The hell that is Yarl’s Wood

Yarl's Wood detention Centre

Whenever I hear the mention of Yarl’s Wood I shudder with dread and embarrassment, writes journalist and human rights campaigner Yvonne Ridley.

Dread because I know in the next sentence there is going to be a story of misery, heartache and injustice; and embarrassment because I cannot believe Britain still chooses to lock up asylum seekers indefinitely.

This blot on the British landscape is the country’s largest immigration detention centre for women … some of the most vulnerable women in the planet.

People who reach these shores in the belief it is a country of tolerance and a beacon of human rights have usually made a terrifying journey in order to escape from something or someone who has literally threatened their life … risking all to escape is preferable to remaining. That they eventually end up in this detention centre in Bedford shows little compassion or understanding of the courage it took in the first place to flee their home.

Yarl’s Wood is run by Serco, a private outsourcing company with a global reach and a proud boast on its website which proclaims: “Our success is a reflection of our people.” The company website gushes about culture and values, leadership, vision and strategy but after some of the examples I’ve seen of its hands on approach at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, I wouldn’t put this lot in charge of a cabbage patch.

Allegations that some of the Serco guards are sexual predators have been previously dismissed and not taken seriously by the company and outside investigating authorities. Now Serco bosses will be grilled by MPs next month and I hope they are scrutinised forensically and hauled over the coals over every single error and wrongdoing that will be laid at the company’s door.

I suspect the MPs will have a tough time because this is a company which doesn’t like being transparent over its mistakes, and rather than putting its hands up and appealing for understanding Serco likes to hide its errors and forget about them. In the last few days it was forced to handover a dossier revealing repugnant, shocking and misogynistic views towards the women in its care thanks to determined journalists and tenacious lawyers.


The internal report shows quite clearly that Serco staff failed to take seriously complaints of repeated sexual assaults by one of its male staff against a female resident at the notorious detention centre. Only after a four-month-long battle between Serco and media lawyers did Observer journalists finally prise out of the grubby hands of Serco bosses the confidential and damning report.

Basically these bastards, (and no my language is NOT strong enough to describe the behaviour of the morally bankrupt individuals involved), appear to have ignored the woman’s complaints or even worse, simply not taken her seriously. I cannot begin to imagine the anguish and grief being suffered by women held in Yarl’s Wood … as I said before that it exists in the first place is anathema to most of us who believe in equality, justice and compassion for refugees fleeing bombs, state-sponsored violence and unimaginable terror.

Consider what it would take for you to leave your home, friends and family only to arrive in Britain and be thrown in to the hell hole that is Yarl’s Wood. No wonder the rest of Europe looks at the UK and calls us the “nasty country”.

And then, having gone through all of those traumas to have some man in uniform forcing himself on to you and when you pluck up the courage to cry for help no one listens.


Despite all of this and no doubt much more we’ve yet to discover, Serco is in the running to take over children’s social services including child protection. Under yet another “you couldn’t make it up” proposal being considered by Michael Gove and his feckless education department they are considering putting Serco in charge of child protection.

The company, which obviously has a long distance relationship with the word transparency, cannot be trusted when looking at its present record. Someone in authority took the decision to bury the secret report at the back of a filing cabinet and when rumours of its content began to circulate the company simply refused to make it public. Why? Surely if there’s one rotten apple in your barrel cast it out for all to see – why hide the truth? But that’s exactly what this company did.

Quite rightly Keith Vaz, head of the influential and powerful home affairs select committee, has said he will be calling the most senior figures in Serco to parliament in June to explain their shocking actions. Like the rest of us, he wants to know why a Pakistani woman aged 29 was sexually assaulted at least three times by a Serco health worker while she was in Serco’s care of Yarl’s Wood. The abuse ran for three months and her protests were ignored.

Harriet Wistrich, the lawyer representing the Pakistani woman who has not been identified, said: “The failure of the investigatory process affects not only the complainant but all women detained at Yarl’s Wood, since it allows abuse to continue and thrive.”

It is almost inconceivable in the current climate of outrage, provoked by the non actions of corporations which allowed Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter, Stuart Hall and host of other high profile individuals to get away with preying on the vulnerable, that Serco refused to hand over its report. And the report itself was filed away and ignored because the arrogant fools from Serco who investigated the wretched woman’s complaint believed she lacked credibility because her allegations were deemed too consistent and detailed.

Vaz said: “These are shocking revelations and they demonstrate to me that an internal investigation is not enough. It’s clearly the tip of the iceberg as far as these allegations are concerned and the way Serco has dealt with them.”

Theresa May

Quite clearly, until Serco washes its dirty linen in public it should be blocked from bidding for any new government contracts, especially involving vulnerable children.

And while we’re on a transparency kick I’d like to know why Theresa May’s Home Office banned Rashida Majoo, the United Nations special rapporteur into violence against women from entering Yarl’s Wood last month. It is well known that some of the allegations arising from Yarl’s Wood involve claims of torture; if these claims have even just one grain of truth we need to know. We have a right to know what is being done in our name.

Furthermore, should the British Government continue to outsource contracts to some of the most vulnerable people in the country? We’ve all heard of the abuse of old folk in some private nursing home, neglect of hospital patients and don’t forget the breakdown in communications which led to the child sex exploitation scandal.

Companies like Serco do not inspire confidence when first they ignore cries for help; then investigate and again appear to ignore the facts and then try and bury their findings. Well done to The Guardian journalists who doggedly pursued Serco bosses through the courts.

As former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald QC said to The Guardian after the court victory, it is essential groups like Serco can show they are capable of acting in the public interest. He added: “Here, the suggestion is that in the face of credible allegations that a member of their staff had committed repeated sexual assaults on an especially vulnerable inmate, Serco conducted an inadequate investigation in secret and then did everything they could to hide their findings from the public.”


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