People from all over the world come to the UK hoping for a better life, one free from oppression and injustice. However, not everyone finds this life: at Yarl’s Wood, an immigration removal centre for women in Bedfordshire, there is believed to be gross mistreatment of the detainees, who are battling deportation back to their respective countries, by the staff working there.
This week, Movement For Justice, a civil rights group, believe they uncovered shocking “human rights abuses” at the detention centre. One woman, Christine Nankya, 28, who is fighting deportation to Uganda was “dragged naked by male guards down corridors to be deported” according to eye witnesses. Christine, who is believed to be on suicide watch and mentally fragile, was heard screaming for her life as she was dragged, with only a blanket covering her, with her head held down. Furious protests ensued by fellow detainees who witnessed what they saw. All the detainees were then locked in whatever room they were in. Detainees have said that some of the women protesting – even though they were doing it peacefully – were put in King Fisher, the local prison.
It was later decided that Christine would not be deported, after she put up resistance at the airport. She is now under constant surveillance by a number of guards.
Christine is one of the many detainees who are believed to be escaping from horrendous treatment in their home countries, which include: genital mutilation, mistreatment or killing of LGBT people, forced marriages and trafficking. Christine, according to Movement For Justice, was sexually abused and raped by her father for many years, and, at the age of 19, had a child by him. She escaped to the UK, applied for asylum and was homeless for a long time. She fears persecution by friends and family if she goes back to Uganda, especially because she has an “illegitimate child”.
Melissa Tjeyamba, 30, is from Namibia and has been in the UK for eight years. She was told by a man called Gino, also known as “boss”, that he had found her work in the UK. When she arrived in the UK, with a “holiday working visa” – which was all arranged by Gino – she was told she must work as a prostitute. After prostituting herself in a London hotel for countless months, she managed to escape, went to live with her uncle and found work in a warehouse. However, her and her uncle were arrested recently to be deported back to Namibia. Her uncle was let free because he has a baby in the UK, but Melissa is facing deportation next month.
“I’m fighting for my life,” she says. “If I go back to Namibia, I’ve been told I’ll be killed.” Melissa also condemns the “racist” treatment she and other black detainees have faced in Yarl’s Wood. “Even the doctors don’t treat us fairly,” she says.
Florence Menjenguua, 27, has been very ill for over a week, violently vomiting, to the point her vomit is black. A week ago, she went to the doctor after being unable to even walk straight. The doctor gave her paracetamol which Florence begrudgingly took, knowing her illness was far more serious. When she went back to the doctor after the paracetamol’s failed to help, the doctor gave her some tablets. Over the course of a week, Florence has been given ten different tablets, which has worsened her condition.
She now feels she has a case to sue the doctor. But there is a problem. Florence was given a lawyer by Yarl’s Wood who she says has not been acting in her interests. “He doesn’t return my calls or respond to me,” she says. She feels there is a conspiracy taking place. “They [Yarl’s Wood] are working with the lawyer,” she says. “The lawyer is playing tricks on me.”
Florence feels defenceless. Like Melissa, Florence was also forced into prostitution when she arrived in the UK. “I was told I had an office job, but I was forced into prostitution, and if I didn’t do it, I was told I would be beaten up,” she says. She then became pregnant by one of her customers and had a baby (who is now living with her sister in Namibia).
Florence’s boss, who goes by the name of Madam Theresa, is known as someone who helps find young girls work. But Florence, having discovered what Madam Theresa really does, believes he is dangerous and must be stopped. “He must be killed before he causes more damage!” she says.
In July of this year, Florence heard someone at the door of where she was working as a prostitute. It was the UK border agency. When Florence was being arrested, Madam Theresa told her, in their own language, that if she said anything, she would be killed.
“Nobody at Yarl’s Wood believes I was being trafficked,” she says. “We are telling the truth from the bottom of our hearts but they think we are lying, and it makes us angry.” Florence feels she is in a lose/lose situation. At Yarl’s Wood she feels she is mistreated and even says detainees are beaten. But if she goes back to Namibia she fears for her life.
Florence feels she has no rights at Yarl’s Wood. “We can’t express how we feel. If we try to speak out, they put us in King Fisher [the local prison] or threaten us with a deportation ticket,” she says.
Another detainee, who didn’t want to be named, is fighting deportation back to Uganda, where she fears for her life because of her sexual orientation. After doing a course in catering in the UK she got a visa, but overstayed.
“I only have one or two members of my family in Uganda who I am on talking terms with because I am a lesbian,” she says. I have almost no human rights,” she adds.
“Nobody believes me here that I am a lesbian and there’s no way I can collect any evidence because I’m detained,” she says.
She also feels the deportation process is a mess. “The criteria for deportation [doesn’t make any sense]. Why are some people on fast-track to be deported and others aren’t when both their cases are familiar?”
Anthony Gard, a spokesman for Movement For Justice, says: “Fast-track is designed to make sure you don’t have a fair trial. You are taken in unprepared and rushed through in very stressful circumstances. It can take just two or three days and you’re almost always given a refusal. You can’t prepare your case properly because you don’t have access to the experts or any research,” he says.
One gets the feeling the conditions at Yarl’s Wood are often inhospitable. Florence says: “If we want to work, we are only paid 50p, £1 or £2 an hour, it isn’t fair. We are also told we’ll be here for seven days, but some are here for 11 months. There are also pregnant women and women are 60-years-old. Is this the Law of England?”
Gard adds: “They can only work for three hours a day and the main reason they work is so they can have a bit of credit on their phone. If you have a camera on your phone they normally take it from you.”
If detainees are being treated in the way they say they are, a formal investigation must be conducted immediately. The deportation process needs to be more thorough, rigorous and sympathetic, taking into account people’s circumstances, allowing them access to impartial lawyers and their medical concerns must be treated quickly and efficiently. Anything other than this is an egregious belittling of human rights. If our country is to stand on moral high ground and look down upon the mistreatment of people in other countries, we must first re-evaluate our own stance.
* The case studies provided are all based on phone interviews done with detainees and Movement For Justice and cannot be 100% verified.
* First names have been used in the case of detainees for the sake of ease and accuracy, as some of their surnames can’t be fully verified.