14 Jan 2015

‘Four men watched me’: women’s stories from Yarl’s Wood

Male staff at the Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre watch female detainees while they are naked, or on the toilet, and make sexual advances towards them – a report by a refugee charity says.

Women for Refugee Women (WRW) interviewed 38 women who were recently or currently detained at Yarl’s Wood – the Bedfordshire detention centre that houses women and family’s who are awaiting immigration clearance.

We are in their hands, they can do anything at any time, we don’t have a right to question them. They have all the control. Female detainee at Yarl’s Wood

Yarl’s Wood, run by outsourcing group Serco, houses many vulnerable women. Of the 38 women interviewed, half said they were raped before arriving in the UK, and 70 per cent said they had been raped or subjected to some other form of sexual violence.

The report describes how these women, half of whom had been on suicide watch at the centre, allege male members of staff had watched them when they were naked, been racist to them, or touched them sexually.


There was nothing I could do. Four men watched me while I was naked. Female detainee at Yarl’s Wood

Women in the report describe how male staff routinely enter their rooms and bathrooms without knocking – and that men often saw them when they were naked, or partially naked, or whilst in the shower or on the toilet.

In one allegation, a woman says she woke up to find a male guard in her room. Another detainee describes how a male guard came into her bathroom while she was changing her sanitary towel.

The report says that 33 of the women interviewed allege being been seen in an “intimate situation” including 13 who said a men saw them naked, 29 who said they were seen partially naked, 16 who said men saw them in the shower, and 14 who said men had seen them using the toilet.

WRW said that “from our evidence it is clearly routine for men to enter women’s bedrooms and bathrooms without warning”.

This is against guidance from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, which says it is expected that “officers do not enter women’s cells without knocking and waiting for a reply, except where there is an operational need.”

One detainee, a rape victim before she arrived in the UK, said men coming into the room unannounced “brought on all those memories.”

A statement from Serco said: “Our male staff are not allowed to ‘enter women’s bedrooms and bathrooms without any warning’ nor do they watch women showering, nor when naked nor when in the toilet.

“These statements have not been corroborated, nor have we had the opportunity to investigate any of the allegations that have been made.

“Staff will only enter a resident’s room without knocking if there is deemed to be a risk to the safety and welfare of one or both residents in the room.

“All staff are well-trained in this matter, and behaviour is closely monitored. Incidents where a staff member has to enter a room in an urgent situation are extremely rare. We adhere absolutely to the Home Office policy on searching in detention centres.”


I was always searched by men. Female detainee at Yarl’s Wood

Home Office policy is that where a full, or strip, search is carried out, it must be conducted by two officers of the same sex as the detainee, and where a rub-down search is conducted “staff members conducting the search must be female (and where possible only female members of staff should be present.”

The WRW report, however, includes allegations that 11 of the women spoken to were searched by a man whilst dressed and two were searched by a man whilst undressed (though one of these searches was alleged to have taken place at another detention centre, Colnbrook).

22 of the women interviewed said they were searched by a woman with a man present.

Home Office policy is also that staff should consider religious, as well as gender, sensitivities. However, one detainee quoted in the report said she was asked to remove her hijab in front of men.

“It was in front of many men and women,” she said. “I explained I wear the scarf for my beliefs. They did not care.”

In response to the report, Serco pointed to the latest Yarl’s Wood inspection by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, from 2013, which said “84% of detainees said that they were treated with respect by most staff.”

In that inspection concerns were raised that there were “insufficient female staff for a predominantly women’s establishment, and women detainees complained that male staff entered their rooms without waiting for a reply after knocking.”

It is Home Office policy that at least 60 per cent of staff in contact with detainees and 60 per cent of “governor grade” staff are female.

Serco said it had conducted “two successful recruitment campaigns to increase the numbers of female employees at Yarl’s Wood.” It has not yet replied to Channel 4 News’s request for specific numbers, and whether or not new female employees are “governor grade” or in direct contact with detainees.


Officers try to touch you… They come very close without saying anything. Female detainee at Yarl’s Wood

In June 2014 Serco revealed it had dismissed 10 members of staff in relation eight separate cases of sexual abuse over the last seven years.

WRW said its evidence “underlines this growing recognition that there has been a culture of inappropriate sexual conduct at Yarl’s Wood.”

Out of the 38 women interviewed, six said that a member of staff had made a sexual suggestion to them and three said they were touched sexually.

One detainee alleged that male staff offer to “help you get out of this situation” in exchange for sex – and that this offer is accepted by some detainees. Another detainee said: “Lots of women have open relationships with the guard”, adding that these women received “favouritism”.

Getting better?

We are committed to treating all detainees with dignity and respect. Home Office statement

Both the Home Office and Serco have rejected the report – describing the claims as “uncorroborated”.

A statement from the Home Office said: “Detention and removal are essential elements of an effective immigration system. We are committed to treating all detainees with dignity and respect, and take any allegations to the contrary very seriously.

“As the report itself makes clear, the allegations in this report are uncorroborated – so we have invited Women for Refugee Women to supply details of the cases in question so that they can be investigated fully.

“The latest independent inspection by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons found that Yarl’s Wood was a respectful and safe place.”

Norman Abusin, Serco’s contract director at Yarl’s Wood, said: “As the report admits, these allegations, are uncorroborated. They contradict Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, who found Yarl’s Wood to be a safe and respectful place; the establishment has also received the highest possible rating by against the ‘healthy establishment test’ for Respect.

“The HMCIP report stated ‘In our survey, 84 per cent of detainees said that they were treated with respect by most staff, and 67 per cent said that there was a member of staff they could turn to for help if they had a problem.

“‘We saw mostly friendly interactions between staff and detainees. We saw staff managing a number of situations with patience and good interpersonal skills.’

” It also stated that ‘…a high proportion of detainees told us they were treated with respect by staff’ and rated Yarl’s Wood in this area ahead of other comparable establishments.

“We take all complaints seriously and we have strict procedures for dealing with them. They are always fully investigated and, if appropriate, disciplinary action is taken.

“We also report any substantive issue of this kind to the local police and to the Home Office and we work closely with both organisations to resolve any complaint.

“Our first concern is always for the safety and wellbeing of all the residents at Yarl’s Wood. Our team do their utmost to look after these vulnerable people and to ensure they receive the appropriate level of care and support at a particular difficult and uncertain time in their lives.”

During 2013, the Home Office detained 2,038 women who had come to the UK seeking asylum at detention centres like Yarl’s Wood, the WRW report says. 43 per cent were held for more than a month.