UK Immigration Removal Centre A Place of 'National Concern': Report

A controversial British immigration removal centre has been described as a "place of national concern," by the country's prisons watchdog, who says that conditions at the detention centre have "deteriorated significantly" in the past two years.

Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire currently holds 354 detainees most of whom are single women waiting for their immigration status to be resolved. The centre also holds a small number of adult families and has a short-term holding facility for single men.

The report, published on Wednesday by Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick, detailed allegations of misconduct by staff and found that levels of healthcare had declined severely. 45 percent of women interviewed said they felt unsafe at the centre, while the report also raised concerns about the length of time some women were being held for. It found that in the six months prior to the inspection, 894 women had been released back into community, more than double the number of detainees who had been deported from the UK (443). According to the report, these figures "raises questions about the validity of their detention in the first place."

Some female asylum seekers said staff treated them like "animals", and one said staff called her racist names. One woman reported sexual contact between staff and detainees and four others claimed inappropriate sexual comments had been made by workers at the centre. "Our whole lives have been changed by Yarl's Wood," one said. The report also found that there were too many male staff, leading to men being used "inappropriately"—in healthcare and constant supervision roles—and both male and female staff entered women's rooms without knocking, described as "unacceptable" in the report.

Yarl's Wood has grown in notoriety over the last few years after reports emerged alleging poor treatment of detainees at the centre. During a protest by detainees in 2002, half of the complex was set on fire, and the facility has been hounded by claims that some guards have displayed racist, violent and abusive behaviour. In 2013, two male members of staff were sacked for having sexual contact with a female asylum seeker.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons last inspected the Yarl's Wood facility in June 2013, concluding that the centre was improving. However, this latest inspection, which took place in April of this year, found that in important areas the treatment and conditions of those held at the centre had "deteriorated significantly." Concerns raised in 2013 had reportedly not been resolved and vulnerable women appeared to be experiencing greater distress because of conditions at the centre.

At the time of the most recent inspection, 15 detainees had been held for between six months and a year, and four had been held for more than a year. One detainee had been in Yarl's Wood for 17 months. The report, which also reviewed 2014 cases, found that 99 pregnant women had been held at the centre, despite the Home Office's own policy stating that pregnant women should not normally be detained. Only nine of these women were eventually removed from the UK.

In one case, a woman who said she had come to the UK after she was raped at gunpoint by three men, and who was suffering from panic attacks, sleep loss and flashbacks, was detained as the Home Office concluded that rape did not constitute torture in her case. Where it is considered that a detainee might have been a victim of torture, the Home Office will evaluate whether continued detention is appropriate but rape is evaluated on a case by case basis. The report recommends that rape should be considered a form of torture.

"Yarl's Wood has deteriorated since our last inspection and the needs of the women held have grown," Hardwick writes in the report. "In my view, decisive action is needed to ensure women are only detained as a last resort. Depriving anyone of their liberty should be an exceptional and serious step."

A Newsweek reporter visited Yarl's Wood under cover last November, and found that there was inadequate emergency healthcare for women, including one case where a woman had suffered a stroke which left her paralysed down one side, but said she had just been given Paracetamol and put to bed. Many other detainees were reportedly suffering mental health issues.

Responding to the most recent report, a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement that the findings were "disappointing."

"A number of the findings in this report are extremely disappointing. Working with our partners, we want to make sure standards in the centre improve, especially regarding the provision and delivery of healthcare," the statement read.

"We are committed to treating all detainees with dignity and respect. We aim to protect the health and wellbeing of those we are detaining at all times so we are pleased that this report finds that 80 percent of detainees surveyed said staff treated them with respect.

The Home Office says that most people detained under immigration powers spend only very short periods in detention. "The majority of people in immigration detention—63%—leave detention within 28 days and the overwhelming majority—93%—leave detention within four months."