The Home Office wants to keep the horrors of Yarl’s Wood a secret – here’s what happened to me

Released the day before parliament’s summer recess, a government report has revealed traumatised people like myself are still being locked up indefinitely in detention centres

Wednesday 25 July 2018 18:00 BST
For some reason, the Home Office makes no effort to find out what has happened to people before they lock them up
For some reason, the Home Office makes no effort to find out what has happened to people before they lock them up (Aliya Mirza)

Yesterday, the Home Office published Stephen Shaw’s second review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. Two years after his first set of recommendations, the review found that very little has changed with thousands of vulnerable people still being locked up for “deeply troubling lengths of time”. I am one of those vulnerable people. Being locked up in Yarl’s Wood twice has turned my world upside down. I came here to escape abuse, but for me Yarl’s Wood was just another torture.

The first time I was locked up in Yarl’s Wood I was in there for three months. My room was like a prison cell. When I walked in, my new roommate was taking a shower in the corner. The mattress on the bed was plastic, thin and hard. The floor too, was like plastic over concrete. Under our beds there was a drain that we tried to cover with sanitary towels because it stunk like a sewer. I think this was for washing the floor when women cut themselves or were sick. It was like living in a bathroom, a bathroom that you share with a stranger.

One of the hardest parts was not knowing when I’d be released or what would happen to me if I got sent back home. I was treated like a target for deportation, not a person. If I had been sent back I would be dead by now, or been exploited by men who raped me before.

Indefinite detention is disgraceful. There needs to be a time limit on how long the Home Office can keep people locked up because the not-knowing is destroying people’s minds. I saw women in there starving themselves, cutting themselves, jumping off staircases – I cannot tell you how traumatising it was to see those things.

I am out now but I have not recovered. My hair started falling out in there because of the stress. It hasn’t grown back, so my hair is gone. I still don’t sleep properly and I’m lucky if I get an hour each night. I suffer from extreme anxiety.

Yesterday’s Shaw Review says that the government’s new Adults at Risk policy has not worked to reduce the number of vulnerable people in detention. This doesn’t surprise me. I met with Stephen Shaw in December last year with a group of women who’d also been in Yarl’s Wood for a long time. Every single one of us had experienced so much trauma but were still somehow detained. Why hasn’t the policy been implemented?

For some reason, the Home Office makes no effort to find out what has happened to people before they lock them up. There needs to be people in the system working to identify vulnerable people to ensure they aren’t then detained. These people should be trained to make traumatised people feel comfortable and ask them questions about their lives, to actively find out what happened.

Both times I was detained I was only asked very general questions about my health. It took a lot of support from Women for Refugee Women, for me to be able to speak out about what had happened to me back home and why I couldn’t go back there. I didn’t know that what I had been through was trafficking.

With the Home Office it’s like the left hand is not talking to the right hand. There’s such poor coordination and communication. When they accepted that I was a survivor of trafficking and forced prostitution they said they were going to release me the next day. But then, that evening, they gave me a plane ticket. I just crumbled with terror. It nearly finished me.

In many ways, Shaw’s report is encouraging. He’s right that reducing the number of women locked up in detention centres has to be a priority. Detention is killing us. I was abused, but instead of getting help and support I was locked up. I deserve to be free and safe.

But the government’s decision to publish the Shaw review at the very last moment on the very last day of parliament made my heart sink. It’s a clear sign that despite the recommendations, the Home Office is intent on keeping the reality of detention centres a secret from the public.

Gabby chose to write under a pseudonym. She was detained in Yarl’s Wood twice in 2017 before being released to continue her asylum claim within the community

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