Chinese women being trafficked to UK suffer further harm as detention numbers nearly double

‘They made me have sex with men who would come to the house where I was imprisoned. If I tried to refuse they would beat me and starve me. I would often go for three days with no food or water,’ says woman in Yarl’s Wood

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Monday 08 July 2019 23:09 BST
Chinese women being trafficked to UK suffer further harm as detention numbers nearly double

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Chinese women who were trafficked to the UK are being detained here where they suffer further harm as it emerges the number of Chinese women in detention centres has almost doubled in recent years.

The most recent statistics show 228 Chinese women were detained across 2016 in the UK, but this number jumped to 420 in 2018.

Experts attribute this rise to an increase in raids on brothels and massage parlours – noting the figures starkly contrast with the overall trend of the number of people in detention falling.

There were 1,839 people held in the detention estate at the end of March 2019, which is one third less than a year earlier.

A new report by Women for Refugee Women, which is the first of its kind, found the Home Office is breaking its own policies and locking up Chinese trafficking survivors in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, despite the fact they have suffered abuse and trauma while being trafficked into sex or labour exploitation.

Home Office guidelines state individuals with indicators of trafficking should be housed in safe accommodation and given emotional and practical support while their case is being considered. It also stipulates vulnerable people, including victims of trafficking and gender-based violence, should not generally be detained.

The report found the Home Office is ignoring the fact Chinese women – who currently make up the largest group by nationality of women in Yarl’s Wood – have been trafficked and is failing to support them.

The study, which looks at the case files of 14 Chinese women detained in the last year, found these women are being kept in detention for very long periods – every one of the 14 cases considered was detained for more than a month – even when their mental health is clearly deteriorating.

Gemma Lousley, author of the report, said women from China tend to be detained for longer than other detainees because they often struggle to access legal help due to language barriers. She said they had encountered women who have been detained for over six months, whereas the majority of detainees are out within a month.

“Chinese women have been neglected by research in this area,” she said. “They can be both isolated from other women in detention and also in terms of any other help they may get. These are some of the most extreme cases we have ever seen because of the sexual exploitation they experience. They are subjected to repeated and violent exploitation. There are women who have been forced to have sex with ten men every day.

“If women refuse to have sex with clients they can either be threatened with violence or actually beaten or deprived of food or water. Women we spoke to had significant mental health problems. It was very disturbing. Lots experience suicidal thoughts and self-harm. One woman had started to experience hallucinations and psychotic symptoms because she had been in detention for so long.

“The detention system is institutionally racist. If they were British non-migrant women, they would have been offered support and protection, but the exact opposite has happened.”

Ms Lousley said a significant number of Chinese women they have spoken to, who were not included in the report, have also disclosed some form of trafficking.

A Chinese woman in Yarl’s Wood, who chose to remain anonymous, said: “The gang leaders forced me to do things that I didn’t want to do, things that made me feel ashamed. They made me have sex with men who would come to the house where I was imprisoned.

“If I tried to refuse they would beat me and starve me. I would often go for three days with no food or water. Then one day men in uniforms came to the house. I was terrified and tried to hide but they found me. They dragged me out and took me to the police station. Later, I was put in another van. It drove for a long time through the night and ended up at Yarl’s Wood. I was taken from one hell to another.”

Home Office statistics show 3,641 women entered immigration detention in 2018 – with 420 of these being Chinese.

Some 92 per cent of Chinese women who had claimed asylum were released from detention to continue with their asylum claim within the community – with researchers arguing this demonstrates their detention served no purpose.

Natasha Walter, the director of Women for Refugee Women, said she has “never heard stories more harrowing” than those of Chinese trafficked women in detention in all of the time she has worked with refugee and asylum-seeking women.

She added: “These women have suffered extreme abuse and exploitation and do not receive the support and protection that is promised in policies. Instead, they are locked up and threatened with deportation. This situation must change now.”

Shalini Patel, a human rights lawyer that specialises in immigration who worked closely with the trafficking victims cited in the report, attributed the recent rise in the detention of Chinese women to an increase in immigration officials and police targeting brothels and massage parlours.

“One of my clients was approached by what she thought was a client but it was undercover police,” she said. “A lot of the women I represent have been here for many years and have been exploited in lots of different environments which points to the fact they have not just arrived.”

Emily Kenway, of Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), an organisation which works to end human trafficking for labour exploitation, argued the rise in Chinese women being detained was linked to the Modern Slavery Act, which became law in 2015.

She added: “The act led to more raids on massage parlours and brothels to identify slavery victims but clearly the Home Office is ignoring international best practice and its own guidance is making detainment the first choice rather than the last choice. They are trigger happy with detention as this shows.

“The act has led to increased pressure for the police to identify victims and to instigate prosecutions. But we are calling for a firewall between immigration enforcement and policing. If you are a police officer and you encounter someone who may be a victim of exploitation or might be being abused, you should not ask their immigration status.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Detention is an important part of the immigration system – but it must be fair, dignified and protect the most vulnerable.

“We have made significant improvements to our approach in recent years, but remain committed to going further. We continue to explore alternatives to detention, increase transparency around immigration detention, further improve the support available for vulnerable detainees and initiate a new drive on detainee dignity.

“Any person we encounter who claims they are a victim of trafficking will, with their consent, be referred to the National Referral Mechanism. Their claim will then be considered by a trained specialist.”

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