Told to Sophie Radice, Communications Executive of Women for Refugee Women, by ‘Saron’
Going to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre as a visitor rather than a detainee was a very strange and disturbing experience and to be honest I have found it very difficult to write about.
I have been detained three times and I suppose, even though I have been given Leave to Remain, there is part of me that feels I might be taken back in there at any moment – that they might say “Oh we have made a mistake – you have to come back inside” . So when I saw the place again my mind and body started to respond fearfully and at certain points it seemed that there was very little I could do to control it.
When I had been driven there as a detainee and in a van I had always been in such a state of distress that I had barely even noticed the surroundings of Yarl’s Wood. It is a very odd place, set in a business park just outside Bedford and I could see that It looks very much like a motorway hotel from the front and then round the back it has huge prison buildings which go on and on but which you can’t see unless you walk around the site or are detained inside them. I looked at the other businesses and wondered how they felt sharing a space with a place where women are held, often without knowing when they will be released or what will happen to them.
As I stepped in the visitor’s building where as a first time visitor you have to show documents and have your photo taken against the wall I thought I was going to throw up. I felt like someone had hit the back of my head very hard. The fear had really taken over and I felt shaky and hot, particularly when they asked me to stand against the wall and look into the camera. It was that feeling you have when you are detained of being thought of as a criminal. I really had to try and get hold of myself because I knew that I was going to meet a detained women who would need me to be calm. Even though the staff spoke in an OK way to me I felt that like the hotel-like front of the Yarl’s Wood building it was just a facade. I know what they are really like in there. They treat you as if you are cattle, not a human being and the lowest of the low with no rights. I have seen women man-handled by big men and even dragged along the floor when they are being taken to the airport. I have seen women who are on suicide watch being watched by men at all times which distresses them even more.
I had to go through the security checks to get into the visitors hall and I was trying to control myself because it was so nerve-wracking for me. The sounds of heavy doors closing, keys jangling and my body being searched brought me back to the feeling of utter powerlessness. You have not been believed by the UK border agency and so as a punishment for this you are locked up and don’t know what is going to happen to you.
When I met my friend who was being detained I felt so bad for her as she described the feeling of despair and how difficult it was to try and keep positive, and to try and sleep with the sounds of crying and screaming. I saw from both perspectives – as a visitor and a detainee how cruel and pointless detention centres are and what a double blow it is to be put in there as a woman who has suffered sexual violence, particularly with male guards. Even if you are mentally strong it is really really hard to stay well in there. It damages your sense of self and who you are.