Yarl’s Wood: the vulnerable women locked up in Britain’s detention centres

According to recent findings from Women for Refugee Women, around 2,000 women who are seeking refuge in the UK are detained per year. Of these women, the vast majority (between 77% and 85%) are victims of sexual, domestic and gender-based violence.

These women are most commonly held in Bedfordshire’s Yarl’s Wood, widely regarded as Britain’s most infamous detention centre. Almost 90% of Yarl’s Wood’s inmates are female, and many have been subject to rape, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and sex trafficking in their home countries. For many of these women, these experiences have prompted their asylum claim in the UK, and for others, they have formed a harrowing part of the wider persecution they have fled from.

Mental health triggers and re-traumatisation

According to a report released by Women for Refugee Women in 2017, which followed on from a set of interviews they conducted with women held in Yarl’s Wood, all of those surveyed showed signs of depression. 88% stated that their mental health issues had deteriorated as a direct result of their time in Yarl’s Wood; just under half had considered suicide; and two women interviewed had attempted suicide.

For many, being physically incarcerated directly triggered memories of their own abuse — many had been held hostage; held against their will; restrained; tortured; and/or physically forced to have sex. Others found the experience so emotionally challenging and draining that their mental health issues were indirectly exacerbated by being detained. In both these series, abused and vulnerable women were effectively re-traumatised, triggering new and existing mental health issues such as anxiety and PTSD.

Mistreatment and poor conditions

As part of Women for Refugee Women’s ongoing campaign to assess and resolve issues with the experiences of women seeking asylum and detained in the UK, the group also investigated the living conditions at Yarl’s Wood.
In all of the reports on the subject which were released by the group, spanning from 2014 to 2017, women who were interviewed described staff members walking in on them while they were showering or getting changed. Many also described instances of sexist and racist language from staff members, and some also made allegations of sexual assault from staff members. While charges have not been filed, these kinds of allegations are not uncommon in Yarl’s Wood; with six sexual assault allegations being made against staff members between 2013 and 2016.

Trans women in detention

While asylum-seeking transgender women are often targeted with some of the same forms of violence and abuse in their home countries, they also experience other forms of trans-specific abuse and discrimination, ranging from deliberate misgendering to criminal punishment.

The vast majority of LGBT+ asylum-seekers flee their home countries because they fear persecution based on their sexuality or gender-identity. Because of the nature of social stigma and laws in such countries – in which identifying as LGBT+ is condemned or prosecuted — many trans asylum claimants have not been able to be open about their gender-identity during their lifetimes. Legally, this becomes an issue when trying to prove an asylum claim; asylum cases require some form of evidence to prove that the applicant’s fears are ‘genuine and well-founded.’ For LGBT+ asylum applicants, finding this evidence can be particularly hard; many have not been able to be open about their identity or preferences, and while others may have been able to tell a select few friends/relatives, it is common that these friends or relatives may refuse to give the required witness testimonies to prove that the applicant’s sexual or gender-identities are genuine. This is rooted in a fear that they themselves may be socially or criminally punished in their home countries if they do.

In detention centres, this means that trans detainees are often discriminated against more than most, with staff members attributing their lack of formal evidence, or the way in which they present themselves, to their dishonesty. Stonewall has found that transgender women seeking asylum experience the most prejudice and mistreatment from staff-members, with the default approach being to treat them as though they are trying to scam the asylum system in some way. (Note from editor: a more in-depth text on transgender asylum seekers will follow shortly.)

Expense and effectiveness

As well as raising serious ethical questions, the detention process is also highly ineffective and costly.

85% of the women who were detained in the UK between 2016 and 2017 were released back into the community to wait out the rest of their claim. Many of them went on to be granted refugee settled status, and successfully apply for British citizenship. The use of detention as a method, then, is useless in these cases; these women could just have easily spent their entire claims living out in the community, instead of having to undergo the gruelling detention process.

Additionally, if the Home Office had chosen to take this route instead, it would have saved significant costs. The estimated daily cost of detaining one single asylum-seeker is £87.71 per day, whereas if this same asylum-seeker is allowed to live in the community, they will receive a maximum of £36.95 per week. To put this into perspective, this equates to £5.27 per day.

Detaining women who have been victims of violence and abuse is immoral, ineffective and uneconomical. It would make much more sense, from every one of these angles, to allow these women to live in the community, where they can receive the temporary refuge they are entitled to while waiting for the results of their asylum claim. Detention can no longer be the default if Britain is to properly provide the support and care that it pledges to.

Luna Williams


Luna Williams is a  political correspondent at the Immigration Advice Service (IAS). IAS is an organisation of immigration lawyers, which provides legal aid advice and support for asylum seekers, trafficking survivors, and domestic abuse survivors.

Photo: Oliver White