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

Ms Juliette Nantambi who is a member of All African Women’s Group and Queer Strike.(Crossroads Women Centre Audio Visual Collective)
A former detainee of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal center has condemned plans to merely “improve the service” of the facility, arguing the whole system of migrant detention needs to be abolished.

Juliet Nantambi, 35, is a Ugandan asylum seeker who came to the UK to escape persecution for being gay.

She spent three months in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention center last year, an experience she described as “horrendous” in an in-depth interview with RT.

At one point in her 11-week detainment Nantambi, who has suffered from mental health problems, said she lost all energy and stopped eating because she “just wanted to die.

Loss of self-worth

[The guards] don’t look at you as a human being. It’s true when they say we are animals,” she said.

Routine abuse from guards causes many detainees, 90 percent of whom are women, to become depressed or even attempt suicide.

Those who go in there without mental health issues end up with mental health issues,” Nantambi said.

The fact many detainees already suffer from mental health problems compounds the human tragedy within Yarl’s Wood.

According to Cristel Amiss, Project Coordinator at Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), 70 percent of women admitted to the facility are survivors of rape and other torture.

Nantambi said detainees who harm themselves do so because they have lost all self-worth.

When asked whether she knew anyone who attempted suicide at Yarl’s Wood, she said: “Yes, and I was one of them.”

One time I had given up, I lost all my energy. I stopped eating. I just wanted to die.”

Guards, half of which are male according to the contractor managing the center, Serco, closely monitor women on suicide watch.

Nantambi said: “Women are being watched by men all the time. They are watched when they go to the toilet because they tried to kill themselves.”

Sexual harassment allegations

Accusations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood highlight the unacceptable level of sexism among male staff that seems to be tolerated in the institution.

In Channel 4’s undercover film, guards discuss going into women’s rooms while they’re changing.

One guard says he received “another” disciplinary for doing this. He jokes with his colleagues: “How about I just like tits. Sorry ... I’m addicted to the viewing of tits.”

A Yarl’s Wood detainee who goes by the pseudonym ‘Tanja’ made a witness statement to the police in 2013 about the extent of sexual abuse at the facility.

In the statement, which was seen by the Observer, Tanja described guards engaging in non-consensual oral sex and exposing their genitals.

Healthcare provision is also a major problem within the center. At one point during her detention, Nantambi, who has diabetes, made a medical appointment. She claims she was overprescribed medication when she was finally able to see someone.

A report into migrant detention published by Parliament on Tuesday describes vulnerable people having to wait 10 weeks for a medical appointment.

Fear of deportation

During her time at Yarl’s Wood, Nantambi lived in fear she would be sent back to Uganda at any moment.

The only assessment they make [while a detainee is at Yarl’s Wood] is to check if you are fit for the deportation flight back home,” she said.

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, where people in same-sex relations can be sentenced to life in prison.

The socially conservative country is also rife with homophobic violence, according to Sexual Minorities Uganda, meaning there is a real danger to Nantambi’s physical health if she returns.

According to Amiss, the Home Office never keeps tabs on what happens to the people they deport.

BWRAP have called on the government to provide evidence proving the detainees they deport are safe and alive, she said.

Sudanese migrants live in a camp in Calais.(Reuters / Philippe Wojazer)

‘Close them down’

Nantambi spoke with RT after watching Channel 4’s news report from inside Yarl’s Wood.

Watching the [Channel 4 report] brought fresh memories of the torture women undergo there. It’s very upsetting when you witness that,” she said.

In response to the investigation, Serco said they were launching an independent review into the service at Yarl’s Wood, adding they would not tolerate “poor conduct or disrespect.

A Home Office spokesman echoed Serco’s comments, saying: “Lapses in standards, when they are identified, are dealt with swiftly and effectively.”

However Nantambi doesn’t want ‘improved standards.’ She wants Yarl’s Wood to be shut down completely.

READ MORE: ‘Expensive, ineffective & unjust’: MPs urge end to indefinite migrant detention

It breaks my heart to learn that they are only looking out to improve the service. It’s a prison,” she said.

Detention centers need to be closed down because they detain people indefinitely. There’s no cause for that,” she added.

Nantambi believes there is no justification for detaining migrants and asylum seekers, because in reality there is no risk they would ‘abscond’ into society given the limited rights they have.

After detainment, homelessness

Migrants and asylum seekers are forbidden by law to work in the UK, meaning those without a support network can become homeless.

This is what happened to Nantambi when she was finally released from Yarl’s Wood. She was able to appeal and escape detention with the aid of a ‘self-help guide’ published by Legal Action for Women.

She spent the next month and a half on the streets, often sheltering and sleeping in churches.

The Home Office finally agreed to offer me accommodation. I applied for it, but they refused [initially], that’s why I was homeless for six weeks,” she said.

Amiss told RT some women are forced to sleep on night buses and in Accident & Emergency lounges when they are released from migrant detention centers.

An uncertain future

Nantambi is still awaiting a decision regarding her status as an asylum seeker.

Every two weeks she makes a two-and-a-half hour journey to Croydon at a cost of £5, where she signs a register to prove she hasn’t absconded.

I have another hearing coming on 1 May, this is going to be a second hearing. I’m not sure what will happen after that,” she said.

Amiss said BWRAP will support Nantambi’s claim for asylum and protest the impact of her experience on her health.

Asked what she would like the government to do in response to the scandal, Amiss said: “We want an independent investigation into what has gone on in Yarl’s Wood.”

READ MORE: Yarl’s Wood asylum seekers ‘sexually abused by staff’ and ‘denied privacy’ – charity

All the people accused of rape and other crimes must be put on trial and brought to justice. There has to be an end to it."

We want to end the detention of mothers, pregnant women, victims of rape and other torture, and everyone who is vulnerable,” she added.

Widespread condemnation

Amnesty International condemned the immigration detention system as having “lost sight of the human lives at its heart.”

Steve Symonds, Amnesty UK’s Refugee and Migrant Program Director, said: “Detention should only ever be used in exceptional circumstances, but it’s become the norm.”

The campaign group also raised concerns about Northern Ireland’s Larne House temporary detention center, which can be the first port-of-call for illegal migrants and asylum seekers.

A petition to close Yarl’s Wood and end the detention of women seeking asylum on Change.org has received close to 70,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

By Tom Mellors -@TomMellors