Bedfordshire, United Kingdom – On the wall at the visitor’s reception room at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, a row of clocks display the time in various countries around the world.
But for many of those detained here, time seems to stands still.
Yarl’s Wood is located one hour north of London, at the back of an industrial estate in rural Bedfordshire between a drone manufacturer and a pet crematorium. At first glance, it resembles a motel. Surprisingly clean and modern, the centre had a facelift in 2002 after most of the building was reduced to a smoking ruin after a riot by inmates.
To visit a detainee (or “resident”, to use the parlance of the authorities), one has to surrender all possessions and submit to an airport-security-style pat-down.
This room is the nicest place in the centre, but they don't want you to see what happens behind the scenes.
Current detainee Fatjona – not her real name – spoke to Al Jazeera in the bright, spacious visiting room. Wall-length windows on one side let in a view of a small playground with some jarring murals of grinning farm animals.
“This room is the nicest place in the centre, but they don’t want you to see what happens behind the scenes,” said Fatjona. “When you are having lunch in the canteen, you see sick girls passing out and it’s hard to eat your food after that. The guards don’t believe them though: They say they are just acting.”
Fatjona, 37, holds a masters degree in maths from a university in her native Kosovo. Her story, like those of most of the inmates, is long and complex. After fleeing a violent and abusive marriage, leaving behind her two young children, she claimed asylum in Britain on the day her tourist visa expired.
Her husband was continuing to make death threats against her. After presenting herself to the Home Office, she was given a 15-minute interview and promptly escorted in a caged van to Yarl’s Wood, where she has remained for more than 100 days.
“I wasn’t living here illegally,” she said. “I walked into the office myself with evidence to back up my case. But the authorities here don’t see you as a human, just a number.”
Detainees end up released, not deported
The UK is one of the few countries in the world that does not impose limits on the amount of time that asylum seekers can be detained. This means that migrants from countries where safe return is not guaranteed, such as Somalia, or those with disputed nationality can be held for years. According to the Ministry of Justice’s own figures, it can cost the British taxpayer about 3,000 pounds ($5,000) a month to hold a detainee. Yet most detainees end up being released, not deported. In 2013, only 25 percent of those in Yarl’s Wood were removed from the UK. And figures show the longer a detainee is held, the more likely they are to be released, instead of deported.
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Sally Henfield, a spokesperson for the UK’s Home Office, defended the detention policy, saying it is “determined to crack down on immigration offenders. We will help those who wish to leave voluntarily, but will enforce the removal of those who refuse.
“Detention is used sparingly and in limited circumstances … When we do detain people, it is for the minimum time necessary, and the majority of individuals are held for less than two months.”
Yarl’s Wood houses mostly female detainees, some of whom are pregnant. The Home Office has stated that pregnant women must only be detained in “exceptional circumstances”, but in practise, this policy is virtually ignored. Fatjona is now 21 weeks pregnant, but has lost six kilos since arriving and is beginning to fear for her mental health.
Theresa Schleicher is a caseworker for the charity Medical Justice, the only organisation that sends doctors into detention centres – although its staff can only advise detainees, not treat or prescribe medicine for them. “We see a lot of people that have been tortured, raped or trafficked,” she said. “Many suffer PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], and the sounds of the wardens’ keys and the closing of the cell doors can bring all of these memories to the surface.
Human rights groups have expressed concern that serious medical complaints are dismissed. In 2010, Jimmy Mubenga, distraught over his deportation, died screaming in front of terrified tourists aboard a British Airways jet as three detention security guards piled on top of him. They now stand accused of manslaughter. In March, Alois Dvorzac, an 84-year-old Canadian man travelling to Slovenia to reconnect with his long-lost daughter, passed through London to catch a connecting flight. He was detained, and died in handcuffs two weeks later in a nearby detention centre. An investigation is under way. Last month, Christine Case, a 40-year-old Jamaican woman, died from cardiac arrest at Yarl’s Wood after reportedly being denied medical attention.
With Yarl’s Wood’s unsavoury reputation of widespread hunger strikes, women detained months into their pregnancy, serious mental health issues unaddressed and unexplained deaths, this understandably attracted the attention of Rashida Majoo, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women. Last week during a visit to the UK, Majoo’s staff received a call from someone in “the highest levels of the Home Office”, denying her access to the facility.
‘Part of the government’s anti-immigration stance’
David Ramsbotham, the country’s former chief prison inspector, has visited every immigration and removal centre in the UK, and many overseas. He is concerned about the number of foreign criminals who, after serving their sentence in prison, are then sent to detention centres pending deportation.
“These people, who are disaffected ex-prisoners, infect the whole atmosphere and the conduct of the immigration and detention centre,” he told Al Jazeera. “When I investigated disturbances, these former offenders who shouldn’t have even been there in the first place were at the heart of them. The public are not being told the whole story.”
People in here look at me and ask, 'What are you doing in here?'... This is politics, I'm sure of it. I'm just being used as part of the government's anti-immigration stance.
Ricky Zahui, 27, came to the UK as an eight-year-old boy to join his father. Speaking over the phone from the noisy Brook House detention centre, he explained how he did not get on with his family and ended up being raised by the social services department. Zahui got in trouble with gangs and drugs and landed in prison.
After serving his sentence, he was surprised to be sent to a detention centre pending deportation.
“When I arrived here, all my family had British passports and the Home Office gave me indefinite leave to remain,” said Zahui. “So I just assumed that I was legal.”
Despite being born in Ivory Coast in West Africa, Zahui speaks with a thick London accent, incongruous in the detention centre. He will be deported to a country he barely knows, does not speak the nation’s language, nor has any relatives there: Zahui‘s family all fled following the country’s civil war.
“People in here look at me and ask, ‘What are you doing in here?’ But I say, ‘I’m just like you, man,’ although compared to them I’ve been in this country longer than anyone else. This is politics, I’m sure of it. I’m just being used as part of the government’s anti-immigration stance.”
Home Office spokeswoman Henfield said: “All detention is reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that it only lasts as long as it continues to be justified and necessary. However, we have a duty to protect the public from those who pose a risk of harm and in particular those who have committed serious criminal offences.”
‘I feel hopeless’
Those inside detention centres are often confused as to who runs them, since the British government subcontracts control to private companies. Yarl’s Wood is managed by Serco, a UK-based company whose record has lately been called into question. In 2013, the firm was forced to return more than 100m pounds ($168m) to the British government after charging it for providing electronic tagging for prisoners who were either dead or in jail. Two staff members at Yarl’s Wood were sacked for engaging in sexual activity with a detainee.
Fatjona’s detention makes it challenging for her to make the necessary calls and emails to gather evidence to bolster her case. Instead, she concentrates on surviving the unpleasantness of her incarceration.
“Friendship is the most important thing inside here,” said Fatjona. “We talk until the morning sometimes, laughing and crying together. I feel hopeless. I don’t want to think about returning to Kosovo under threat of death, but being released from here will be like a second birth.”
Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew