A woman in custody, suffering from a miscarriage, has to wait three hours before seeing a doctor. Female detainees are called “black bitches”, threatened and sexually humiliated. When they self-harm, guards shout or accuse them of seeking attention. One detainee jumps off a stairwell and breaks her neck, ending up in a wheelchair.
None of these women has committed a crime but they are locked up, some without knowing what comes next. I recently met a victim of mass rape, who claims she was “hand-raped” (her words) by a guard. He told her he was checking how much damage had really been done and if she was OK and still “enjoyed it”. She is now out but too afraid to complain.
This is happening here, in your land and mine, this country which trumpets its great British values and is happily commemorating Magna Carta this year.
Don’t believe me? Well watch Channel 4 News tomorrow at 7pm. An undercover reporter has filmed interviews with the women and guards in Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire. What is revealed is chilling – as disturbing as similar secret investigations of care homes. The Home Office keeps these places well hidden from the public eye. I know two serious and award-winning reporters who have tried to get access to Yarl’s Wood and were blocked. So well done Channel 4, which in the past two years has given us some brilliant journalistic scoops and sting operations, including the Dispatches programme which exposed Straw and Rifkind.
Few Britons know much about the 12 detention centres where migrants and asylum-seekers are held until deported. Even fewer care about what happens there. The poor in our country get little pity or understanding. And foreigners who desperately need our help are seen as a threat, a silent enemy.
More than 3,000 men, women and children are currently locked up. A small percentage of them are illegal immigrants, but others just want a better life while many have fled here after being tortured, raped, trafficked or sold. They are all at the mercy of guards and managers. Inspectors of prisons go in from time to time and express tepid concern. They are, after all, employed by the Home Office and must stay within the fold.
Yarl’s Wood is among the worst of these internment camps. It is run by Serco, a private company which keeps getting lucrative government contracts in spite of spectacular proven failures in some bits of the NHS and Prison Service. Women for Refugee Women, led by the erstwhile Independent columnist Natasha Walter, campaigns to get these women basic rights. They have called for the detention to end because so many of the women are not criminals; they are survivors of heinous crimes. Since 2005 there have been four major hunger strikes at Yarl’s Wood. The actresses and campaigners Angeline Jolie, Romola Garai and Juliet Stevenson are among those who have spoken up for these double victims.
Earlier this year a report by Women for Refugee Women shocked even the right-wing press into reporting the worst abuses by staff. Women said they were watched when they went to the toilet or showered, that they were treated as “worse than animals”. Sexual relations with inmates were allegedly instigated by staff. Some were dismissed after the exploitation was discovered. Each revelation is followed by an automated response from the Home Office and Serco spokespeople: “We take all complaints very seriously blah, blah, blah”. Then it is back to business as usual. The same will happen tomorrow.
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
1/41 Yemeni refugees
Yemeni refugees carry water to their tent at the Mazraq internally displaced people's camp in the northwestern province of Hajja
2/41 Yemeni refugees
A displaced man from Yemen's Saada province amid UNHCR tents at a camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mazraq in Yemen's Hajja region, 360 kms northwest of Sanaa
3/41 Yemeni refugees
Yemeni refugees queue to get food aid at the Marzaq internally displaced people's camp in Harad in the northwestern province of Hajjah
4/41 Yemeni refugees
Displaced Yemenis from al-Jaachan Al-Ansin, a village in the province of Ibb, some 200km South-East of Sanaa, stand next to their tents in a makeshift refugee camp in Sanaa
5/41 Yemeni refugees
Yemeni refugees walk to a refugee camp in the southern Saudi province of Jizan after crossing the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia
6/41 Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees arrive in Turkey at the Cilvegozu crossing gate of Reyhanli, in Hatay. The number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit, the UN refugee agency (UNCHR) said, in an annual report released on World Refugee Day
7/41 Syrian refugees
Syrian refugees walking among tents at Karkamis' refugee camp near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey
8/41 Sudanese refugees
South Sudanese refugees waiting for food in the Kule refugee camp near the Pagak Border Entry point in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia
9/41 African refugees
African refugees live homelessly at a temporary shelter beside a road on World Refugee Day in Sana'a, Yemen. The number of African refugees who have come to Yemen during the past few years has reached 750,000, most of them are Somalis
10/41 Iraqi refugees
An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. The militants' capture of Iraq's cities of Mosul and Tikrit makes their dream of a new Islamic state look more realistic. It already controlled a swath of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, with a spottier presence extending further west nearly to Aleppo, Syria's largest city. In Raqqa, the biggest city it holds in Syria, it imposes taxes, rebuilds bridges and enforces the law - its strict version of Shariah
11/41 Iraqi refugees
Refugees queue to register at a temporary camp in northern Iraq
12/41 Syrian refugees
A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
13/41 Syrian refugees
A child refugee from the northern province of Raqqa in Syria, reacts from the cold weather in a Syrian refugee camp beside the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley
14/41 Syrian refugees
Boys help their father remove snow in front of their tent in the Azaz refugee camp
15/41 Syrian refugees
A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
16/41 Syrian refugees
A child refugee stands next to a home constructed using a billboard in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
17/41 Syrian refugees
Refugee baby Rim in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
18/41 African refugees
Refugees arriving at a camp near Bossangoa, 190 miles north of Bangui, the capital. Forty-one thousand people fled their homes following mass executions in the area
Juan Carlos Tomasi/Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders
19/41 Syrian refugees
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
20/41 Iraqi refugees
A women and a girl wash at a tap at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint in Kalak. Thousands of people have fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region
21/41 Iraqi refugees
Families arrive at a Kurdish checkpoint next to a temporary displacement camp in Kalak
22/41 Iraqi refugees
An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. Days after Iraq's second-largest city fell to Isis fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades
23/41 Iraqi refugees
A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region
24/41 Iraqi refugees
A displaced Iraqi woman washes her family's laundry as the children shower outside their tent at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province in Aski kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil
25/41 Iraqi refugees
Iraqi refugees from Mosul arrive at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad
26/41 Sudanese refugees
The international Red Cross said that the road from Bor to the nearby Awerial area 'is lined with thousands of people' waiting for boats so they could cross the Nile River and that the gathering of displaced 'is the largest single identified concentration of displaced people in the country so far'
27/41 Sudanese refugees
People unload the few belongings at Minkammen, that they were able to bring with them to the camps
28/41 Sudanese refugees
Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village of Minkammen, a once-tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts 25 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Bor
29/41 Sudanese refugees
Many people had spent days hiding out in the bush outside Bor as gunmen battled for control of the town, which has exchanged hands three times in the conflict, and remains in rebel control
30/41 Sudanese refugees
A young boy pulls his suitcase of belongings as he walks to find a place to rest after getting off a river barge from Bor
31/41 Sudanese refugees
A displaced family camp under a tree providing partial shade from the midday sun
32/41 Sudanese refugees
A boy carries a fish, caught from the nearby Nile river, in a cardboard box on his head back to his relatives to eat
33/41 Sudanese refugees
A mother and her baby, one of the few to have a mosquito net, wake up in the morning after sleeping in the open
34/41 Sudanese refugees
Four-month old Haida Majzub was born in the Ajuong Thok refugee camp inside South Sudan. The camp, in northern Unity State, hosts thousands of refugees from the Nuba Mountains, located across the nearby border with Sudan
35/41 Sudanese refugees
A girl fills a container with muddy water in the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp
36/41 Sudanese refugees
The clashes in South Sudan began when uniformed personnel opened fire at a meeting of the governing party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement
37/41 Myanmar refugees
45 year old Dilbhar looks towards the camera as she stands in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. She escaped to Bangladesh from the Bodchara village in the Mondu district of Myanmar
38/41 Myanmar refugees
32 year old Mahada Khatum, 5 year old Hasan Sharif, and 9 year old Umma Kulsum sit outside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. The family escaped violence and discrimination from the Zomgara Baharchara village in the Meherulla district of Myanmar
39/41 Myanmar refugees
Hamid and his daughter Rajama sit inside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. They fled to Bangladesh from the Dhuachopara village in the Rachidhong district of Myanmar
40/41 Afghan refugees
Afghan children wait for relief supplies from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
41/41 Afghan refugees
Afghan people carry relief supplies received from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
That is unless decent politicians and people speak up. To date the Tory MP Richard Fuller and Labour’s Yvette Cooper have expressed serious concern. If this were Zimbabwe or Congo or Syria, Britons would be horrified and vocal. But when the violated from those same countries come to us, outrage is replaced by paranoia: “If we show them kindness, attend to their suffering, give them basic rights, think of the millions who will rush in. How then will we cope?” That must be the psychological defence which comes into play, and I do, in part, sympathise. But remember this: we take hardly any refugees in this country. To date only 100 Syrian women and children have been accepted by us when other European nations have taken in thousands.
As Jolie says, “refugees are the bravest people I know”. They leave behind parents, friends, even children. The late, extraordinarily empathetic Helen Bamber, who set up the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, once asked me: “How can we make people believe the stories we know to be true? How can we warm their hearts?” Maybe this programme on Channel 4 will do that. Seeing, after all, is believing. But I fear the British heart has turned to ice and now not even God can melt it.
Remember the past, yes, but don’t fetishise it
It was 50 years ago, on 8 March 1965, that American combat troops landed on Nam O Beach in Da Nang to join the civil war between the South Vietnamese and the Communist North Vietnamese. Ten years later the war ended with three million Vietnamese and 58,000 American soldiers dead. Two thirds of the Vietnamese were civilians; the US soldiers were conscripts. Some died terrible deaths in traps set for them in the jungle and many others never recovered from the trauma. US planes sprayed Agent Orange over fields to destroy the land. A large number of babies thereafter were born with terrible deformities.
As the war dragged on, the world and young Americans turned against the intervention. I was out weekly on anti-war demos in Uganda. Jane Fonda went out to support the Viet Cong, and remains unforgiven by US veterans. The world’s biggest power retreated, and the rest is history.
I went to Vietnam in January and fell in love with the place, as so many do. Incredibly, after all this, the country seems reborn and reconciled. The horrors of the war are shown in museums, and guides recount grisly tales, but 50 years on the country blooms with optimism and refuses to be trapped in the past. They do still adore Hanoi Jane, but Americans going there are welcomed with genuine warmth. As one told me: “I thought I would be stalked by blame and hate. Not at all.” Not fetishising the bad past brings great rewards. Many nations and peoples could learn from that.