FEWER women than men apply for asylum in the UK. The founder and
director of the organisation Women for Refugee Women, Natasha
Walter, says that this is because "it is hard for women to seek
asylum, because of their caring responsibilities, and in terms of
their vulnerability to male violence when they cross borders.
"Women make up the majority of displaced people across the
world, but in terms of those making the journey through to the
West, women have always been in the minority."
In the UK, women detained for immigration purposes are generally
sent to Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre. "Yarl's Wood is the
place where they are detained indefinitely rather than for short
periods, like in Tinsley House, Cedars, and Dungavel," Ms Walter
UNHCR guidelines state that victims of torture and other serious
physical, psychological, or sexual violence should, generally, not
be detained. But survivors of rape and sexual violence are not
included in the list of people not suitable for detention under
Home Office guidelines. The All-Party Parliamentary Groups on
Refugees and Migration have called for this to change, and for an
end to the detention of pregnant women, which is in contained in
policy, but, in practice, is often not followed.
RESEARCH by Women for Refugee Women suggests that an estimated
50-72 per cent of women in detention have been raped as part of the
persecution they are fleeing. The charity is campaigning for an end
to the detention of women who seek asylum. But Ms Walter concedes
that seeing a time limit on detention would be a good stepping
Besides the mental-health problems inflicted by detention - in
particular by indefinite detention - there are specific
vulnerabilities for women who are detained, Ms Walters says.
A former chaplain of Yarl's Wood, the Revd Larry Wright, agrees.
"For women who have come from cultures where sexual molestation is
widespread, they suffer more in detention because many have already
experienced some sort of sexual exploitation.
"Then, of course, a number of them have been trafficked, or have
had to give sexual favours to survive. Therefore, they are already
damaged, or their bodies misused, before they go into detention.
And my experience was that for many women there was a sense that
[in detention] they were constantly under threat of some further
molestation of some sort."
The trauma that detention inflicts on women is not acknowledged,
he says. "What was regularly overlooked was the preconception that
detainees carried with them about prisons from their own
"They've not experienced the prison regime in this country; so
they bring with them some assumptions about what will happen to
them from their own culture, particularly if they've not been in
this country very long, or if they're on the Fast Track system.
"Staff don't understand that, because the sort of people that
become guards at Yarl's Wood are not likely to be widely read and
aware of prison regimes in other parts of the world. The whole
system generates mental anxiety for all sorts of reasons."
Even if women are not going to be given asylum in the long run,
they need to be given a dignified process, Ms Walter says.
"Detention has a very negative impact on their mental health, and
their ability to heal; it really sets them back. . .
"When women start telling us about their experiences in Yarl's
Wood, they often get confused and start reliving what they've been
through in their home countries. Doctors from the Helen Bamber
Foundation have put forward good evidence about that: [there are]
such reminders in the detention setting of the original trauma [so]
that it's very difficult for women not to relive the
experiences that led them to seek asylum in the first place."
WOMEN's fears of further sexual abuse have been shown not to be
without foundation at Yarl's Wood, but no prosecutions have
"There's evidence that there's been sexual contact, sexual
abuse, in Yarl's Wood, and yet the crimes haven't properly been
investigated. Men have been dismissed from their jobs, but nothing
has really been properly investigated; they've never really been
held to account," Ms Walter says.
In April, The Guardian quoted the case of a former
detainee, Celia, from South Africa, who experienced an unwanted
sexual advance from a guard in 2009, who told her that he could
help her out with her case if she complied.
"I think some of the women think that if they do this, it may
help them to be released sooner," another detainee, Emily says.
"We were asking women about what it was like in Yarl's Wood," Ms
Walter says. "They kept talking about men watching them, bursting
into their rooms. I'm not saying that the prisons in this country
are great, but that kind of thing wouldn't happen in prison to
CHARITIES have been raising allegations of sexual abuse at
Yarl's Wood for many years. Mr Wright says that when he was senior
chaplain, from 2004 to 2007, "we were aware that men would make
inappropriate remarks in front of women, or barely disguised
whispers about women's looks and physical features.
"We intervened when we heard that sort of attitude, because we
could see the canteen culture of swapping stories about the sexual
attraction of detainees may well develop into a culture of
expectation of sexual activity."
Nevertheless, he has been surprised at the level of sexual
engagement reported by the press. He blames the unacceptably high
levels of male staff at Yarl's Wood, and the nature of detention
itself as catalysts for abuse. "Wherever you've got a lot of young
men in power over women, in situations where the women have very
little recourse to complaint, there is bound to be abuse of that
power, and that is bound to take some sort of sexual form," he
The policy and research co-ordinator at the charity Women for
Refugee Women, Gemma Lousley, says that: "Because the majority of
detention centres are run by private companies, there is this
disconnect between the Home Office and detention centres and that
lack of accountability."
This means, she says, that there are "numerous instances of
where Home Office policy says one thing - for instance on how women
are supposed to be treated in detention in relation to searching
procedures, or all sorts of other things - but that what happens in
practice is another." This adds to the vulnerability of
A REPORT from Women for Refugee Women, I Am Human,
recommended that gender-specific policies, such as those in
prisons, should be introduced in detention. "This would minimise
the problems; but it's not a solution. The answer is not to have
these places in the first place: we don't need them," Ms Lousley
Heather Jones, a befriender at Yarl's Wood, says that there are
other humiliations for women in detention, too, such as having to
ask staff for sanitary towels and tampons every month.
And, Mr Wright says, for some women, the fact that they have
been in detention is enough to shame them. "For women from the
Muslim faith, if they were deported they [would] have to try and
make absolutely certain that no one back in their home country
found out they had been detained, because if a Muslim woman is
thought to have been tainted in any way, she and her family will be
He continues: "That's also true of Christians from very
conservative cultures, or Asian Hindus, or Sikhs from conservative
cultures. If their family or anyone back home finds out they've
been in a detention centre in England, they will assume they will
have been raped, because they will not have been chaperoned.
"How does a government take that into account? Shouldn't that be
a reason for not detaining women?"
'I never thought they would imprison me'
Emily was jailed in Iran for taking part in demonstrations after
the 2009 elections. After claiming asylum in the UK, she was
detained in Yarl's Wood
AFTER the 2009 elections in Iran, many people were stunned at
the result; we felt it had been rigged in favour of Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad. Soon after, a silent demonstration took place in
Tehran. Gunshots were fired to disperse the crowd, and many people
were injured. The following day, there was another big
demonstration; this time, the security forces had pepper gas and
During Friday prayers, it was said if any one demonstrated they
would be treated violently. That day, my friend's sister was killed
while getting out of a car - she wasn't even demonstrating.
When her funeral took place, there was another protest. In the
scuffle, as security forces moved in, I fell, and was arrested. I
was taken to Evin prison, in Tehran, with other protesters. We were
squashed into a tiny room with not enough space to sit; we were not
allowed to speak, or go to the toilet. For two days I was
interrogated, beaten, insulted, and sexually assaulted.
We all thought we were going to die. Then, I was blindfolded,
taken out of the room, and made to sign a piece of paper. To this
day, I have no idea what I signed. I was released, and after that
my parents pleaded with me not to get involved. But secretly, at
university, I did.
IN DECEMBER 2010, I was invited to the UK by my older brother, a
British citizen. I, too, was born in Britain, in 1985, the year
that citizenship laws changed (my family returned to Iran when I
was nine months old, after ten years in Britain). I arrived on a
visitor's visa, with no intention of staying: I had a return
ticket, and bought souvenirs to take back home.
But, then, events took a different turn. Having seen some
footage on YouTube (banned in Iran) of the Green Wave Voice, a Free
Iran group, I joined them at a demonstration outside the Iranian
embassy in London. Authorities in Iran identified me from footage
taken at that demo, and interrogated my father for hours,
confiscating my parents' documents and computer. A friend warned me
that I had been put on a blacklist, and must not come back to the
I went to the Home Office with my passport and return ticket,
and claimed asylum, but was refused. I made another appointment
with the Home Office; this time, I would take a copy of an arrest
warrant for me obtained by my friend.
As an asylum-seeker, I was required to sign in regularly at a
police station. In August 2011, I did so, only to be arrested.
After 12 hours in the police station, I was told that they were
going to drive me five hours away to Yarl's Wood detention centre,
and then after that I would be told properly where I was going to
IT WAS the worst experience of my life, being put in detention.
All the flashbacks of being in Evin came back to me. I was thinking
that I was going to be sentenced to death; but also that I hadn't
done anything wrong - I'd just gone to the police station to
On my third day there, they said a flight had been booked for me
back to Iran. That time it was OK: I didn't go; but on another
occasion, I was taken to Heathrow. One of the officers showed me a
passport and made fun of me. I said to them if I went back to Iran
I would die or be raped and tortured, and they joked that if
anything happened to me I should just rebook a plane and come back.
But then their phone rang, and they told me my flight had been
cancelled. An injunction had been served at the last minute, and I
was taken back to Yarl's Wood.
Even though Yarl's Wood is a women's detention centre, most of
the officers are men. And if you share a room with someone who has
an orange profile (who self-harms, or wants to kill themselves),
the officers enter the room without knocking to check. And every
time we had roll count, morning and afternoon, they would come in
again, most often without knocking.
They don't really care if you are dressing or undressing. And
after they came in once when I was undressed, I would sleep with a
dressing gown or nightie on. Still, some of the officers were
pervs, the way they looked at you. And I heard about the sexual
relationship between one of the officers and a detainee: the women
told me that these things happen over here.
They also told me about the place near the gym: I think there is
no camera over there; so it's their "date place" to go there and
kiss, or do whatever. I think women think that if they do this, it
may help them to be released sooner.
WHEN I arrived, they searched me everywhere, everywhere. They
took all my belongings. In Iran, we filmed so we could show the
world what they were doing. In Yarl's Wood, they take cameras
Some of us tried to support each other, and I would pray all
night for the women we heard had got a ticket to be sent home, but
others were very aggressive. Once there was even a big fight
between officers and a Chinese girl. It was like the authorities in
Iran, when they attack people: they just came and hit that girl,
because she threw an apple to the officers.
They gave us slippers in Yarl's Wood, and one time a lady
slipped and fell down from the very top stairs. I never saw that
Because of all these things, every day was stressful. You would
hear about, or see, someone cutting themselves, or wanting to hang
themselves with their [phone] charger. There was a black lady who
just broke her mug and cut her forehead because she wanted to
refuse to go to the airport. It was horrible, hearing all these
things all the time.
I COULDN'T sleep for nine nights when I first arrived. I
couldn't even close my eyes. My heart started beating funny. I had
pain in my arms, but they just give you paracetamol for
I needed to have blood tests and a scan while I was there. I
never received the results of that test.
After I was released, my GP did the blood tests again, and I had
the scan. I found out I had a very rare cancer: a tumour removed
from an ovary has seriously affected my chances of ever having a
Being in Yarl's Wood is like being in prison: you can't open the
window properly; it's in the middle of nowhere; and you have no
idea where you are. You count the days.
I thought the UK was the best for women's rights. I never
thought they would imprison me; but when I was sent to Yarl's Wood,
that image of this being a place of fairness and rights was
Emily (not her real name) was released after 31 days. She
was accommodated at the Catholic Worker Farm, Hertfordshire, until
moving to the north of England. In April 2015, Emily was granted
five years' leave to remain in the UK. Her father lost his job in
Iran, and contact is scant for fear of further reprisals.