'UK’s Yarl’s Wood immigrant detention center more a prison'

A general view of Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre.(Reuters / Russell Boyce)
The UK government and the company running Yarl’s Wood immigration removal center should be held liable for turning a blind eye to abuses, including physical and sexual assaults, that allegedly happened there, says human rights activist Peter Tatchell.

A former detainee of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal center told RT they were “treated like animals.” 35-year-old Ugandan asylum seeker, Juliet Nantambi, came to the UK to escape persecution for being gay. She described the three months spent in Yarl’s Wood last year as a “horrendous” experience.

Inmates of the facility at Milton Ernest in Bedfordshire have been abused by prison guards, according to a Channel 4 investigation. The detention camp’s female detainees claim that they were on suicide watch, were bullied and watched by male guards while in the toilet, shower and bed. More than 30 allegations of sexual abuse are currently being investigated. There have also been two controversial deaths there since 2001 when the facility opened.

RT:What do you know about the plight of Yarl's Wood detainees?

Peter Tatchell: For many years I’ve been working with some of the detainees to try to publicize to the media and to parliamentarians the shocking and degrading conditions that exist in that detention camp. It’s called an asylum detention center, but in reality it’s basically a prison. In fact, the detainees there, many of them refugees who fled terrible prosecution in their home countries, they have fewer rights in some respects then people who are on detention for murder, rape, and other serious crimes. They are intentionally treated like criminals. The detention system is open-ended. Some people are detained for months, some for years. They are not given any release date, they can be locked up, and they never know when they are going to end their detention.

RAED MORE: ‘I just wanted to die’: Asylum seeker detained at Yarl’s Wood speaks to RT

And that is an incredible abuse of human rights, particularly because so many of these people have themselves been victims of imprisonment in their home countries, torture, rape, and other terrible crimes. To treat them in this way is truly shocking. And I’m very pleased that at last a report this week by members of Parliament has said very clearly that this regime in Yarl’s Wood is expensive, ineffective and unjust, and they want indefinite detention to end. They want a 28-day limit, and even that they say should only be as a last resort with compelling reasons why a person should be detained.

RT:Serco Group, the company which is in charge of Yarl's Wood security, says they take all complaints seriously; they even sacked two officers over sex abuse. Do you really think the firm could have stopped these abuses if they wanted?

PT: The culpability lies both with the company that runs Yarl’s Wood, Serco, and with the government which contracts out the administration to Serco. They both have direct responsibility. They’ve been made aware of these allegations of abuses, not for weeks, months but for years. I’ve made representations to the members of Parliament myself, and documented the evidence which shows the scale of abuses and they were blithely ignored, brushed aside by successive home secretaries. At last we’ve got some MPs with the guts to say “enough is enough.” And the government ministers and the company and its staff do need to be held personally liable because they allowed these abuses to happen. You’ve mentioned some of them: sexual assaults, physical assaults, allegations of sexual assaults and physical assaults, but also turning a blind eye to detainees who have attempted suicide. There is even an allegation that some Serco staff joked and laughed just saying that people who slit their wrists were attention seekers and if they want to slit their wrists let them slit their wrists. This is an abdication of a duty of care that those staff had. And it has been going on for many, many years.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Rashida Manjoo.(Reuters / Carlos Jasso)

RT:Is the government aware of it? The Home Office minister said there'd been no serious attempts of self-harm in the facility lately. Channel 4 reports that this number is more than 70 in just 2013.

PT: You’re totally right, and Channel 4 is absolutely right. To be commended for this undercover reporting which has further highlighted what many of us had been saying from the firsthand knowledge of detainees, what we’ve been saying for many, many years.

I believe the government did know what was going on and that is why they stopped the UN special rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, visiting Yarl's Wood. She made an application to visit Yarl’s Wood some years ago to investigate these allegations, and she was refused permission by the Home Office. The British government blocked a legitimate investigation by a UN rapporteur. That to me indicates that the government knew there were lots of things to hide. They didn’t want the truth to come out so they blocked the UN rapporteur. I think the ball is back in the government’s court. It has to answer, first of all, the serious allegations, and secondly, why it did nothing for year, after year, after year.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.