Thanks to the creative activism of a number of women’s groups, the Home Affairs Select Committee agreed on Tuesday 24th June that they will take evidence from current and former Yarl’s Wood detainees. When former detainees give their evidence they will hear first hand about allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in the Immigration Removal Centre; rather than just from Serco management, as previously planned.
The audience was crowded with over 15 members from different campaigning groups including Black Women’s Rape Action Project, Women Against Rape, Women of Colour in the GWS and Payday men’s network. They sat with their mouths taped, behind the corporate witnesses. The uncomfortable shuffling of the committee indicated the committee’s slow recognition that the voices of those who have suffered in Yarl’s Wood could not be ignored. Toward the end of the session David Winnock conceded that it could only be right to invite women from Yarl’s Wood to testify before the Select Committee.
Previously, the committee had teased out an apology from Serco that sounded general but only accounted for the treatment of seven women. The corporation sung the virtues of their high standards. However, we heard how a member of staff, a nurse, who suggested that a detainee who had a headache did not need medicine but instead ‘needed his penis’. Although deemed ‘unacceptable if true’ the staff member had not been dismissed or moved but was still working with women detainees in Yarl’s Wood. The Guardian and solicitors for Yarl’s Wood detainees have asked for the internal report from Serco but, six months later, the report has not been made available to them. Later, Serco told the select committee of their openness to independent investigation but, while quoting seemingly positive phrases from the reports, dismissed almost all negative comments.
But we also saw the timidity of the Select Committee. Only 4 representatives were there to question widespread allegations of abuse for a company that has already had to repay £68.5 million of public money. They continue to hold contracts with the UK government worth £1.5 billion. This is a company that needs a great deal of scrutiny rather than the usual stern words. Later, G4S management were also quizzed on how they run two Immigration Removal Centres. Some important topics were dealt with in a cursory manner: body camera abuse, healthcare in detention, physical restraint in detention. All were raised and then parked after reassurances that there are proper policies or safeguards to deal with them.
There was no mention of Jimmy Mubenga, who died at the hands of G4S Guards. Serco were able to avoid scrutiny about Christine Case by appealing to the procedures and safeguards that they said they followed. It was only a protester who reminded the committee that Yarl’s Wood and other detention centres regularly send away ambulances when they are called.
The truth is that you cannot have a safe immigration detention centre. For all the safeguards, training and policy manuals there is still the profit motive, the sexual power imbalances, the acute vulnerability of those seeking asylum and the cruel isolation of people trying to make a better life.
Those responsible for holding immigration removal centres to account must learn this. And they must learn it from the women who have suffered in Yarl’s Wood.