Melanie McFadyean: The scandal that is Yarl's Wood

To those familiar with our detention centres, a hunger strike comes as no surprise

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The fire that consumed Yarl's Wood immigration detention centre in February 2002 a few months after it opened looks in retrospect like an omen. It has been a profoundly troubled place ever since. For the past three weeks women at the centre have been on hunger strike to draw attention to conditions and demand an end to indefinite detention for women and children. At the weekend their supporters said 34 women were still on hunger strike. Five have been taken to prison, none has been charged.

Last week John McDonnell MP tabled an early day motion in response to the hunger strike asking for an immediate inspection by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) into "reports of violence, mistreatment and racist abuse from guards, being kettled for over five hours in a hallway, denied access to toilets and water and locked out in the freezing cold." The EDM asked for a "moratorium on all removals ... of the women who took part in the hunger strike pending the results of that investigation." Senior Home Office officials will face questions this week over allegations that women were assaulted by some staff using riot shields (a claim which a spokesman dismissed as "unfounded and untrue").

Asked how many women are still on hunger strike, the Home Office issued a statement from minister Meg Hillier saying that "campaigning groups are being deliberately misled" and that women "refusing food" are buying it from the shop in the centre. (She also said they were getting it from visitors but visitors aren't allowed to take food in.) Whatever the case, there is no doubt that detainees are continuing their protest, which comes as no surprise to people familiar with the UK's immigration detention centres. However spruced up they are, psychologically they are hell holes.

I have been watching events unfold at Yarl's Wood since the fire which I reported on and have been there several times. I have spoken to detainees whose often horrifying stories are substantiated by reports by HMIP, the Children's Commissioner, The Prisons and Probations Ombudsman , NGOs, local visitors, the Yarl's Wood Befrienders, charities and groups such as Medical Justice, and doctors working voluntarily with detainees.

Two years ago I was invited into the centre by the Home Office with a colleague with whom I was writing an article cataloguing detainees' allegations of inadequate health care. We were taken along its miles of corridors with officials talking up the library, the computers, the canteen, the shop, the medical centre, rooms with screens for film shows, sofas, a break-out room with hippy cushions, newly painted walls. We were told that staff were encouraged to regard detainees as residents and the centre as their home.

If this PR exercise was designed to convince us that everything was hunky dory, it backfired. Off the route of the guided tour, we noticed a van parked by a side door. A custody officer carried out a child of about four, then a toddler, then a baby. Their mother, an Indian woman, followed. The van door was protected by a grille, there was caging in the back of the van and Plexiglas dividing passengers and drivers. (Caged vans have since been phased out.) But it was the so-called gardens which capped it all – tired green spaces dwarfed by the high fence garlanded with razor wire. As we looked into one of these yards, a door opened and a line of children came out.

"We stand by our contention that arrest and detention are inherently damaging to children, and that Yarl's Wood is no place for a child," writes children's commissioner Sir Al Aynsley Green in his second report into Yarl's Wood, published this month. When I spoke to him after my visit, he said: "There's a paradox between the way our citizen children are treated and the way those caught up in this dreadful situation are treated. I am angry."

Another visit to Yarl's Wood epitomises its atmosphere. The woman I was visiting was mute with misery. Although she wept, her face was expressionless. She was like a living dead person. She had been tortured. Torture survivors are only meant to be detained in "exceptional circumstances" but they are nevertheless routinely locked up. Being locked up in one of the UK's 11 immigration detention centres is another kind of torture, the torture of limbo, of being held indefinitely without being accused of any crime, terrified of being forcibly sent back to the country they have fled.

Whatever your opinion about asylum issues, you'd have to be stupid and nasty not to see that incarcerating anyone in these centres, no matter how comfortable they may be, is a shameful way to treat adults, let alone children. It's done in our name, paid for by our taxes, creating profits for private companies and their shareholders. Christopher Hyman, Chief Executive of Serco Group plc, which runs Yarl's Wood, announced on publication of profits last year: "We were awarded record level of contracts, entered a number of important new markets, and delivered a strong financial performance."

David Wood, strategic director of criminality and detention at the UK Border Agency, said that families are held for very long periods only in "wholly exceptional" circumstances. How long is very long for a child? A week is enough to cause lasting trauma. Most are held for two. Wood says the majority of cases of prolonged detention were the fault of parents making "vexatious" legal claims and using judicial review to delay removal.

Ministers insist detention is necessary to stop people absconding. But research shows that only 10 per cent are likely to do so, and those least likely to abscond are families with children. A Human Rights Watch report published last week backs this up, saying that women are held in detention for administrative convenience, have very little time to prepare a legal case, and if refused, only a few days to appeal. Their claims often involve sexual violence, female genital mutilation, trafficking, domestic abuse, things which take women time and trust to disclose and lawyers time to verify. If removal means returning – and how much worse with children – to abuse, torture and possibly execution, anyone would use every vestige of the law to defend their claim. Vexatious? Think about it.

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