Three-quarters of women who have claimed asylum in the UK and are held in detention centres have experienced rape or torture in their home countries, a charity has claimed. Women for Refugee Women are publishing a new report, which reveals 85% of some 46 female detainees interviewed had been either raped or tortured.
Home Office guidelines say that victims of torture should only be detained in 'exceptional circumstances', the charity added. But the charity found that nearly 2,000 women (1,867) who sought asylum were detained in 2012, most of them in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, in Bedfordshire, but only 674 or 36% were removed from the UK with others released into the country.
The charity has called for women who state they have experienced rape, sexual violence and other torture not to be detained while their claims are being considered. Labour peer Baroness Helena Kennedy QC said: "If we cannot provide comfort and safety to those who arrive on our shores having suffered torture, the horrors of war and cruelty of the most extreme kind, we have lost a sense of our own humanity."
This report is being launched at Parliament at an event hosted by Stella Creasy MP. It also reveals that 83% of women interviewed said that they felt depressed and more than half thought about killing themselves with one in five saying they had tried to take their own life in detention. Most of the women interviewed had been guarded by male staff, the charity added, with 70% of them adding that this made them uncomfortable.
Women reported that male staff had guarded them on suicide watch and that they were looked at on the toilet and in the shower, the report adds. Natasha Walter, founder of Women for Refugee Women, said: "Most of the women interviewed for this research had experienced extreme persecution and detention had a negative impact on their mental health.
"We believe asylum claims should be considered while women are living in the community at less cost to the taxpayer and less distress to the women themselves."
TOP STORIES TODAY
Among women interviewed was Tua, 36, from Cameroon, who was trafficked into prostitution after escaping a forced marriage and was detained over the summer.
Lydia Besong, who was imprisoned and tortured for her political activities in the Cameroon and was detained twice in the UK, said: "For me, being locked up reminded me so much of being put in prison back home, it brought back all the memory of torture. "They put me on suicide watch because I was so depressed. They were watching me 24/7."
The charity has also called for no male staff to be employed in Yarl's Wood where they come into contact with women detainees. It also wants refused asylum seekers who have been detained immediately prior to removal to be held for the shortest possible time with an upper time limit of 28 days on all immigration detention.
Refugee Council policy officer Judith Dennis said: "This report's findings are shameful, if not surprising. "The Refugee Council has long campaigned for the detention of all asylum seekers to end. No asylum-seeking woman should ever find herself behind bars: seeking asylum is a human right, not a crime. Detaining asylum seekers is unnecessary, ineffective and expensive.
"If the Home Office insists on detaining people then it should endeavour to meet basic standards of decency. Women should not be subjected to further suffering at the hands of the UK Government. They've suffered enough."
A Home Office spokesman said: "Detention and removal are essential parts of effective immigration controls. It is vital these are carried out with dignity and respect and we take the welfare of our detainees very seriously. We operate a comprehensive complaints system for anyone who feels they have not been treated in accordance with our standards and all complaints are investigated thoroughly."