MJ: Expecting Change: the case for ending the immigration detention of pregnant women

Stillbirth, miscarriage and acute psychosis are amongst the problems experienced by pregnant women held in immigration removal centres, according to a disturbing new report.
The report, Expecting Change: the case for ending the immigration detention of pregnant women, is released today (June 11th) by the charity Medical Justice. It exposes the injustice and ineffectiveness of detaining pregnant women for immigration purposes.
93 pregnant women were held in the main immigration detention facility for women, Yarl’s Wood in 2011. The primary purpose of detention is removal, yet this research and a previous Medical Justice audit show that only around 5% of pregnant women were successfully removed. Removal of pregnant women is difficult because the Home Office is no longer permitted to use force on them, following a court case earlier this year.
The report backs calls made by Asylum Aid in its women’s charter, which was signed by 337 different organisations, for an end to the detention of pregnant women.
Experts say that travelling to a malarial area is higher risk for pregnant women than other groups, yet the government persists in trying to effect these removals.
Asylum seeking women have poorer health outcomes during and after childbirth than others. Many women in the report were victims of rape, torture and trafficking. The healthcare they received was inadequate and fell short of the NHS equivalent. Healthcare staff failed to identify and manage some of the complex cases.
Natasha Tsangarides, the report’s author said: “The results show that the current policy of detaining pregnant women for immigration purposes is ineffective, unworkable and damaging. We estimate that the government could save £800,000 per year if it stopped detaining and forcibly removing pregnant women.”
Diane Abbott MP, Labour’s shadow public health minister and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington said: “The government cannot go on turning a blind eye to this.  This inhumane treatment of women who are pregnant is a hidden national scandal.”
Louise Silverton, Director for Midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives said: “The detention of pregnant asylum seekers increases the likelihood of stress, which can risk the health of the unborn baby. Midwives can only work in the context of what they are allowed to do by their managers. The very process of being detained interrupts a woman’s fundamental human right to access maternity care. The detention system makes it very difficult for midwives to put women at the centre of their care. We have concerns that the system in place actively inhibits the provision of good care. This is an untenable situation for midwives.”
Dr Tony Falconer: President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) said: “Pregnant asylum seekers and refugees are often very vulnerable and any form of detention puts them and their babies at greater risk.  We must ensure that these pregnant women receive high quality NHS maternity care. This includes antenatal support and access to purpose-built medical facilities away from detention centres.”
The Medical Justice report calls on the government to stop detaining pregnant women and says that detaining pregnant women is not serving any purpose: the costs are great and the damage to women’s health can be considerable.
The Home Office does not know how many pregnant women are detained. Without this knowledge it is difficult to see how the government is able implement its own policy of detaining pregnant women in only very exceptional circumstances.
People can be held in immigration detention indefinitely and the decision to detain is not subject to automatic judicial oversight. Self-harm, hunger strikes and reports of assault and racism are common. In separate cases in the past two years, the High Court has ruled that the care of four people held in immigration detention amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.
About Medical Justice’s Report
Medical Justice is an expert charity that challenges inadequate healthcare provision to immigration detainees. The report is based on detailed analysis of 20 cases and an earlier audit of 56 cases.