Gendered experiences of immigration detention pose major risks to the lives of women seeking asylum.
In the latest instalment of the UK government’s efforts to bolster its immigration strategy, recent reports have revealed plans by the Home Office to build a new network of female immigration detention units. In protest, a number of experts and campaigners have highlighted the gendered experiences of immigration detention for women, arguing that the system is wholly inappropriate, even harmful, as a means of processing female asylum applicants. But what makes the detention of women in particular such a contentious issue?
One major concern is the ways in which the detainee experience may compound past trauma. The vast majority of women seeking asylum in the UK have past experience of gender-based persecution and/or violence — in a 2015 study, Women for Refugee Women found that 28 out of the 34 women interviewed had experienced “gender-related persecution” such as rape, sexual violence, forced marriage, and FGM.
The risk of “re-traumatisation” is a major issue for detained torture survivors, and this can take on a distinctly gendered dimension for women due to the nature of their treatment in detention. An investigation into the Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre in 2015 revealed the scale of physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by male guards, including guards walking in on detainees undressed or showering, strip searches and suicide watch being used opportunities for sexual humiliation, and even sexual coercion and assault. More recent investigations have reported improvements in this area — for instance, male staff are no longer allowed to supervise women on suicide watch — but abusive behaviour continues, as do the high rates of self-harm, suicide attempts, and mental health crises amongst female detainees.
Detention also fails to properly respond to female-specific needs, especially as regards healthcare. Pregnant women are a particularly serious cause for concern. A number of experts and campaign groups have drawn attention to the dangers posed by a potentially lethal cocktail of inadequate healthcare, medical neglect, and the stress of being detained. The Royal College of Midwives have raised the alarm about the disproportionate risk of serious complications for pregnant women in detention, as well as higher rates of maternal mortality, miscarriage, and stillbirth, citing disruptions to maternity care and the failure of healthcare practitioners to care for pregnant women with complex needs. Similarly, Medical Justice have found that pregnant women in detention don’t receive NHS-equivalent care, meaning that high-risk pregnancies are not identified and properly handled. Case studies also point to a disturbing “culture of disbelief”, in which women in detention — including pregnant women — are suspected to be lying when reporting medical symptoms.
Official Home Office guidelines do contain a number of provisions to address both of these concerns: the impact of detention on survivors of sexual violence and the risks posed to pregnant women. In particular, the ‘adults at risk’ guidance includes those with experiences of traumatic events — such as torture or sexual violence — as potentially vulnerable to harm in detention, and states that they should only be detained under exceptional circumstances. However, evidence shows that this policy is routinely ignored and that victims continue to be detained.
The guidance on pregnant women has also been criticised. The 2016 independent Shaw Review of the UK detention system argued that the risk factors necessitate an “absolute exclusion” in which pregnant cannot be detained under any circumstances — a recommendation that was roundly rejected by the government. Instead, the 2016 Immigration Act imposes a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women; whilst this has been welcomed as a step in the right direction, campaigners have argued that it isn’t nearly enough.
Campaigners, experts, and politicians have long called for an end to — or at least the major reform of — immigration detention, especially for women. Community-based alternatives have been recommended on the basis that they avoid the risks of detention; but, considering a pilot scheme to this effect has been quietly scrapped by the Home Office, and that plans are in place to increase the number of detention centres, the chances of these alternatives becoming the norm are dishearteningly small.
At JAN Trust, we work to empower asylum seekers, migrants and other marginalised groups to play an active role in their communities, including by providing advice and guidance on issues like asylum seekers and refugee status. Find out more about our work here.