A Dickensian classic set in Bedfordshire

December 21, 2005

Written by Tim Cleary

In true Dickensian fashion, a new report reveals the appalling treatment of society’s forgotten victims, namely female rape survivors and torture victims held at Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre.

15 December saw the launch of the findings of an investigation into the conditions provided for women detained at Bedfordshire’s Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre and the neglect on the part of the centre and the Home Office with regard to detainees’ physical and mental well-being. A ‘Bleak House’ for Our Times – An investigation into women’s rights violations at Yarl’s Wood Removal Centre is the result of collaborative work between Legal Action for Women (LAW), Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), Women Against Rape (WAR) and the All African Women’s Group. A protest followed on the afternoon of Thursday 15 December outside London’s Communications House Enforcement Unit, then a remembrance outside Yarl’s Wood on Saturday 17 December for detainees, deportees and those who have died trying to reach Europe.

Befitting the Dickensian allusion in its title, A ‘Bleak House’ for Our Times is a damning indictment of an interminable system of neglect, where the very system that should have been set up to care for victims ends up damaging and ruining those caught up in it. The findings differ remarkably from the Home Office’s official line that ‘families have dedicated accommodation within removal centres, comfortable rooms, and are treated with humanity, dignity and respect’.[1]

From information given by 130 women detained at Yarl’s Wood, the report provides important quantitative and qualitative material of a disturbing nature. The majority of the women have arrived from unstable African countries and Jamaica, and in many cases (44 per cent) are mothers who have either left children behind in their home countries or have been detained at the centre with their children. Let us not forget that detention, according to the Home Office, should only be used for victims of torture in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

The women report sexual intimidation, racism and brutality in detention. To be called ‘black monkeys’ who ‘don’t deserve to be here’, it seems, is commonplace in such centres. Added to such behaviour on the part of the guards, the food given to detainees is known to be unsuitable for consumption, the healthcare poor and the detainees are penalised for speaking out about their plight. The lack of an outlet for their grievances has led to a number of hunger strikes, including a four-week hunger strike by over thirty women at the centre, and has driven others to attempt suicide.

However, unlike the characters of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, who wait eternally for the fate of a drawn-out legal case to be decided, 12 per cent of the female interviewees at Yarl’s Wood were found to have been subject to a recently introduced ‘fast-track’ process to remove them swiftly from the country and to remove them from the conscience of the Home Office. This is despite strong evidence showing that these women have been victims of abuse in the past and, on deportation or beforehand, risk falling victim again in the present and the future. In fact, 70 per cent of those interviewed reported fleeing their home countries after suffering rape or other sexual violence. (One should not forget that, added to this figure, half of the remaining interviewees had suffered other forms of torture.) The report also details figures of domestic violence, forced prostitution and the threat of genital mutilation. The accounts of rape and torture given by many women are often known to be disregarded and dismissed with indifference, presumably because those judging the particular cases deem the women’s accounts ‘bogus’. The ‘fast-track’ scheme implemented at Yarl’s Wood and other removal centres in the United Kingdom, according to Paul Nettleship of Sutovic & Hartigan solicitors, who was present at the launch of the report, is ‘least conducive to obtaining evidence and least conducive to a fair hearing’.

To treat the accounts of vulnerable people with such indifference reveals a system that is more concerned with a policy of forced removals than a system of care and counselling. And, very disturbingly, the attempted removals documented in the report reveal the use of violence against those who had come to the United Kingdom to flee violence.

Where the testimonies of rape victims are rejected as false, where expert evidence showing physical and mental scars is disregarded, and where there is no adequate system to care for the most vulnerable in society, there can be no solution to the current situation. This report will hopefully stir more people into action, and encourage legal and health professionals and members of the public to stand alongside the indefatigable campaigners in Bedfordshire and across the United Kingdom who are making this injustice more widely known. Niki Adams of LAW asserted at the launch that the findings of the investigation should be seen ‘not just as a report, but the beginning of a campaign for change’.

Related links

Legal Action for Women

Footnote: Independent on Sunday 30 October 2005. A 'Bleak House' for Our Times - An investigation into women's rights violations at Yarl's Wood Removal Centre is published by Crossroads Books at the Crossroads Women's Centre. Email:Crossroads Women. Tel: (020) 7482 2496 /Fax: (020) 7209 4761.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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