The Government is routinely detaining victims of sexual violence in breach of its own guidelines, damning new research has found.
Despite policy introduced last year stating that it is wrong to detain “at risk” or vulnerable people, including women who have survived sexual and gender-based violence, findings show that victims are still being locked up – with many becoming suicidal as a result.
Research by charity Women for Refugee Women reveals that 85 per cent of women who have sought asylum and been detained after the new policy came into force are survivors of rape or other gender-based violence, including forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced prostitution.
The Home Office’s failure to comply with its own policy has been described as “callous disregard” for the wellbeing of vulnerable people, and has prompted fierce criticism from politicians, lawyers and campaigners who say the system is in need of urgent change.
The "Adult at Risk" policy came into force in September 2016 in response to the Shaw review, which was commissioned by the Government following widespread concerns about the detention system. It states that survivors of sexual or gender-based violence are recognised as “at risk”, and so unsuitable for detention.
The new research, which interviewed 28 women placed in detention since the policy was implemented, found that the vast majority of sexual violence victims had been detained for more than a month. All said they were depressed, with almost half having thought about killing themselves in detention and two having attempted suicide.
One woman, Priscilla, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a lesbian from a country where it is illegal to be gay. Her family forced her to marry a man she didn’t know, who subsequently brought her to the UK.
After several years of marriage, during which he controlled and mentally abused her, as well as forcing her to have sex with him, her husband divorced her. She felt she couldn’t go back to her country due to her sexuality.
In 2017, Priscilla was arrested and taken to Yarl’s Wood. The Home Office said they didn’t believe she was a lesbian and refused her asylum application. They accepted evidence confirming abuse she was subject to at the hands of her husband, but they kept her in detention.
Eventually, after six months in detention, Priscilla got a Rule 35 report - a mechanism that identifies particularly vulnerable detainees. But although the Home Office accepted the report, they still kept her in Yarl’s Wood.
“I was starting to feel desperate. I could never sleep properly. I just felt so down, like I was in pain, but I never knew when I was going to be relieved from it. I started to feel like I was losing it, I was so stressed,” she said.
A few days after she got the Rule 35 report, Priscilla found out the Home Office was going to put her on a charter flight. But a few hours before the flight was going to take off, her solicitor managed to halt the deportation and a week later, the Home Office released her.
Responding to the findings, Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, told The Independent: “Just a glance at some of the case studies reveals the callous disregard for people's wellbeing in the Government's approach - and the urgent need for change.
”The Government's cruel failure to comply with their own policy inflicts further suffering on people who have already experienced violence against them. It's inhumane and unnecessarily harsh - which is why it needs overhauling.”
Conservative MP for Meriden, Caroline Spelman, said: “It is vital to have a transparent process to ensure that vulnerable women are protected in detention and Home Office policy needs to be properly implemented and monitored.”
Natasha Walter, founder of Women for Refugee Women and author of the report, said the findings were "hugely disappointing", urging that detention is traumatic for individual women, and it is also "unnecessary, expensive and inefficient".
“We need to move away from detention and build a fair asylum process in which cases are heard and resolved while refugees are living in the community, so that they are able to start rebuilding their lives,” she said.
Toufique Hossain, director of public law and immigration at law firm Duncan Lewis, told The Independent the research set out "very accurately" what legal representatives already knew about vulnerable women in immigration detention.
"When confronted by survivors of sexual and gender-based violence the Secretary of State turns her face and detains them. It has long been established that such survivors should not be detained because they are particularly vulnerable and are at a higher risk of being re-traumatised in detention," he added.
"More shockingly, the Secretary of State pursues her defence in many cases, trying to justify detention of these women even after accepting their accounts of appalling suffering. It is a matter of great shame and a stain on this Government."
Celia Clarke, director of charity Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), said the charity routinely comes across people who have been detained despite being survivors of gender-based violence, as well as people who suffer from mental health conditions and victims of torture.
“Through our work we routinely encounter people who have been detained despite suffering from mental health conditions, are survivors of gender-based violence or are victims of torture. We witness that the very act of being detained can place an adult at risk," she said.
"Yet the Home Office’s Adults at Risk policy does little to address the very real concerns raised in the Shaw Review of the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention.
“Worse, the act of categorising different levels of evidence places a still higher threshold for individuals to have to reach to ‘prove’ their vulnerability. In all cases the presumption should be against detention if any risk or vulnerability exists. This policy does not come close to protecting adults at risk from further harm by being detained.”
It comes after the High Court declared the Government's policy on torture victims is unlawful, after being told asylum seekers fleeing persecution were being wrongly detained.
A Home Office spokesperson said: "Detention is an important part of our immigration system, helping to ensure that those with no right to remain in the UK are returned to their home country if they will not leave voluntarily.
“We operate on a presumption against detention, and the 'Adults at Risk' policy aims to improve our approach to identifying individuals who may be particularly vulnerable to harm in detention. When people are detained this is for the minimum time possible, and the dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies