In August 2020 it became public knowledge that Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, well known for being the major detention centre for women in the UK, as well as the theatre of sexual abuses and mistreatments and related protests and contestations since its opening in 2001, was no longer being used for detaining women. Instead, it had been being repurposed to hold people crossing the Channel in search of refuge in the UK.
This change was made possible, by the advocacy efforts of anti-detention groups and activists, which had encouraged the government to release a large number of detained people in the community. Yet, it seems, the closure of Yarl’s Wood for women, has been only a temporary achievement. As earlier this month the Home Office announced the creation of a new women-only detention centre on the site of the former Hassockfield Detention Centre, in Medomsley (County Dhuram), a site known for the abuses and sexualised violence committed by prison staff against imprisoned teenagers. In addition, a network of immigration detention units for women is to be set up in existing immigration removal centres, on top of the ones already existing in Colnbrook and Dungavel IRCs. The new detention centre is expected to open next autumn and detain around 85 asylum-seeking women.
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My current research project looks at women’s experiences of detention in the UK, Italy and Portugal, and analyse them in light of a feminist intersectional framework that acknowledges the interplay between gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and other structural determinants that shape women’s experiences in context.
The majority of the women I met during the twelve years I have been working on detention, as a feminist advocates and researcher, have suffered a wide range of forms of gendered violence, including sexual, domestic and/or reproductive violence. However, their experiences are rarely acknowledged as a ground for protection.
In countries of origin, women’s experiences range from restrictions on their liberty and self-determination related to gendered norms and prescriptions, to forced marriages, domestic violence and rape. To escape these situations and change their lives for the better, women often embark on difficult journeys, during which they are exposed to multiple forms of torturous violence. Many report extensive experiences of rape, sometimes at the hands of law enforcement. Overall, women on the move face a lot of visible and invisible patriarchal forms of violence and for this reason they deserve particular care upon arrival.
Unfortunately, women’s problems often do not cease upon arrival. As many women have revealed in their conversations with me, the ‘precarious life’ they sought to escape through migration often persisted in destination countries. Sexism, violence and exploitation, although materialised in different forms and through other means, continued to affect them. These problems are exacerbated by harsh immigration policies adopted by most countries. Women’s vulnerabilities are amplified by the difficulty to obtain a secure immigration status and, the threat of being apprehended by State authorities and of being deported often prevent them from accessing social and healthcare service. The illegalisation they suffer also enhance their risk of entering abusive and exploitative relations, both intimately and at work. Very rarely, however, these abuses are reported to state authorities, due to women’s fear to be detained and deported.
During interviews I carried out in Colnbrook and Yarl’s Wood IRCs (from August to October 2019), the majority of the women I spoke with reported experiences of rape, domestic violence or other forms of gendered violence. These women had found it hard to disclose these experiences to their immigration caseworkers many of whom were men and almost none of whom had a specific expertise on gender violence. Women who did not have a good command of English usually relied on interpreting telephone services, which made things harder for them to disclose such matters. It also prevented the full and correct details of a woman’s case from being heard and assessed properly. Overall, most of the women I spoke to felt that their experiences of victimisation had not been adequately addressed in detention.
Some women I recently interviewed, who had been previoulsy detained in Yarl’s Wood, discussed the similarity between their experiences of gender violence and immigration detention. For these women, the lack of control in detention about everyday micro-decisions regarding their lives (such as the choice of what to eat and when), and the constant sense of uncertainty and fear that something bad could happen reminded them of domestic abuse and their sense of helplessness in the face of their partners’ violence. A woman also told me how the sound of the staff's steps in the corridors at night, and the jingle of the keys they brought with them, reminded her of when her abusive partner used to lock her up in a room for days: notably in detention women are locked up at night in their ‘rooms’ too.
While my work has always focused on those directly affected by immigration detention, it is clear that this form of confinement and related deportation also affects communities at large. Here the effects are legion. On the one hand, most people in detention have partners, children and family members in the community, and these people are severely affected too. More subtley, the practice of detaining foreign nationals under conditions that we know cause severe suffering has an effect on all of us, as it entrenches a politics of fear and mistrust of others which corrodes important human bonds between each other.
Based on this evidence, and on the knowledge of the gendered harms it cause, which rest also on the coloniality of its power structures, I believe we should all advocate for ending immigration detention, for women and for all.