Content warning: rape, self-harm, suicide
This piece comes from Gabby (not her real name), an activist campaigning against immigration detention in the UK. She was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017 before being released to continue her asylum claim within the community. She is now an active member of Women for Refugee Women’s network, regularly performing her own poetry and speaking out to call for change.
A version of this piece was originally published by The Independent.
Being locked up in Yarl’s Wood twice has turned my world upside down. I came here to escape abuse, but for me Yarl’s Wood was just another torture.
The first time I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood I was in there for three months. My room was like a prison cell. When I walked in, my new roommate was taking a shower in the corner. The mattress on the bed is plastic, thin and hard. The floor too, is like plastic over concrete. Under our beds there is a drain that we tried to cover with sanitary towels because it stinks like a sewer. I think this is for washing the floor when women cut themselves or are sick. It’s like living in a bathroom, a bathroom that you share with a stranger.
One of the hardest parts was not knowing when I’d be released or what would happen to me if I got sent back home. I was treated like a target for deportation, not a person. If I had been sent back I would be dead by now, or being exploited by men who raped me before. I do think that there should be a time limit on how long the Home Office can keep people locked up because the not-knowing is destroying people’s minds. I saw women in there starving themselves, cutting themselves, jumping off staircases – it was so traumatising to see those things.
I am out now but I have not recovered. My hair started falling out in there because of the stress. It doesn’t grow back, so my hair is gone. I still don’t sleep properly and I’m lucky if I get an hour each night. I suffer from high anxiety. Every time I get a letter from the Home Office the world closes in on me and I can’t breathe. This anxiety is taking over my whole life. I had to move out of my family’s home because they were worried I would try to kill myself and my sister didn’t want to find me dead.
All of that is because of detention and reliving my past. I keep having to tell the Home Office what happened to me when I was 10 years old. It’s not right. I’m not the same person, I’m in a very dark place. If I lie down it hits me so I have to keep busy – drawing, cleaning, writing – anything I can do to keep my mind from going back to Yarl’s Wood.
Earlier this year, Stephen Shaw published his follow-up review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. He found that the government’s new ‘Adults at Risk’ policy has not worked to reduce the number of vulnerable people in detention. This doesn’t surprise me. I met with Stephen Shaw in December last year with a group of women who’d also been in Yarl’s Wood for a long time. Every single one of us should not have been detained under that policy.
The Home Office just doesn’t make any effort to find out what has happened to people before they lock them up. There needs to be people in the system working to identify vulnerable people. They should be trained to make people feel comfortable and ask them questions about their lives, to actively find out what happened.
Both times I was detained I was only asked very general questions about my health. It took a lot of support from Women for Refugee Women, for me to be able to speak out about what had happened to me back home and why I couldn’t go back there. I didn’t know that what I had been through was trafficking.
With the Home Office it’s like the left hand is not talking to the right hand. There’s such poor coordination and communication. When they accepted that I was a survivor of trafficking and forced prostitution they said they were going to release me the next day. But then, that evening, they gave me a plane ticket. I just crumbled with terror and that nearly finished me.
Stephen Shaw also recommended that reducing the number of women locked up in detention centres needs to be a priority. I couldn’t agree more. Detention is killing us, it’s wrong. I was abused, but instead of getting help and support I was locked up. I deserve to be free and safe.
It’s time the Home Office stopped detaining vulnerable women so that other women don’t have to live through the trauma that I am living with. Yarl’s Wood will haunt me forever.
You can follow Women for Refugee Women on twitter: @4refugeewomen #SetHerFree