Vulnerable detainees held at Yarl’s Wood ‘failed’ by Home Office, report claims

Victims of modern slavery and sex trafficking are being “failed” by the Home Office, with reports of women being detained for months or being released back to the addresses where they were abused, a report has suggested.

Anecdotal evidence from the much-maligned Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (pictured) claims women became suicidal through being locked-up, despite Government guidance stating those deemed to be particularly vulnerable should be released to safe-house accommodation.

The Women for Refugee Women (WRW) report into Yarl’s Wood heard testimonies from 14 Chinese trafficking victims, who spoke of the anguish they suffered as a result of being detained.

Women said they were often not released for weeks due to a lack of space in a safe house, while in another case the Home Office did not make a request for a suitable space and instead released a woman who had been forced into prostitution back to the address where she was being sexually exploited.

Many said their mental health deteriorated while at the Bedford-based facility, and also reported being screened by male staff and not being provided with an interpreter.

Natasha Walter, WRW director, said: “In all my time working with refugee and asylum-seeking women I have never heard stories more harrowing than those we are hearing from Chinese trafficked women in detention.

“These women have suffered extreme abuse and exploitation and do not receive the support and protection that is promised in policies.

“Instead, they are locked up and threatened with deportation. This situation must change now.”

According to the report, in nine of the 14 cases women had been forced into prostitution in brothels or massage parlours, and in five cases women had been forced to work in restaurants, or in other forms of forced labour, including domestic servitude.

Most of the women had managed to escape the exploitative situation by the time they were encountered by immigration enforcement and taken to Yarl’s Wood, the report found.

All 14 women included in the report have since been released from the centre and are seeking asylum.

One sex trafficking victim described how her removal to Yarl’s Wood was like being “taken from one hell to another”.

She said: “The gang leaders forced me to have sex with men who would come to the house where I was imprisoned.

“If I tried to refuse they would beat me and starve me. Then one day men in uniforms came to the house. I was terrified. They took me to Yarl’s Wood. I was taken from one hell to another.”

Shalini Patel, of Duncan Lewis solicitors who assisted the women involved in the report, said there was “clear incompetence and sheer disregard” for the safety of those “who have already been subjected to such horrendous sexual abuse and exploitation”.

She said: “These women are by no means fit for detention but despite this fact they are detained for months at a time with no adequate support.’

Labour MP Jess Phillips, who is due to lead a Westminster Hall debate on the detention of trafficking victims on Tuesday, said: “It is time to stand up for the most vulnerable women in our society. The Home Office must carry out its own policies on trafficked women and ensure that they are protected.”

Yarl’s Wood has come under repeated criticism in recent years, with a scathing inspection from 2015 describing the centre as a “place of national concern”, while a watchdog report two years later found many detainees continued to be held for too long. Several female detainees went on a hunger strike in 2018 over their treatment.

Yarl’s Wood has been run by outsourcing giant Serco since 2007. Last week the firm was fined £19 million after it overcharged the Government to carry out electronic tagging, prompting an audit of its contracts.

A Home Office spokesman said: “Detention is an important part of the immigration system – but it must be fair, dignified and protect the most vulnerable.

“We have made significant improvements to our approach in recent years, but remain committed to going further.

“We continue to explore alternatives to detention, increase transparency around immigration detention, further improve the support available for vulnerable detainees and initiate a new drive on detainee dignity.

“Any person we encounter who claims they are a victim of trafficking will, with their consent, be referred to the National Referral Mechanism. Their claim will then be considered by a trained specialist.”

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