As Kate Middleton gives birth to the third heir to the throne, around 100 pregnant women continue to be detained in the UK for immigration purposes each year. A research report by Medical Justice has shown that the current policy of detaining pregnant women is ineffective, unworkable and damaging.
The report, Expecting Change: the case for ending the immigration detention of pregnant women, exposes the plight of innocent pregnant women who seek sanctuary in the UK. These women find themselves locked up and mistreated in the country where they thought they would be safe at last.
One woman who lost 7kg whilst pregnant in immigration detention said: "UKBA [UK Border Agency] put me and my unborn baby's life at risk. I was not a criminal: I never breached the law in the UK. I just claimed asylum and asked for refuge. But UKBA put me there and kept me in a detention centre for seven months as a pregnant woman, for no reason."
Unlike Kate Middleton, the women in our report received inadequate healthcare and the outcomes, in some cases, were tragic. Maria was restrained and forcibly removed to her home country by four escorts. A few months after her return, she suffered a stillbirth. Anna, who had complained for three weeks about abdominal pains, was sent to A&E where she miscarried with two guards in attendance. She subsequently attempted suicide and was admitted into a psychiatric ward.
Asylum seeking women have poorer maternity outcomes than the general population. Many women in the report were victims of rape, torture and trafficking. However, the healthcare they received fell short of the NHS equivalent: staff failed to identify and manage complex pregnancies; inappropriate medication was prescribed; healthcare records were incomplete; interpreters were unavailable; and informed consent was rarely given.
The Home Office does not know how many pregnant women there are in detention. In addition, the research shows that Home Office caseowners rarely factored in a woman's pregnancy when reviewing the decision to continue to detain her. This is against Home Office policy.
The primary purpose of immigration detention is removal from the UK, yet this research and a previous Medical Justice audit based on 75 cases show that only around 5% of pregnant women were successfully removed. This is because in the majority of cases, there is no medically safe way to return them.
Instead of women being removed from the UK, they are released back into the community, often late in their pregnancy, further disrupting their continuity of care. One woman in the sample was moved a total of five times during her pregnancy to different locations, and there was evidence that immigration detention had a negative impact on women's mental health.
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."
Hundreds of NGOs, along with Royal Colleges, lawyers and human rights activists have called for the disturbing practice of detaining innocent pregnant women, who seek sanctuary in the UK, to end. Detaining pregnant women is not serving any purpose: the costs are great and the damage to women's health can be considerable.