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Damning official reports on The Verne and Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centres


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Yesterday The Verne Immigration Removal Centre was criticised by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for its “prison-like” regime and high levels of violence and today HMCIP described Yarl’s Wood as an issue “of national concern”. These are damning inspection reports and the Government’s only response is to express “disappointment” and point to the pending Shaw Review of welfare issues around immigration detention. More urgent action is needed to prevent further unnecessary suffering.

The Verne

True to its nature as a former prison, Verne Immigration Removal Centre was criticised for implementing a ‘punitive incentives scheme’ and a ‘high use of separation’. This included segregation of those with mental health needs. Other prison-like features were found, such as restriction of detainee movement, including to the chapel, as well as excessive razor wire and inner fencing.

High levels of violence, availability of illicit drugs and alcohol, and difficulty in obtaining legal representation were all cited by the report. Add this to the shameful length of detention, with one prisoner being held for over 5 years and almost 40 being held for over a year, and it is unsurprising that a sense of hopelessness has crept into those within the centre. This tragically manifested itself in the suicide of a detainee two nights ago.

The limited protection afforded by Rule 35 reports that is supposed to be available for vulnerable detainees who have experienced detention and torture in their own countries before coming to the UK was found to be failing.

The report did raise many positives, including educational and vocational training, and a gym. The transition from a prison is clearly underway, with the detainees “very positive” about their treatment by staff.

However, the difficulty of detainees leading any normal life in the centre was highlighted as a serious issue. The Verne’s remoteness in deepest Dorset makes family visits difficult, and there is no access to social media such as Skype. The internet room and the shop are far too small for demand, and the mobile phone signal is poor. Unlike other Immigration Removal Centres, there is no cultural kitchen enabling self-catering. Hygiene was a major issue, with cells described as “dirty”, and some toilets as “filthy”.

The prison-style earned privileges and punitive sanctions schemes were condemned as illegitimate for detainees. These sanctions included loss of internet access, restricted shop access, and loss of gym and work, making it all but impossible to live a normal, healthy life. These issues have led to tensions among the detainees (or should they be called inmates in light of the inspection?), which exacerbate the levels of violence at the centre.

The centre is clearly struggling to make the transition from prison to removal centre. If migrants are to be detained at all, it must at the very least be in a humane regimes, putting the independence, humanity and mental health of the detainees first. The Verne is failing on all counts.

Yarl’s Wood

The HMIP report on Yarl’s Wood is even more critical than that on The Verne. Yarl’s Wood is not a small detention centre: it housed 354 detainees at the time of the inspection. The treatment and conditions of those held at the centre was found to have deteriorated significantly since the last inspection in 2013 — matters are getting worse not better — and 45% of the women there said they felt unsafe. Healthcare was found to have declined “most severely” with pharmacy services described as “chaotic”.

Nearly 40% of detainees arrived at Yarl’s Wood between 10pm and 6am at night, which was a very poor introduction to life at the centre. Four women reported sexually inappropriate remarks by staff and there were two reports of sexual contact or abuse. Even though pregnant women are not “normally” supposed to be detained according to Home Office policy, 99 pregnant women had been held at Yarl’s Wood in 2014.Levels of self harm were said to be “high” and there were rising levels of violence reported. One woman reported that detainees were treated “like animals”.

The Rule 35 reports were said by inspectors to be “among the worst we have seen. All were handwritten and many were difficult to read, lacked detail and were perfunctory. Some responses were dismissive.” One woman was told by the Home Office that rape did not amount to torture and therefore she would not be released.

Detention was also found to be ineffective. In the six months prior to the inspection, 443 women were removed from the UK from detention at Yarl’s Wood but 894 were released back into the community after undergoing the trauma of detention there. 15 detainees had been held for between 6 and 12 months and one detainee for 17 months.

Seeking asylum and seeking a better life are not crimes. People should not be treated this way. Tinkering around the edges is not enough. It is #time4atimelimit.

With thanks to Paul Erdunast for the write up on The Verne.

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Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.