Let’s make Yarl’s Wood a thing of the past: Dr Melanie Crofts shares her view

Date 13.11.2015

Dr Melanie Crofts​, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Northampton, asks: how can it be deemed appropriate, in a so called civilised society, to lock up vulnerable and desperate people?

“On Saturday 6 June, I attended a demonstration at Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire. The event was organised by Women for Refugee Women and speakers included Juliet Stevenson (actor), Josie Long (comedian), Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty), Helena Kennedy QC (human rights lawyer), Natalie Bennett (Green Party leader), Nimko Ali (social activist and campaigner), Richard Fuller MP (Bedford and Kempston) and Caroline Criado-Perez (feminist activist and journalist).

So why were we demonstrating?

Yarl’s Wood is an immigration detention centre (now called removal centre) which can accommodate around 400 detainees, mainly adult women, although there are some families detained in the family unit. The power to detain in immigration cases has its legal footing in the Immigration Act 1971 Schedules 2 and 3, and in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 Section 62.

In short, a decision to detain someone can be made by immigration and/or Home Office officials and most often detention occurs whilst an application to stay in the UK is being considered, or pending a decision to remove or where the decision to remove/deport someone has been made.

In the early years of the passing of the 1971 Act detention was used relatively infrequently and for short periods of time, for example where a person had been refused leave to enter at the port of entry in the UK and was detained until they could be placed on the next flight/boat back, often only being detained overnight.

With an increase in asylum claims, the deprivation of liberty has become much more frequent and for extended periods of time, often for months and even years.

Detention is routinely used as a method of managing the immigration and asylum process, for administrative convenience. Little distinction is made between the detention of asylum seekers and detention for other reasons, for example people breaching their visa conditions by working.

Clearly there are humanitarian and human rights considerations when detaining asylum seekers, not that the detention of anyone for immigration reasons is, in my view, justified. Where a person is proven to pose a risk to the public there are established legal routes in place outside of the immigration system to deal with this. However, the courts have held that the policy of detaining asylum seekers does not breach Article 5.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (no-one shall be deprived of his liberty…) and detention for immigration purposes did not need to be necessary in order for it to be lawful.

The fast track system

Despite the policy of detaining asylum seekers being regarded as generally lawful, there has been a lot of criticism of the policy. The frequent, almost routine, use of detention has been exasperated by the introduction of the fast-track decision making process for asylum claims. Following several legal challenges, the process was found to be unlawful, and was suspended last month. Over 300 people detained in the fast track have since been released.

Research into Detained Fast Track (DFT) shows that often cases were inappropriately fast-tracked as not all of the information about a person’s asylum claim is known to the official making the decision to fast-track. This has led to complex asylum claims not being appropriately considered. In addition, Clayton has suggested that “… people who are seriously mentally ill, women in the late stages of pregnancy and families including children”[1] as well as people who have survived torture have been inappropriately fast-tracked and detained.

Abuse by staff at Yarl’s Wood

Yarl’s Wood was once again in the public eye after a Channel 4 undercover documentary in March 2015 which alleged that detainees were mistreated. The centre has faced allegations of mistreatment and inappropriate behaviour by staff since it was opened in 2001.

Many of the women held in the centre were previously victims of abuse and sexual violence, some having been trafficked into the UK. How can it be deemed appropriate, in a so called civilised society, to lock up vulnerable and desperate people? Is this really the kind of society we want to live in, where administrative expediency takes precedence over compassion and humanity?

The detainees of Yarl’s Wood do not pose a threat to society. They have not committed any offences, and as the Inspectorate of Prisons report highlighted: “None of those held at Yarl’s Wood were there because they had been charged with an offence or had been detained through normal judicial circumstances.” (HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (June 2013) p5). Yet there is evidence to suggest that the detention of people in such circumstances has significant and long term psychological impact: “Psychiatric assessment indicated the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in adults and children to have increased markedly since the participants were detained.”(Robjant, Hassan, Katona (Mar 2009) p310)

Yarl’s Wood is not the only removal centre in the UK and although some of the issues highlighted are specific to the detention of women, there are serious concerns raised about the detention of all asylum seekers and people waiting to have their immigration status determined or those awaiting removal from the UK.

Detention is not the answer and there are more humane ways of accommodating people. This issue reminds me of a powerful sentiment expressed by Mahatma Ghandi that the more helpless something or somebody is, the more entitled they are to protection from the cruelty of man.”

[1] Clayton, G ‘Textbook on Immigration and Asylum Law’ 2014 OUP, p381