Yarl’s Wood: A history

Jul 26

2001: Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre opened in November 2001 and cost approximately £100 million to build with a capacity to hold 900 asylum seekers. GSL won the contract to manage the centre.

2002: In February, a huge fire destroyed half the building, reportedly triggered after a 51 year old woman was physically restrained by staff. When the fire started the Head of Group 4 security ordered all staff to exit the building, locking the detainees and some staff inside the timber framed building. Five people were injured.

2003: An undercover Daily Mirror reporter took a job as a security guard at Yarl’s Wood. The front page of the newspaper found he ‘discovers a culture of abuse, racism and violence that SHOULD appall us all.’

2004: The Ombudsman published a report on the investigation into the Daily Mirror’s allegations. Thirty recommendations are made. The report concluded: “…most of the things Mr Sommerlad said happened did happen. However, I have also concluded that these do not indicate a culture of racism and improper use of force.”

2005: Manuel Bravo, an asylum seeker from Angola, commits suicide in Yarl’s Wood. He fled to the UK after his prodemocracy
activity led to attacks on his family, including the murder of his parents. He was due to be forcibly returned to Angola where his wife and other child had been returned to and subsequently either disappeared or were imprisoned. In fear of future persecution, he took his own life, hoping his son would be allowed to remain safely in the UK.

2006: HMIP did an investigation into the quality of healthcare and found weak governance systems, insufficient training and policies and that healthcare service was not geared to meet the needs of those with serious health problems. In response to the Inquiry, Alistair Burt MP said; “[The inquiry] was ‘appalling’ in what it revealed and should be a source of shame to those involved .. I am not totally surprised at the results, though shocked and genuinely appalled at the depth of failures revealed and inadequacies of those with care and responsibility for detainees … [IND’s] repeated attempts to removed sick detainees went beyond comprehension and decency”. In the same year, Legal Action for Women found that 70% of female detainees had been victims of rape in their home country and some detainees reported sexual and racial intimidation by guards.

2007: There was a hunger strike involving over 100 women. In this year, Serco takes over the management of the centre from GSL.

2008: The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) notes in their report on Yarl’s Wood: ‘the existence, as we see it, of a culture of scepticism about detainees’ medical conditions.(…) The plight of mentally-ill and disturbed detainees continued to concern the IMB in 2008.’

2009: The Independent Monitoring Board, in its 2009 annual report, reported its concerns about the healthcare department’s responsiveness and about psychiatric provision. In 2009, HMIP noted inadequate support mechanisms and poor management of self- harm: “Many women were extremely anxious about their future, and the quality of support procedures for those at risk of self-harm was not consistently good, though there was some caring individual work. There had been no assessment of adult mental health needs.”

2010: Up to 84 women go on hunger strike in protest against the poor conditions, separation from their children, poor health care, insufficient legal representation and their indefinite detention. Yarl’s Wood hunger strikers clash with staff after women are trapped in an airless corridor. Over 50 women are left in the corridor for six hours without water or toilet facilities, and four women faint during this time. Allegations of staff beating some of the women, racial abuse and using riot shields are reported. Early Day Motion (EDM) 91954 is tabled in response asking for an immediate inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP). 51 MPs signed the EDM.

2011: A guard who is found to have got a detainee of Yarl’s Wood pregnant is dismissed.  The Guardian also uncovers that women detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre are being paid 50p an hour for menial tasks, leading to accusations of exploitation. HMIP publish a report stating that: ‘Too many pregnant women, who should only have been held in exceptional circumstances, were detained in the centre.’

2012: Damian Green MP confirms that restraining pregnant women to effect their removal is government policy. HMIP late recommends (following an inspection of Cedars) that force should never be used on pregnant women as there is no safe way of protecting the unborn child. UKBA reject the recommendation. In this year, Yarl’s Wood also started admitting male detainees for the first time since the 2002 fire.

2013: On 22 February 2013 following a judicial review on behalf of a pregnant woman and four children (R on the application of Chen and Others v SSHD CO/1119/2013) UKBA re-published a policy prohibiting the use of force on pregnant women and children save for where it is absolutely necessary to prevent harm.