This blog post was written by Rosa Heimer, an intern at René Cassin – a charity working to promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experience and values, and a member of the Detention Forum.

A considerably high number of women seek asylum in the UK on the grounds of gender-based persecution. Among those cases, the specific reason to claim asylum often relates to their past experiences of rape, torture and/or other forms of sexual abuses. The physical and psychological trauma arising from such experiences often leaves them in an extremely vulnerable position, which only deteriorates further when put through the detention system.

Although the detention of women who have suffered severe gender-based harm is unacceptable, it remains a common practice in the UK. A recent study by the organisation Women for Refugee Women (WRW) with 46 women who experienced detention while seeking asylum in the UK has found that 52% of those women felt that they were persecuted because they were women, while 18% felt they were persecuted because they were lesbians. An even more disturbing figure is that 33 of those women (72%) had been detained despite having been victims of rape.

‘Worse than prison’

The experience of being locked up in a detention centre has often been compared to being worse than being in prison, largely due to the uncertainty of not knowing how long they will be in detention or when they might suddenly be deported. An ex-detainee who spent 2 years in detention and was interviewed by René Cassin said that:

Detention is exactly like in prison but I would say even worse. I can tell because I spent 6 months in prison but prison is better than detention for two reasons. In prison I felt more useful because I was repaying my debt to the society and I was also working there. In prison, I knew when my detention will end; it even ended before because of my well behaviour. But in detention, you never know when it will end, you just wait and you are put from a centre to another.  [Ex-detainee]

In the particular case of women, many of who have sought asylum due to rape and torture, being imprisoned in a detention centre is doubly distressing if they go on to receive further discrimination according to their gender. WRW’s study reported that 61% of women had suicidal thoughts, 93% were depressed, 83% were lonely and 85% felt scared while in detention.

Compelling evidence

As part of René Cassin’s work, we collected testimonies from migrants who have experienced detention to be submitted as written evidence for the Parliamentary Detention Inquiry. Those willing to retell their stories have been brave enough to denounce the inhumane conditions of detention centres. Among the recounted stories, lack of gender sensitivity in detention and the serious damage it can cause on women appeared as a recurrent issue.

The testimony given by Clair to René Cassin powerfully illustrates some of these seriously unacceptable issues. Clair had been victim of sexual abuse by close family members since the early age of 17, after her father died she received death threats from her brothers and fled to the UK to seek asylum. Here in the UK her asylum claim was denied even though she was a victim of sexual violence. She was finally receiving appropriate help from the organisation Rape Crisis, when she was detained and sent to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Clair’s description of the conditions and mistreatment found in this centre and their impact on her is disturbing:

The way I was treated in detention was inhuman and degrading. I can never exactly explain how awful it was because I was physically and psychologically mistreated in detention. The conditions of detention are so awful that my health, especially my mental health, started deteriorating very quickly. I had nightmares, sleep disturbance, difficulties to eat and suicidal thoughts. [Clair, ex-detainee]

Despite being a victim of sexual violence, during her time in detention Clair never had access to counselling, even after several suicide attempts.  She describes the precarious access to health care in the centre:

In detention centres you don’t have real access to doctors, it’s just a formal access to respect the rules. When you manage to have an appointment, the doctors are there, in the room, you can see them but you cannot speak to them. You are just allowed to speak to a nurse but never directly to the doctors, the nurses always speak on your behalf and you have a limited amount of time so you can’t explain everything. […] Also even after my suicide attempts, I never had access to counselling or to psychiatric or psychological care. I was never able to speak to a psychiatrist or a psychologist to tell how I feel and I was just receiving medication despite the fact that I was in suicide watch.  [Clair, ex-detainee]

Male guards

It is clear that detention centres present a lack of appropriate health treatment for victims of sexual violence and women detainees in general. Furthermore, although the Yarl’s Wood Centre is a detention centre for women, it is predominantly staffed by male guards. The relation between detainees and guards is already intrinsically hierarchical and unequal gender relations only reinforce these dynamics.

WRW’s research found that 70% of women, guarded by male staff reported feeling uncomfortable. In addition, in Yarl’s Wood, it is common practice that male guards enter women detainees’ rooms without previous warning, clearly violating their right to privacy and often catching them while still undressed. Clair, for example, suffered a shocking humiliating attempt of deportation in which she was taken out of her room by several male guards while still being naked:

… in one attempt to remove me from the UK, I was dragged naked out of my room by several male guards. The conditions of my deportation were so shocking that it led to spontaneous protests by more than 100 woman detainees from the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. [Clair, ex-detainee]

The predominance of male guards in Yarl’s Wood Centre especially puts at risk those women who are the most psychologically vulnerable, namely, those who have attempted suicide. The centre operates a so-called ‘suicide watch’ system which is highly controversial. During the first UK Parliamentary Detention Inquiry oral evidence session, on 17th July 2014, two women previously detained in Yarl’s Wood Centre spoke about the way in which ‘suicide watch’ creates the conditions for women’s sexual harassment.

Because I’m very angry about the suicide watch so I have to say a little bit about it. Suicide watch, I think, they just made it to put you under even more mental torture. If you’re on suicide watch and your health is not good, but it’s not that bad, suicide watch can make it more bad. And I can tell you, anybody who is suicide watch has sexual harassment in Yarl’s Wood, because those male guards they sit in there watching you at night, sleeping and being naked.’  [Maimuna Jawo, ex-detainee]1

Alice who experienced first-hand sexual harassment while being in suicide watch also confirms Maimuna’s statements when giving her oral evidence in the Parliamentary Inquiry:

Yes, it’s true sometimes when you are washing, you need to remove something or, even if you need to go to the toilet, the guard will stay. After they are staying they are laughing and they are saying “she have big boobs”, “She have big breasts”. They are just laughing between themselves; they are just looking at you. [Alice, ex-detainee]2

Ongoing ordeal

Women with a history of sexual abuses and suicidal tendencies should not be kept in detention in the first place but this is even truer when the conditions in detention subject them to sexual harassment. Traumatising experiences with male guards are recurrently reported by women in detention. In WRW’s study 50% of women said they were verbally abused by male staff, three women reported being physically assaulted, and even more shockingly, one woman said she was sexually assaulted3.

It is outrageous that women asylum seekers fleeing their country due to persecution based on their gender are likely to suffer persecution based on this same aspect of their identity while in detention. In reality their persecution rarely ceases once they arrive in the UK, but is further perpetuated by the asylum system. The UK detention system is in need of urgent review.

1. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

2. APPG on Refugees and APPG on Migration Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the Use of Immigration Detention. 1st Oral Evidence Session. July 17th 2014. Available here.

3. Women for Refugee Women, ‘Detained: Women Asylum Seekers Locked Up in the UK’ by Marchu Girma, Sophie Radice, Natasha Tsangarides and Natasha Walter. Available here.