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Diane Abbott on Yarl’s Wood

March 14, 2010


Diane Abbott, Jamaica Observer, Sunday, March 14, 2010
Many Jamaicans will have read about the hunger strike (now in its fourth week) at the British detention centre at Yarl’s Wood as a number of Jamaican women are at the forefront of it. But in order to understand the real significance of this incident, it is important to know the history of the centre.
The women are not there because they have committed a crime. They are either asylum seekers or other types of immigrants who have been thrown into the detention centre because their cases have been judged by the authorities to be of little merit. Many of them will have their application “fast-tracked” and then be deported from the centre. In fact, when the centre was set up in 2001 it was assumed that detainees would stay there for only a few days before deportation. The pretext for detaining them is the fear that they might meld back into the community or that the authorities will be unable to locate them.

There has been a lot of discussion about detention centres and the conditions at such places since the hunger strike began. Last week I chaired a meeting in the House of Commons where a room full of lawyers, researchers and NGOs lamented the deficiencies of the “fast track” system of legal consideration that these would-be immigrants experience whilst in Yarl’s Wood. But the purpose of these detention centres is missed. They were not set up to offer top-quality legal advice, but rather to bundle unwanted immigrants out of the country as soon as possible.

Yarl’s Wood detention centre itself has a singular history of bad conditions and inmate protest. It is run by private contractors. The government opened it in 2001 and within a year it was burnt down by angry detainees. The detainees were protesting the brutal treatment meted out by guards to a 55-year-old woman. An inquiry into this incident revealed that at the outbreak of fire, the (private sector) head of security at the centre had ordered all staff to exit the building, abandoning the detainees in a timber-framed building that was being consumed by fire. There was no sprinkler system to fight the fire and many inmates were injured. Despite the obvious negligence, not a single member of the private security company running Yarl’s Wood was ever prosecuted.

Since then there has been a series of incidents, including that of an asylum seeker, Manuel Bravo, who hanged himself. Bravo had been snatched from his house at dawn with his young son on suspicion of immigration irregularities. In despair at his imminent deportation he took his own life.

The detention of children at Yarl’s Wood is also a long-standing scandal. In 2006 the inspector of prisons observed: “Our most important concern… remained the detention of children.” The All-Party Group on Refugees (in a report in July 2006) said that the detention of children “makes a mockery of children’s rights legislation”. And the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in a report on the treatment of asylum seekers in March 2007, found that the UK was in breach of its human rights obligations by detaining children.

The Children’s Commissioner for England has been so alarmed at conditions in Yarl’s Wood that he has produced three reports on it in four years. In his latest report, just last month, he noted some improvements but said, “Arrest and detention are inherently damaging to children and Yarl’s Wood is no place for a child”.

Meanwhile, the hunger strike goes on. And it is accompanied by the allegations of violence and brutality that have featured throughout Yarl’s Wood’s history.

My own view is that Yarl’s Wood needs to be closed. Too many things have gone wrong for too long.

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