harassment as male guards watched them sleeping, using the toilet or showering. One ex-detainee told of a bladder problem she got because she didn’t want to have to use a toilet in front of a man.
These are women who have escaped unspeakable traumas. Women who in many cases have survived rape, sexual violence and torture and who have fled across the world to try and find safety. I would love to see concern for these women’s ‘privacy and dignity’ but surely it is practices at Yarl’s Wood that need to change to achieve that?
This country has always had a proud history of helping people flee persecution, but I am concerned that we are losing that reputation. The UK is now the only country in the European Union not to have an upper time limit on detention and some people are held for months or years without knowing when they are likely to be released. What cost this to already vulnerable people’s mental health? Women at Yarl’s Wood have spoken of how being locked up forces them to relive the trauma they thought they’d escaped and the recent inspection report revealed that levels of self-harm have almost tripled since the last inspection in 2013, with 72 instances in six months.
What purpose is served by prolonged detention? On a purely practical level it’s much more expensive than keeping people in the community – costing around £40,000 per year per person. In 2013, two-thirds of women leaving Yarl’s Wood were released to continue with their claims in the community so what was achieved, apart from more anguish and suffering, by locking them up in the first place?
The cross-party report on immigration detention that I’ll be debating in September makes some specific recommendations on the experiences of women, including an immediate end to the detention of pregnant women and survivors of rape or sexual violence. It also recommends a 28 day limited be introduced for all immigration detention. I support these recommendations and will be there in the Chamber to take part in the debate. You can read their full report here.
I want to go to Yarl’s Wood to see for myself what goes on in our Government’s name and to make sure these women’s stories are heard in Parliament. As an elected representative, I won’t give up my fight for access. I have written to the Home Secretary Theresa May MP to urge her to step in and launched a petition to put pressure on the Home Office to think again (here). Please sign and share.
Catherine West is the Member of Parliament for Hornsey and Wood Green