"There are many vulnerable women in Yarl's Wood - we are still here."
The words of an asylum-seeking woman locked up in Yarl's Wood detention centre earlier this year. Women for Refugee Women spoke to her as part of our research into vulnerable women in detention; her comment forms the title of the report that came out of that research, 'We Are Still Here: the continued detention of women seeking asylum in Yarl's Wood'.
In 2016, the Home Office responded to urgent concerns that have been voiced about the treatment of vulnerable people in detention. In September last year, the Adults at Risk policy came into force. For the first time in this policy the Home Office stated that women who had experienced rape and other gender-based violence such as FGM, forced marriage or forced prostitution shouldn't normally be detained.
We were hopeful that this would result in a reduction in the number of vulnerable people who are locked up when they come to this country to seek asylum. At the moment, the Home Office locks up over 1,500 women who have sought asylum every year, most of them in Yarl's Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire. The stories we continued to hear from Yarl's Wood, and the women we continued to visit, made us suspect that the new policy was not being properly implemented. As the Home Office would not share its own data about how the policy was being put into practice, we decided we needed to conduct our own research.
Speaking to twenty-six women over several months, both inside Yarl's Wood and those in the community who had been recently released, an alarming picture quickly built up.
A woman who had been trafficked to the UK, held hostage in a warehouse when she arrived here and raped by her traffickers was kept in Yarl's Wood for four months.
Another woman, a lesbian from a country where to be gay is illegal, had fled an abusive family member, who had raped her over a number of years, only to be detained on her arrival in the UK. Her mental health deteriorated in detention, where she was held for over six months, to the extent that she was contemplating attempting suicide. Indeed, almost half of the women we spoke to for the research told us that they had thought about taking their own lives in Yarl's Wood.
Of the women we spoke to, 85% were survivors of gender-based violence. Yet they had been detained since the new policy has been in force, and they were not released even when they told the Home Office about their prior experiences.
Much has been written about the negative impact, both physically and mentally, of detention, particularly for those who have already experienced trauma in their country of origin and have come to the UK to seek asylum. During the time I was writing this article, I took a call from a woman in Yarl's Wood, who was detained even though the Home Office accepted that she is a victim of torture. She told me, "I was kidnapped and raped for three days in my country. For me, Yarl's Wood is a second torture."
There is much that urgently needs addressing in order to ensure that the most vulnerable detainees are no longer locked up inside Yarl's Wood. There are immediate steps that could be taken. The Home Office needs to implement a screening process in order to identify vulnerable people before they are detained, and if they do disclose experiences of trauma in detention they should be released.
Last year we were pleased that the Home Office announced that there would be a time limit on the detention of pregnant women, so that they are now only detained for a maximum of 72 hours. However, we would like to see them go one step further and put in place an absolute exclusion from detention for pregnant women. With the healthcare in detention being as inadequate as it is, and the stress of detention being so great, Yarl's Wood is clearly not a place for a pregnant woman.
The indefinite nature of detention - we are the only country in Europe with no time limit on how long people can be detained - is also something that really affects people's mental health. Indeed, we only need to look at the case of Mabel Gawanas, an asylum-seeking woman from Namibia, who was released from Yarl's Wood in May of this year, after almost three years in detention, to see how protracted some stays in detention can become. Alongside other organisations who work in this area, we are therefore recommending that a time limit of 28 days is introduced. As one woman commented to us during the research, "If you ask me what's worse, prison or Yarl's Wood, I say Yarl's Wood because you do not know when you will leave Yarl's Wood."
Our last, and perhaps most important recommendation though, is that the Home Office needs to move away from the routine use of detention altogether in the asylum process. As we showed in our report 'The Way Ahead: An Asylum System Without Detention' earlier this year, there is clear evidence that there is no need to use detention in the asylum process. A system that does not use detention is not only more humane, it is actually more effective, and cheaper. Indeed, the UK has already taken some steps towards a more humane approach, through the Family Returns Process. Implemented in 2011 following the pledge to end the detention of children, the Family Returns Process has seen the detention of children in the UK reduce by 96%, and there has been no rise in absconding among families as a result.
The success of this process should be the basis of more widespread reform, and should give the government confidence in moving away from detention altogether. We owe it to the very vulnerable, and very brave, women who come to this country to seek safety. Each one of them deserves a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild her life.
Sarah Cope is Campaigns and Research Officer at Women for Refugee Women