Denise McNeil's leg showing marks she claims were made during an incident involving Yarl's Wood staff
Source: The Observer - 28 Feb
By Mark Townsend
Senior Home Office officials will be questioned this week over allegations that women inside Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre were assaulted by staff using riot shields.
The Observer has gathered a series of testimonies from detainees inside the Bedfordshire centre who claimed they had witnessed women being beaten and injured during a disturbance this month.
One image, taken inside Yarl's Wood on a mobile phone, reveals extensive bruising to a woman's shoulder and legs allegedly caused by staff during the incident on 8 February, days after dozens of asylum seekers instigated a hunger strike over the length of their detention. Another image shows injuries to a detainee's finger after a guard had allegedly slammed a window on her hand.
On Tuesday, Lin Homer, chief executive of the UK Border Agency, and John Vine, the agency's chief inspector, are expected to be questioned by the home affairs select committee over the claims, which are denied by staff.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the committee, said: "This evidence is extremely concerning. If the allegations are correct, then it may be appropriate for a police investigation. We are eager to establish what exactly is going on in Yarl's Wood."
The hunger strike will enter its fourth week tomorrow. The allegations of abuse are being examined by London law firms Birnberg Peirce and Fisher Meredith.
Jacqui McKenzie of Birnberg Peirce said: "I have spoken to a client of mine in Yarl's Wood and she has seen the bruising herself from the incident on 8 February. There is an atmosphere of real tension there."
The images of the bruising show the injuries allegedly sustained during the incident by Denise McNeil, a 35-year-old Jamaican, who claims she was hit by staff and, since the disturbance, has been moved to London's Holloway prison.
A Home Office spokesman said that observers from the centre's Independent Monitoring Board had been present during the incident and had seen no evidence to support the claims. He added that CCTV footage had revealed nothing. It is also understood that Bedfordshire police were called to the incident and monitored the situation without taking any action.
A spokesman for Serco, the private firm that runs Yarl's Wood, last night dismissed the allegations as "unfounded and untrue". He added: "The incident on 8 February occurred because our staff intervened to prevent four women from continuing to bully other residents into missing meals."
Participants in the hunger strike claim to have been held in a corridor for more than six hours. Several women claim to have fainted and one to have suffered an asthma attack before several detainees forced open an window and tried to escape before being confronted by guards. Meme Jallow, 26, from Gambia, who has been inside Yarl's Wood for seven months, said: "A girl called Denise was by the windows. One officer took her and hit her by the face."
Another hunger striker, a 37-year-old from Nigeria who asked to remain anonymous for fear of her asylum case being unfairly reviewed, said: "The security went outside and used shields like they do when there is a war. That is what they used to smash one of the women who was outside."
Adeola Omotosho, 44, from Nigeria, who was released from Yarl's Wood three days after the incident, yesterday described how she had been injured during the protest. "The officers closed the window against my finger. It was very painful and I was really bleeding heavily, but they still refused to open the window. So I called an ambulance, but it was not allowed to come in."
Serco sources said that ambulance staff had been allowed on site during the protest but paramedics were not required because the most significant injury was Omotosho's fingernail injury.
A spokesman denied shields had been used to hit or move women and said they had only been placed against the open window in order to "secure the area".
Many detainees also complained they have suffered racist abuse, which the centre denies. Omotosho added: "Black monkeys is what they call us. They don't like us at all. They tell us to go back to our countries."
Cristal Amiss from Black Women's Rape Action Project, which is supporting the detainees, said: "We have spoken to over 50 women and have heard entirely consistent reports of racist abuse, threats and other violence."
Frances Swaine, head of the human rights department at London law firm Leigh Day, said: "The situation at Yarl's Wood has been getting progressively worse over the past few months, and shows no signs of improvement - and the hunger strike has brought to the fore the real issues."
A number of the detainees said they had been traumatised by the incident, with a letter from one stating that three other women detainees had been caught trying to kill themselves.
Yarl's Wood: A History Of Controversy
Yarl's Wood opened near Clapham on the outskirts of Bedford on 19 November 2001. It is currently the major removal centre for women and families. It has 405 beds of which 284 are for women and 121 for families. The centre has been dogged by problems.
- February 2002: The centre was devastated by fire after a riot by detainees protesting after a 55-year-old woman was physically restrained by staff. Five people were injured in the blaze.
- March 2004: The Prisons and Probations Ombudsman published a report into allegations of racism, abuse and violence, based on 19 claims made by an undercover reporter for the Daily Mirror. The report found evidence of a number of racist incidents.
- February 2006: The Chief Inspector of Prisons condemned the quality of health care for detainees at the centre.
- April 2007: Serco took over the complex.
- May 2007: Reports of hunger strike involving more than 100 women.
- April 2009: The Children's Commissioner for England published a report revealing that youngsters were being denied urgent medical treatment and were at risk of serious harm.
On Feb 24 Home Office Minister Meg Hillier wrote a letter to all MPs saying:
“The current misreporting, based on inaccurate and fabricated statements by those who campaign against our policy, is irresponsible as it causes unnecessary distress to the women at Yarl’s Wood, their family and friends and those who work at the Centre to ensure the detainees are treated with respect.”
- Diane Abbott MP: The real distress at Yarl's Wood: Meg Hillier may deny the extent of the poor conditions at the asylum detention centre, but I have seen them for myself
Interview with a hunger striker
What the women want
Since the 5th of February 2010, we the residents at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre are on hunger strike which involves over 84 + women, who are protesting against the period of time spent in detention and the treatment that they receive while being detained.
The strike was sparked to protest and demand that the frustration and humiliation of all foreign nationals ends now.
We are demanding the following actions
- End the frustrations, physical and mental torture at the centre
- Allow enough time and make resources available to residents who need to fully present their cases.
- To end all false allegations and misrepresentations by the UKBA regarding detainees in order to refuse bail or temporary admissions.
- Access to appropriate medical treatment and care as in the community, access to edible and well cooked food, phones with good mobile connections, with camera and recording facilities to back up cases.
- To stop the forceful removal and degrading system of deportation of detainees
- To put law into practise, European rules governing standard of conditions of detention for migrants and asylum seekers and the length of time in detention.
- The abolition of detention for asylum seeker and torture victims
- Detention should be by a standard procedure prescribed by law, authorised by judicial authority and be subjected to periodic judicial reviews.
- To end the detention of children and their mothers, rape survivors and other torture victims, to end the detention of physically, mentally sick people and pregnant women for long period of time.
- To end the separation of children from their mothers being detained whether in detention or destitution.
- To end the detention of women detention after serving time in prison.
- To abolish the fast track system, in order to give asylum seekers a fair chance with their application, while understanding the particular needs of victims of torture, and access to reliable legal representation which the fast track system denies.
- To end the repeat detention of women granted temporary admission while reporting or signing after a short period out of detention.
- To a set period of time allowed to detain women, which should be no longer than 1 month, while waiting decision either from UKBA or court proceedings.
- Finally instead of detention of foreign nationals, there are alternatives to detention stated by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). 'The detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Europe ', Adopted on the 28th January 2010, extracts below.
9.1.1. detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants shall be exceptional and only used after first reviewing all other alternatives and finding that there is no effective alternative;
18.104.22.168. placement in special establishments (open or semi-open);
22.214.171.124. registration and reporting;
126.96.36.199. release on bail/surety;
188.8.131.52. controlled release to individuals, family members, NGOs, religious organisations, or others;
184.108.40.206. handover of travel and other documents, release combined with appointment of a special worker;
- Full Text: Council of Europe - Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1707 (2010)1, The detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in Europe
Women behind the Wire @ Yarl's Wood IRC
Messages of support/solidarity to: WomenBehindTheWire@ncadc.org.uk