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Racist and sexual abuse widespread at Yarl’s Wood

Joy Macready reports on the scandal at the heart of Britain’s privatised immigration system and yet another tale of abuse by Serco staff. Time to call for the shutting down of all deportation centres

After numerous complaints, a hunger strike by 80 inmates, CCTV evidence and even a prison pregnancy, the truth about widespread sexual and physical abuse at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre has finally made the front pages.

It took a male former employee to break through the web of lies spun by Serco, the “biggest company you’ve never heard of”. This multinational services firm is still running Yarl’s Wood despite having had to sack two guards over “detainee sex” in October last year. One male staff member was dismissed for “inappropriate behaviour with a resident” four years after the incident was caught on CCTV.

The whistleblower described the repeated sexual abuse and rampant racism from staff. But only now has Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper demanded an independent investigation, calling into question last October’s HM Inspectorate of Prisons report, which said that detainees “felt safe” and that “there is little violence”.

Not a new revelation
But widespread abuse is not a new revelation. Throughout the seven years that Serco has run Yarl’s Wood, there have been a series of substantiated complaints made by female asylum seekers against staff; yet Serco has conspired to discredit and silence the victims.

The Home Office is complicit in covering up sexual abuse by deporting witnesses and victims. One woman claims that attempts were made to deport her to nine different countries after she complained about sexual assault.

Serco doesn’t even adhere to the legal minimum level of care for the vulnerable women it imprisons, many of whom fled their home countries to escape from rape and torture. The ex-official said that women have been deported without their mental health being properly assessed, despite more than half of the detainees at any one time – more than 200 individuals – either self-harming or at risk of self-harming.

Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules bars the Home Office from detaining anyone who has been tortured. Doctors must alert the Home Office of any detainee who they think might be a victim of torture; yet in 2012 only 6 per cent of detainees were released under Rule 35.

Tragically, in March a 40-year old Jamaican woman, who had lived in the UK for more than 14 years, died of cardiac arrest after screaming in pain for over 45 minutes. A spokesman for Serco said that Christine Case had received a comprehensive health check from a nurse and a doctor the day she arrived at Yarl’s Wood. Yet 10 days later she was dead.

The most vulnerable
Almost 90 per cent of people held at Yarl’s Wood are women, yet about half the staff members are male.

These women are the most vulnerable in society. Many have escaped wars or persecution because of their race, religion, nationality or political opinion. When they seek refuge in the UK, they are then torn away from their families and in some cases imprisoned for up to four years. None of the women in Yarl’s Wood have any idea if or when they will be released – or violently deported.

These women have committed no crime, and yet they are treated worse than convicted criminals; at least they know how long their sentence is.
Some harrowing statistics:

• 50 per cent of women asylum seekers are survivors of rape

• 70 per cent of women in detention are rape survivors

• 57 per cent of women in detention have no lawyers

Many believe that the official statistics are well below the actual number. Rape victims often fail to mention the attack because of the unsympathetic attitude of UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers and their own sense of shame. The UKBA offers no childcare service, so women are often forced to describe their rape and torture in front of their children.

These conditions of imprisonment have a traumatic effect on their recovery. Detention at Yarl’s Wood is like reliving their worst nightmares, and as a result many become depressed and suicidal.

Detainees say that guards give them the impression that they can help with immigration cases in return for sexual contact. They also feel that they have to flirt with staff to gain access to basic essentials like toiletries.

In this power imbalance, at no point could sexual relations between staff and prisoners be considered consensual. Even so, an investigation by the Home Office’s Professional Standards Unit, into a case in which a young detainee was made to have oral sex with a guard, claimed that the detainee, “Tanja”, had failed to demonstrate that this was “anything other than consensual”.

Serco – parasites
Serco has been mired in scandal since taking over Yarl’s Wood in 2007. In 2010 the detention of children was finally stopped after a public campaign. Last year Serco had to pay back £90.5 million after it was found to have been charging the government for tagging people who were either dead, in prison or never tagged at all.

Yet after a short ban, the government quietly decided in January to let Serco bid for government contracts again. In 2012 alone, Serco’s revenue from the UK public sector amounted to £1.8 billion.

These include contracts for over £600 million from the Ministry of Defence, as well as contracts for over £200 million each with the Ministry of Justice, the Department of Transport and the NHS.

In May it was disclosed that Serco could be among companies to take over the running of privatised children’s social services, including child protection, under proposals being considered by Michael Gove’s Department for Education.

Outsourcing companies like Serco, G4S, Capita and Virgin Care, are completely unaccountable. These companies run public services like schools, nuclear weapons and other military facilities, prisons, ambulances and the government’s Work Programme for the unemployed, for a profit, not for the benefit of the community as a whole.

The solution
We need a labour movement campaign, led by those unions and activists already campaigning against privatisation, to kick private firms out of our public services and bring them back under public control. Only then will we be able to hold those providing the services to account and ensure not just adequate but high quality.

But the campaign must also take up the rights of asylum seekers and immigrants. It must fight to close all immigration deportation centres and to open up our borders. Serco, which operates in 30 countries, is a perfect example of how money can move around the world with no borders stopping the capitalists from reaping profits. Why shouldn’t people be able to move with the same freedom?

Some trade unions are already committed to a No Borders position, but they must be able to back this up with real action. But this will also mean tackling the lies about asylum and immigration that have been spread by all the main parties. The immigration crackdown, which they have all backed, has made the situation worse, increasing the desperation of the women – and men – caught up in Britain’s punitive asylum system.

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