Six miles north of Bedford on a desolate hill-top, Yarl’s Wood IRC is purpose built, by the same architects as Harmondsworth and to a similar pattern. It was originally designed for 900 beds as “the biggest immigration detention centre in Europe” but before it could be completed was destroyed, only three months after opening, in a night of riot and fire lead, probably, by exasperated people who had served prison terms for criminal activities, and then, instead of being released or promptly deported, found themselves indefinitely further detained awaiting deportation.
When re-opened it has been for women and families only; with the rare inclusion of families with only a male head (the only successful suicide was a detained father).
No child under 18 is purposely detained without a parent. Occasionally “age disputed” ” minors are held until their situation is clarified.
There have been three changes of Management; Group 4, who lost the job after the fire, GSL , and now Serco. Many junior staff have simply remained in post under successive employers. Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, the voluntary visiting group set up under the auspices of AVID., have struggled to maintain good relationships with staff at all levels, and are unusual in having consistently had a Quarterly Meeting between YWB Committee and the Centre’s Chief Executive and any senior managers who are considered appropriate, at which issues are aired and problems sometimes sorted.
By and large material conditions are acceptable, and most, (though not all), staff are genuinely caring; the areas of greatest concern are :
1. The scarcity of adequate professional legal advice on both asylum and detention issues. This is, of course, a national problem, lead by the drastic reductions in funding for legal aid cases. I do not know that YWIRC is any worse than other IRCs
Related to that; it is strange that, with a perfectly good courtroom on site, most bail hearings are latterly held with the detainee video-linked to a courtroom in Solihull, to which sureties are obliged to travel. In a recent criminal case it was considered unfair that the accused should face the court only by video-link and the case was rearranged so that the accused could be physically present in court. Why are asylum seekers treated worse than those accused of crimes? Why are local sureties obliged to undertake (at their own expense) a 130+ -mile round trip? (In my experience a few Sureties have even made the costly trip up from London) : bad enough when bail is granted, but infuriating when it is made clear from arrival in Wagon Lane Courthouse that the Judge is “not minded to grant bail” to an applicant whose papers have been available to him for several days….. (this has happened to me more than once).
2. The quality of education provided for children in the two schoolrooms. I have not personally witnessed this, but I have heard complaints from older, intelligent, children, and from a Befriender who is also a qualified schoolteacher. It is now obligatory for the schoolrooms to follow the National Curriculum (Why???) At one time, several years ago, there was a very sensible teacher who was able to use school time profitably to teach every child in her care as much about his or her country of destination as possible. Many children are born here, and are sent “ back” with very scant knowledge indeed of their “home” country; so this was compassionate, andentirely appropriate educationally. Why is this practice not allowed to become standard?
Although it is not supposed to happen, there have also been occasional instances of children in families picked up on the eve of or even during, public examinations, GCSEs etc. and, naturally, the more able and ambitious the children are, the more disturbing they find this when it happens.
2a Where should I record the bewildered revulsion of an llyr old girl who told me how she, her mother, and little sister, had been brought to the centre “ in a cage, like dangerous animals” in the back of a van?. She felt deeply humiliated and disturbed: (as if she did not have enough humiliating and disturbing factors in her life already.)
UKBA is now claiming its contractors no longer use cage-vans to transport children; and indeed on some occasions their arrest and transport is a model of dignity and compassion – if it could be appropriate ever to arrest and convey minors into detention : but a watch needs to be kept that old habits are not allowed to reassert themselves.
3. By far the most serious failing towards detainees held in Yarl’s Wood has always been the quality of health care provided. This is, allegedly, of the same standard as the NHS, but, as a detainee recently said, very simply, “when is the last time you went to your GP and were told you were “faking it”? Profit is the “bottom line” in the whole enterprise, and therefore, no matter how serious the illnesses presented, some of which may indeed be psychosomatic, (but how could that not be the case in a population under such stress facing compulstory returns into what so many are convinced are very dangerous situations indeed? ) very little is normally available except carefully rationed paracetamol . Sometimes referrals are made to the local Bedford Hospital, and, usually, detainees are taken to keep these appointments (provided the detainee has not been given knowledge of the date and tinme of the appointment in advance – for security reasons; one of the very few successful escapes was by a woman being taken to an out-patient clinic.). When hospitalised, security staff are always kept at the bedside; Al Aynesley-Green was deeply disturbed to find a child, with her mother in a children’s ward, surrounded by four uniformed guards, during the course of his investigations into children in detention..
The brutal, cynical “culture of disbelief” which has such a catastrophic effect on the vulnerable is very much in evidence among health-care staff. Many sick detainees find it hard, if not downright impossible, to consult health care in the face of such hostility; and often serious diseases go untreated inconsequence., particularly ones with a mental-health component. I am currently involved with a complaint to YWIRC management, because, purely by chance, I rang a detainee whom I was visiting, and she was in Health Care and, over he mobile phone I was able to hear some gratuitous verbal bullying of a peculiarly inappropriate, unprofessional nature, considering that the bully was a nurse in a supposedly professional relationship with her. At the time of writing, I do not know what the outcome will be.
Gill Butler, the current chair of YWB and a trained Mental health Nurse, was so disturbed by the multiple failures in care of one of the detainees she was visiting that she co-founded the new charity “Medical Justice”, which sends concerned but very “gung ho” doctors into IRCs as pro bono “private medical care” (to which detainees are entitled if they can et it.). Many seriously ill detainees have been helped, or even had their lives saved, through MJ. They often provide crucial reports detailing evidence of torture which have not been picked up by medical staff.
4. The primary core activity of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders is listening, confidentially, with respect and acceptance, to whatever the detainee chooses to tell us. As we have grown more skilled at this, many of us have become, almost against our will, experts at enabling survivors of all kinds of sexual abuses,( from culturally-imposed female genital mutilations of various kinds, to incest, to gang rapes as terror weapons in civil wars)., to speak of their ordeals, often for the first time. We reckon about 60+% of Sub Saharan African asylum-seeking women have suffered in this way; and in many instances rape, as a recognised form of torture, has a critical bearing on their asylum cases, but all too often they have either been disbelieved, or totally inhibited about speaking of it, especially if interviewed by a man.
Speaking out about such pain, while fundamentally healing to the victim, puts her under tremendous psychological stresses at the time, and is also pretty stressful for the
listener, who normally comes from a culture with no traditions of needing to cope with such horrors. With the help of Medical Justice , therefore, and with funding from Comic Relief, YWB has pioneered a training for people who Befriend such victims, and this is being made available to all groups of voluntary visitors to IRCs.
Bedford Friends’ Meeting has been consistently supportive to Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, and provides, free of charge, a venue for our monthly support group meetings; and also often hosts the AGM, besides taking an annual collection for us..
However, like most Meetings, Bedford has a great shortage of people able to take on serious commitments. Only one Friend, myself, has worked with Befrienders since the opening of Yarl’sWood Immigration Detention Centre in 2001 to the present day, (and I am thinking very seriously of retiring). Another Friend was during the first phase, both a doughty Befriender and also offered trained Counselling support to Befrienders who needed it as a result of the stresses of their work. He retired before the Centre was reopened in 2003, following the riot and fire of February 2002.
I was Chair from the Inaugural Meeting until May 2004, when I resigned the Chair some what abruptly, basically due to exhaustion., but continued to visit. I returned to the Committee in 2006, in order to take on the task of making appeals to trusts and funding bodies, because nobody else was willing and able to undertake this work.
In three years our financial position has improved from a debt of £1000 to an income just under £45,000, but there is no end to the ever-increasing needs of the organisation. Especially as it has become essential to take on a second paid co-ordinator, in order to deal with the proposed doubling of size back to the 900 places for which it was originally designed. This time there will be a separate men’s wing, as well as the current 405-bed wing for women and families.
It is as a result of visiting at Yarl’s Wood that I have come to understand the need for children awaiting removal to receive as much vaccination protection as possible before they are sent to countries to which their parents are being returned (but to which many children are going for the first time). This resulted in an article in The Friend of November 08, which apparently generated interest only among QARN members, there was no followup correspondence; but my Monthly Meeting, Luton & Leighton, did record it as my personal concern. For what that is worth. I am still struggling to obtain the necessary basic data from the Home Office.