Entrance to the Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal CentreBEDFORDSHIRE, England (WOMENSENEWS)–Four women held at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre are taking the British Home Office to court over the mistreatment they say they received by the U.K. Border Agency and the center’s management during a recent hunger-strike protest and throughout their incarceration.

The High Court gave the go-ahead to the case on "an urgent basis" in March and it is expected to be heard in full this summer.

Coincidentally, a March 24 report by Chief Inspector of Prisons Dame Anne Owers on a November 2009 unannounced inspection, which attracted widespread coverage in the British press, flags the absence of facilities for detained women.

Owers noted some improvements in the treatment of children since inspections in 2008 and 2009, with a new school and more medical services available. But the focus on improving the environment for children, she wrote, "appeared to have led to a lack of attention to the needs of the majority population of women."

The report called provision of activities for women "among the poorest seen in any removal center." Owers said there was little paid work and the quality and quantity of education had declined since the last inspection.

Support for women who self-harmed was described as "inconsistent" and there were said to be no proper mental health assessments, even though 10 percent of the women had been detained for more than six months.

In February 2010, at least 50 women detained at Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire, in southern England, went on a hunger strike–some for several weeks–to protest conditions and at the indefinite detention of women and children.

Lawyers Charge Mistreatment

"Over 70 women were locked for several hours in a hot, airless corridor . . . and forced to urinate and vomit where they stood," Birmingham-based law firm Public Interest Lawyers or PIL, which is representing the four women, said in a public statement on the case. "Several women collapsed but received no medical assistance, and a window was slammed on one detainee’s finger, ripping her nail off. One of PIL’s clients was beaten by guards using riot shields as she and 18 other women were detained outside in the snow for over four hours."

Charges of routine mistreatment also leveled at the Home Office by Public Interest Lawyers include racist abuse by center staff and opening of personal mail.

Home Office Minister Meg Hillier stirred controversy after she wrote to members of Parliament to dispute the authenticity of the hunger strike, saying strikers were in fact buying food from the center’s shop and receiving supplies from guests. The hunger strikers denied Hillier’s claims in a statement issued via the London-based Black Women’s Rape Action Project.

Women who had suffered severe physical and sexual abuse were being held at Yarl’s Wood under a procedure for expediting assessment of asylum claims, two rights groups found in March. In their joint assessment, both groups said high-speed processing did not give women "the opportunity to reveal relevant information that would substantiate their cases." The findings came from the London-based Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Torture Victims Undergo Unsuitable Procedures

Donna CoveySonya Sceats, policy officer at the Medical Foundation, said in a statement that torture victims are categorically unsuitable for inclusion in fast-track procedures.

"However, in practice significant numbers of torture victims–including women who have survived horrendous sexual abuse–are winding up in there," the statement said.

Yarl’s Wood, run by Hampshire-based services company Serco on behalf of the U.K. Border Agency, has been the subject of long-running charges of cruelty and neglect by rights groups.

Immigration Minister Phil Woolas has defended Yarl’s Wood and the government’s handling of asylum seeker families.

"The sad fact is that some illegal immigrants refuse to comply with the decision of the independent courts and return home voluntarily," he said in a March statement. "The alternatives to centers like Yarl’s Wood include putting children into care–which would mean separating them from their parents and risking increased child trafficking and further illegal immigration."

Donna Covey, chief executive of the London-based Refugee Council, the United Kingdom’s largest refugee agency, is demanding a comprehensive review of the government’s policy of detaining many asylum seekers.

"These are women who have committed no crime and their detention is inhumane, unnecessary and a waste of public money," said Covey in an interview with Women’s eNews. "The government must rethink its policy on detention as a matter of urgency– stop detaining children altogether and find an alternative for adults. Where detention is used, it must be only where absolutely necessary and for the shortest time possible."

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer based in Manchester, Britain. Her work can be found at http://www.sarahirving.net.

For more information:

Yarl’s Wood Information Page, Black Women’s Rape Action Project:

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales:

Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture: