Yarl’s Wood detention centre is perhaps the most high-profile centre in the UK.  This photo essay is for those of you who have never been to this detention centre.
If you are visiting other detention centres, can you consider writing a photo essay like this for Unlocking Detention?  Remember, not many people make the journey you are making – and people want to know what it’s like to visit detention centres.
I have visited a number of detention centres over the last decade.  For me, each journey to any of the centre feels as surreal as the visit itself.  And that very moment when you step out of ‘the normal’ to step into ‘immigration detention’, I often feel blank.  It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.  When you leave the centre, I notice I am always doing a psychological ‘deep breath’, and it takes a while to return back to whatever I was doing before the visit.
Here is a photo essay of my visit to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in September 2017.

Setting off to Bedford from central London.  On the platform of Luton Airport Parkway station where my train passes, I see groups of hyper-excited young people, wearing beach sandals and straw hats, presumably jetting off to somewhere sunny on holiday.

Arriving at the station. Improbably sunny. Few people are about at the station. The station cafe even seems to close in between train departures/arrivals.

Heather picks me up at the station, and we start driving towards the detention centre. I notice a lot of red-brick buildings.

What you see on your way to Yarl’s Wood is deceptively peaceful.  You can’t help wondering what the local people living in these houses think about people who are locked up without a time limit not very far from their dinner tables.


The first signage to the detention centre.  Nobody seems to have bothered to change the sign from I.D.C. (Immigration Detention Centre) to I.R.C. (Immigration Removal Centre).  The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 changed these centres’ official names to ‘Immigration Removal Centres’.  In reality, half the people who enter ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ are not removed from the UK.

Another signage.  Again, it still says ‘I.D.C.’.  We drive past a beautifully tended church yard.

After about 10 minutes in the car, we are at the entrance of TwinWoods Business Park in which Yarl’s Wood sits.  This time, the signage does say ‘IRC’. Among its neighbours, I find ‘Bedford Pets Crematorium’ and ‘Flow House’, an indoor sports centre.

More signage. We are nearly there.

At the entrance. I spot a sign stating that photography is not permitted: I stop taking photos at this point.  We park our car, have a long chat and go inside the centre.  A gardener is busily tending the plants around the parking lot.  I see a body of a dead rabbit in an empty parking space in front of us.

After the visit.  The glare of the sunlight is painfully disorientating.  I am thinking about a difficult and inevitably inconclusive conversation with a person detained as Heather drives me back to the station.

Heather drops me off at Bedford station.  I continue to contemplate on my conversation in the detention centre while waiting for my train.

Back at home, I realise I am still wearing this yellow security bracelet.  I assume it’s used to distinguish those who must stay in the detention centre and those who are allowed to leave from the visitors’ room.  I am the lucky one on this occasion.

A few days later, I find this bus timetable in my bag.  I picked this up at the reception area of Yarl’s Wood and have completely forgotten about it.  I stare at the patronising font used for ‘Social visitors bus timetable’: it grates.  The staff at the reception duty were polite and patient and I have no personal animosity against whoever the person who designed this document.  I am happy to assume that the font was chosen out of vaguely benign feeling, in an attempt to make all this barbarism of detention friendly and normal.  Detention centres can never be welcoming for or welcomed by anyone.  And the font is trying to do the job of co-opting us into giving consent to the society’s pretence that immigration detention is okay. I tear up the document and scatter its pieces into the bin.
Eiri Ohtani is the Project Director of the Detention Forum and manages Unlocking Detention.  She tweets at @EiriOhtani