Latest Channel 4 News:
Row over Malaysian state's coins
'Four shot at abandoned mine shaft'
Rain fails to stop Moscow wildfires
Cancer blow for identical twins
Need for Afghan progress 'signs'

Inside Yarl's Wood detention centre

By Simon Israel

Updated on 15 July 2009

Simon Israel investigates an attempt to deport a Sudanese family who were "threatened with injury" by immigration officials.

The Home Office has launched an inquiry into the conduct of immigration officers who tried to deport a Sudanese mother and her daughters, in direct contravention of a ministerial order.
One of the children has told Channel 4 News that she was threatened with injury if she did not board the plane.
An MP has described the chain of command in the UK Border Agency as badly broken down.
Channel 4 News has also uncovered evidence that rules were breached at the Yarl's Wood detention centre to speed up the family's removal.
We have gained rare access to the centre, from where our home affairs correspondent Simon Israel begins this report.

Yarl's Wood: behind closed doors 
Not everything was as it seemed when Channel 4 News finally secured permission to visit the Yarl's Wood detention centre, writes Simon Israel.

Six months it took to get a facility in the most heavily scrutinised and criticised immigration removal/detention centre in the UK.

We were supposed to go in April before the Children’s Commissioner inquiry report on the centre was published, but were told there'd been an outbreak of chickenpox and the quarantine period extended for another three weeks.

Anyway, they finally agreed. By “they” I mean the Home Office, SERCO, the private security firm contracted to run the centre, and UKBA, the Border Agency as it's known.

This was the first time Channel 4 News had been allowed into the centre. It's designed to house up to 400 mothers, fathers and children destined to be returned to their home country, either because their asylum claims had failed or their prison sentence had come to end and they are due to be deported.
On the day we turned up, the centre had 335 detainees, and of those 33 were children.
We sat around a table to agree the ground rules. The centre's director, a former prison governor, said they wanted to be as open as possible.
We agreed the usual restrictions: no detainee was to be identified, nor a SERCO employee unless they gave their explicit permission.

It's usual, but we were anxious to not simply get shots of empty corridors and rooms but to get a feel for a place which has had a chequered history and been recently criticised for an apparent lack of child safeguards.

We were told that under no circumstances could we feature anonymous children – not their hands, not their feet, not their shadows.

As for adult detainees, we would need their permission – difficult since another precondition was that we were not allowed to talk to them.
Off we went through several locked doors into one of the family wings. We were taken to the nursery where six young children were around a table listening to a story. Each had a plate of fruit.

They appeared fine. Unfortunately we couldn't show you that. Instead what we can show you are empty chairs, decorated walls, a collage of work from other children long gone to fates unknown, and a wonderful array of books and toys. But not a single human being.

It was the same in the junior school, except not a single child was present the morning we were there.

The flags framing the blackboard were an illustration of the range of nationalities which pass through this removal centre.

Yarslwood is a big centre. But with 33 children residing here, it seemed strange we had only seen a handful.

Little did we know that in another part of the centre, there were the beginnings of a protest, a hunger strike by some families.
Our escort numbered six people. We were taken to the wing where families lived, awaiting early morning transportation to an airport. Ah... some life... A number of women up and down the corridors, in and out of rooms.

As we tried to film so as to conceal their identities, tensions rose. A man from SERCO accused us of covert filming when there was a brief glimpse of a child who had wandered out of a room and into shot.

It became more oppressive, presumably because of events elsewhere in the complex around the developing protest. There were frequent glances by our escorts at one of their Blackberrys in front of our very noses. We were clearly not to be allowed into the loop!

A series of further empty rooms, the medical area, the faith centre... and our two hours were up.

A request to film the main dining area, which is where most would be having lunch, was turned down.

So we left wondering what we had achieved. The part we were shown was clean, orderly and seemingly well run.

Of course, what we didn't see, and only learnt about later about, was the detainee protest.

I didn't expect the Home Office, UKBA or SERCO to wash its laundry in public. But perhaps it would more honest to have stood by its declared desire to be open with us if they had mentioned the protest, explained the context and then reasoned as why there would no chance of filming the event.

But no – although there was an invitation to come back as we left perhaps at a different time of day when there was more going on. Hmmmmm!

Send this article by email

More on this story

Channel 4 is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Watch the Latest Channel 4 News

Watch Channel 4 News when you want

Latest Domestic politics news

More News blogs

View RSS feed

Cartoon coalition


How Channel 4 News viewers picture the coalition in cartoon form

Token candidate?

Labour leadership candidate Diane Abbott (credit:Getty Images)

Diane Abbott: I am the genuine move-on candidate for Labour

'Mr Ordinary'

Andy Burnham, Getty images

Andy Burnham targets Labour's 'ordinary' person.

Iraq inquiry: day by day

Tony Blair mask burnt during protest outside the Iraq inquiry. (Credit: Getty)

Keep track of Sir John Chilcot's Iraq war findings day by day.

The Freedom Files

Freedom Files

Revealed: the stories they didn't want to tell.

Making a FoI request?

Channel 4 News tells you how to unearth information.

Channel 4 © 2010. Channel 4 is not responsible for the content of external websites.