This piece was first published by openDemocracy on 18 November 2014.  Heather Jones is the Co-ordinator of Yarls Wood Befriends.  Eiri Ohtani is the Co-ordinator of the Detention Forum.

Next door to a Formula 1 car testing zone, hundreds of migrant women are kept behind bars. Heather Jones is a long-term visitor. 

Heather Jones is a co-ordinator of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a small charity that supports women held in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, England. The charity’s work is supported by a group of local ‘befrienders’ who offer detained women practical and emotional help.

Each detention centre in the UK has a visitors’ groups, although their scale and type of work they carry out vary enormously. Often these visitors groups are the only link to the local area where the detention centre is located. The quality of life in detention – and often their access to vital advice and services that might be life-saving – depends heavily on these volunteer visitors’ groups.  As part of the Unlocking Detention series, I asked Heather to share her experience of standing side by side with women who find themselves locked up in the middle of the industrial estate.

Eiri Ohtani: You have been doing this work for a number of years. Looking back over the years, what changes do you think life at Yarl’s Wood has gone through, both good and bad? 

Heather Jones: There have been many changes during the time I have been visiting Yarl’s Wood, and since it opened in 2001, when it was the largest migrant detention centre in Europe. Some of these changes have been positive. The best, by far, was the ending of the detention of children at Yarl’s Wood in the wake of public outrage in 2010.  Visiting a family with children was always extremely distressing.  The physical environment and the regime have been softened and there is now more freedom of movement within the centre.

Despite the well-publicised and wholly unacceptable treatment of some women in the centre, many women tell us that many staff are kind and supportive and some frequently go out of their way to be as helpful as possible. Sadly sometimes followed by another remark, that some of them are rude. Complaints about healthcare and food remain common. There have been noticeable efforts to provide more occupation for women during their detention and there do appear to be more female officers.  Some women do manage to keep themselves busy but many women are too distressed, or afraid, to leave their room and spend many hours in their room where time really drags.

The increase in the detained fast track places is not a positive change.  As already explored by Jerome Phelps in this series, women seeking asylum are rushed through a judicial process without sufficient time to prepare or obtain supportive evidence.  There is no opportunity to choose a solicitor they feel confident with and many women find themselves without representation at all at their appeal.  Defending yourself alone in a court is a truly frightening and intimidating experience.

The number of legal surgeries has increased but the number of solicitors who are now able to take legal aid cases at Yarl’s Wood has decreased.  I can no longer refer anyone directly to a solicitor. For example, a victim of trafficking needs a solicitor with experience of trafficking cases.  Legal aid is no longer available for human rights cases so a woman who is facing removal from the country and separation from her children, can no longer have a solicitor unless she can pay. Many cannot.

We have been visiting a greater number of elderly or disabled women and the detention of pregnant women is very disturbing.

What has not changed is the distress women feel at finding themselves locked up. Indefinite detention for administrative reasons remains extremely difficult to deal with, there are always high numbers of women with mental health problems and many who self-harm, or are at risk of doing so, because of their distress.  For some of those their mental health condition is because of their previous experiences and deteriorates whilst in detention, but for some their mental health problems are caused by detention. The evidence is there. A good percentage of women are released back into their communities rather than being removed, which raises questions about why they have been put through this damaging experience, at enormous cost, in the first place.

Eiri Ohtani: I remember during our drive to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, we drove through a pretty village before entering the industrial estate. In your view, how do the local people view Yarl’s Wood IRC, which keeps on hitting the national headlines, and always for the wrong reasons, as with the recent sexual abuse claims?  I always remember you saying that when you started, you were surprised to find human rights abuses right at your doorstep.

Heather Jones: Yarl’s Wood is in such an extraordinary position. Next door there’s a wind tunnel used by the Red Bull Formula 1 team to test their cars, a pet cremation service, a roofing contractor, Bodyflight indoor skydiving and other businesses close-by. Tucked away where it can easily be overlooked, local people do often overlook it.  Many people do not know, or want to know, why women are being detained.

When I first started visiting my expectations were that the system that put them there would be fair.  I no longer feel that.

I have seen and heard some extraordinary things during my work. I sometimes read statements by the Home Office that are clearly untrue and yet they are relied on by a court to uphold a decision to remove someone from the country. Many are decisions that I would describe as simply cruel. It is no surprise to me that many women who have been in the country for some time have told me that their communities have advised them not to go to the Home Office because they’ll be removed.  Until the Home Office decision making is improved and they earn a reputation for being fair, that is likely to continue.

Eiri Ohtani: You must have supported a large number of women and families in detention over the years.  Do you remember them and how have they influenced your life?

Heather Jones: I am still in touch with a good number of women whom I met during their detention in Yarl’s Wood.  Some now have permission to stay in this country, some I see and hear from, regularly.  A few have stayed in contact despite being removed, often managing extremely difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.

I have become much more aware of the difficulties many women around the world face, issues of which, from the standpoint of my comfortable life, I previously had little awareness. There’s a side to our work which has its roots in global solidarity. Many women flee problems that are just because they are women: forced marriage, FGM, horrific domestic violence, in communities that do not value women and where there is little or no protection.

Our Government has spoken out strongly against Violence Against Women and yet women who flee those problems often do not get the protection they need. Returning them may place them in a worse situation than when they left.  Destitution kills, slowly but surely. It is frightening to think of the risks women face on return. Many are extremely vulnerable to physical and sexual violence because there is no system to support them or no family they can turn to. Often the risks are because of their family.

Eiri Ohtani: What will you do tomorrow? What does your work involve in a typical day?

Heather Jones: Mornings are usually spent in the office, trying to keep up to date with our database, making – or following up – referrals to specialist organisations, or liaising with solicitors or family members. I often visit Yarl’s Wood up to five afternoons a week.  My visits may be an initial visit to meet and find out about the circumstances a woman is facing, or she could be to someone I have met before, who has not yet been allocated a regular visitor, or because I am particularly concerned about them.

Sometimes during initial visits I find that women are not aware of basic information that we know they should have been given on arrival, information such as the provision of the legal surgery or of Bail workshops. The shock of arriving in detention often means this information is not taken in.  Many of these visits can be tearful when women are giving an account of what they have experienced, sometime the tears are mine. Very often those experiences include rape. It often seems that I may be one of very few people who have actually listened to what they’ve had to say.