Detainee at Yarl's Wood Detention Centre as hundreds call for its closure during 2015 protest

‘Cruel’ and ‘Nasty’ Treatment of Asylum Seekers at Yarl’s Wood

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How do you make an asylum seeker in the UK feel even more scared, vulnerable and traumatised?

Answer: Put them in a portacabin on a remote, bleak industrial estate right next to an Immigration Removal Centre. 

This is exactly what the Home Office is planning to do, and in double-quick time. It’s using emergency powers to construct prefab-style accommodation next to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre for 200 asylum seekers and without seeking planning permission in the usual way.

It sounds like the stuff of nightmares.

Jeremy Bloom is a solicitor with Duncan Lewis Public Law. He’s representing Rosie Newbigging, a former Labour parliamentary candidate and volunteer for the charity Care4Calais, in her fight against the government’s plans. 

‘The Home Office needs to justify why this is an emergency and why there aren’t alternatives,’

Jeremy told Immigration News. ‘We have concerns about the lawfulness of these measures in terms of planning requirements. There’s virtually nothing to suggest that the Home Office has properly undertaken impact assessments in terms of the environment or equality.’

‘I am morally outraged by the absolute cruelty of the Home Office plans. They have to be stopped,’ Rosie told us. ‘The Home Office seems impervious to media and moral pressure as well as to MPs, the council, local people and campaign groups who speak out against it. We’ve no other recourse other than legal action.’

Stock image of prefabricated building [Image: Bannafarsai_Stock, Shutterstock]

The Home Office told us, ‘We are unable to comment on ongoing legal action.’ It added that it was ‘committed to open and transparent engagement,’ and that the proposed accommodation was up to standard. 

Louise Jackson is Portfolio Holder for Public Health and Wellbeing at Bedford Council. She made this withering assessment of the plans.

‘I think it’s a pretty horrible model,’ she told Immigration News. ‘We are talking about people who have made perilous journeys. They’re quite possibly traumatised and may have both physical and mental health problems. They’re certainly not going to be made to feel very welcome. 

‘Before I saw what was planned, I thought it sounded like a pretty horrendous way to treat people. When I saw the plans, I was even more appalled by what they were trying to do. It’s just horrible and I don’t believe that there aren’t alternatives.’

She also raised the possibility of a COVID outbreak which she claimed would be incredibly difficult to manage.

So why would the Home Office want to pursue the building of these portacabins? They told us that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the asylum system has faced ‘significant pressures and it has become necessary to use additional temporary accommodation to ensure the Home Office can continue to meet all of its statutory obligations.’

Jeremy, Rosie and Louise all point out that there are hundreds of empty hotels and university halls of residence at the moment which would be far more appropriate places to house asylum seekers on a temporary basis. 

‘I don’t believe for one minute that there aren’t alternatives, but I think that these just don’t fit the Home Office’s agenda,’ Louise believes. ‘There’s something really nasty about all this. There’s something deeply unpleasant about wanting to treat a vulnerable group of people in this way.’

Rosie has raised over £21,000 in little over a week through to help fund her legal battle against the government. There are clearly many people who have serious misgivings about the spin the Home Office is putting on its plan. 

2015: Detainee at Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre as hundreds call for its closure during protest [Image: Pete Maclaine, Shutterstock]

The message sent to asylum seekers by housing them right next to a detention centre is also causing concern.

‘There is likely to be a kind of blurring of boundaries between those being housed in this temporary accommodation and those held in detention for the purpose of removal and on the same site,’ solicitor, Jeremy Bloom explained. 

Now in recovery, Reneé McAlister suffered from PTSD for many years.  We asked her about the potential effects on a fellow sufferer and asylum seeker were they to be placed in the proposed Yarl’s Wood accommodation.

‘People who experience PTSD are likely to be on high alert and very fearful,’ she said. ’The proximity to a detention centre would surely exacerbate these emotions and I feel their distress in this situation may harm them psychologically. 

‘These people will be experiencing layers upon layers of emotional anguish. People with PTSD need calm, quiet and support from qualified professionals. They do not need to be stuck in a box next to a building that they see as a threat.’

Rosie Newbigging is also very concerned. ‘I think the risk of serious self harm or suicide is a very present risk if people are placed at Yarl’s Wood,’ she told us. ‘I think we have a government that doesn’t care.’ 

Barbara Probst is a retired psychotherapist who spent many years working with traumatised asylum seekers. ‘My experience of working with asylum seekers incarcerated in a detention centre with language and culture barriers with fellow detainees is that their mental health deteriorated, some to the point where they had suicidal ideation,’ she told Immigration News.

‘They were all awaiting deportation with no notice of when they would be sent back to the place they fled. Unlike prisoners, they had no sentence so no future apart from fear.’

Protestors from 2015 calling for the closure of the centre, calling it a ‘prison’ – now repurposed into a holding centre for people who have crossed the Channel [Image: BBC News]

Local GPs are already at full capacity dealing with the pandemic and vaccination programme. The fear is that those with serious mental health problems which may stem both from what they have fled and what they now face will simply fall through the cracks. 

‘There is considerable anxiety from our local healthcare leaders about how they will be able to deliver healthcare with the resources that they have,’ Louise told us.

One of the consequences of Brexit may mean that it is easier for the Home Office to remove asylum seekers on the basis that their claims are inadmissible. There are therefore fears that there could be a wider potential motive behind the moves the Home Office is making at Yarl’s Wood.

Some final words from Rosie, ‘These proposed portacabins in Yarl’s Wood will be a prison within a prison if they go ahead. This is Tory cruelty and Tory incompetence, feathering the nest of big business while people suffer. It’s got to be called out at every level.’

[Header Image: Pete Maclaine, Shutterstock]