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29 Jan, 2014 12:26

Female asylum seekers detained in UK 'getting second torture'

Female asylum seekers detained in UK 'getting second torture'

Over a half of female rape and torture victims detained in Britain after seeking asylum have thought about killing themselves while locked up in the UK. They suffer depression and are bullied by male guards, a new report has revealed.

In 2012, 6,071 women came to the UK seeking asylum; 1,902 of them were detained, according to the new official statistics by the Home Office.

For its report, the charity Women for Refugee Women (WRW) spoke to 43 vulnerable women who agreed to disclose the experiences in their home country which led them to seek asylum in the UK.

Most of them had been detained in Britain's largest Immigration Removal Center, Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire, which can hold up to 405 individuals at any one time.

Over 90 percent of asylum seekers said they felt depressed, 85 percent felt scared, and more than half thought about killing themselves during their indefinite detention in the UK. More than one in five had tried to kill themselves, and one third had been on suicide watch in detention.

The bulk of the vulnerable women, over 85 percent, said that they had been either raped, or tortured in their home countries, while some 17 percent confessed they simply failed to tell the Home Office everything that had happened to them in their home country because they felt that in their culture it was hard to speak openly about such things.

"I was tortured in my country of origin and now I am getting a second torture by the UK Border Agency. Being back in detention has brought back all the memories of torture," one woman who had been imprisoned and raped by police in Zimbabwe stated in the report.

Meanwhile, according to the UK Border Agency policy, in cases where there is independent evidence of torture, an individual will only be detained in exceptional circumstances.

Immigration detention differs from imprisonment in the criminal justice process in that it is indefinite. Home Office statistics show that of the 1,867 women who had sought asylum and left detention in 2012, 40 percent had been detained for more than a month. In WRW's sample, the longest stay was 11 months and the average was nearly three months.

"This is longer than the averages that we see in Home Office figures: according to official statistics 60 percent of all women asylum seekers who are detained are held for less than one month, and 20 percent for more than two months," WRW mentioned in its report.

"The most depressing thing is that you don’t know how long you’re going to be here or if you’ll still be here tomorrow,"
one detainee explained. On top of this, women who seek asylum often have serious health problems, both physical and mental, and are in need of support and professional care. Sixty-two percent of the women described the healthcare in detention as "bad" or "very bad," however, while 67 percent said that they did not trust the medical staff in detention.

Making their detention conditions even worse, the female detainees revealed that they had been guarded by male staff and 70 percent of the respondents said this made them uncomfortable. According to 50 percent of the detainees, a member of staff had verbally abused them. Twenty-two percent complained that staff had been racist towards them. Three women said they had been physically assaulted and one said she was sexually assaulted.

Yarl's Wood asylum seeker detention centre in north Bedfordshire (Reuters)

"They are verbally abusive in here...They just see you like animals….The way they treat you. They want to get rid of you. You feel neglected and unwanted," an unnamed woman told the charity. Nearly 60 percent of the detainees found it hard to find out about their case. More than half said they found it difficult to access a lawyer in detention.

"I came here because of the war back home. I can’t understand why they put me in prison,"
one woman who had fled to the UK from Congo after being captured and raped by government soldiers told (WRW) in Yarl’s Wood detention center.

People who are seeking asylum may be detained at any time while their claim is considered or after it has been refused. The UK is one of the few European countries that puts no time limit on such detention. According to the Home Office statistics, in the year ending March 2013, 28,735 people entered detention, an increase of 4 percent compared with the previous year (27,596).

"It is not humane taking women into detention. We are not criminals when we claim asylum,"
another asylum seeker from Rwanda, who had escaped extreme domestic violence, was quoted as saying.

But according to Medical Justice (MJ) campaigners, lobbying against wrongful detention and unjust immigration laws and policies, victims of torture are "routinely detained."

"This is particularly problematic because this population often suffers both the mental and physical effects of their torture for many years afterwards,"
MJ has warned on its website. This, coupled with the trauma of being detained for an indefinite time period, the limbo of their legal status, the specific medical needs of this vulnerable population, language difficulties and isolation from a community can all be highly damaging and/or injurious to one’s health."

Home Office statistics released for the WRW report has showed that of the 1,867 women who sought asylum and who left detention in 2012, only 36 percent were removed from the UK. The others were released into the country. According to the charity, this "unnecessary detention has an ongoing impact on the mental health of vulnerable women."

One former detainee said that after she left detention, Yarl’s Wood allegedly followed her to Manchester.

"Sometimes I feel like I’m in a trance, I feel I hear the footsteps of the officers, I hear the banging of the doors and the sound of their keys. Even though I’m out of detention, I’m not really out - I still have those dreams."

WRW emphasizes in its report that detention should have no place in the asylum process, and that women who seek sanctuary in the UK should not be detained while their cases are being considered.

"Their cases can be heard while they are living in the community at much less cost and with less trauma to the asylum seekers themselves," the charity suggests.

In September a former detainee at Yarl's Wood immigration removal center alleged that women held there fell prey to sexual advances and abuse by security guards and other officials. But by the time the claims were examined, two alleged victims had left the detention center.

The Home Office professional standards unit recommended the UK Border Agency consider interviewing other women at Yarl's Wood to find out whether the allegations were an endemic problem, however.