In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

The Problem of Yarl’s Wood


Immigration detention should only be used as a last resort. (Edited: IndyMedia)

Yarl’s Wood is an immigration removal centre in Bedfordshire, hosting around 400 detainees who are awaiting outcomes from asylum or immigration claims [1]. Run by the service firm Serco since 2007, the centre houses “adult women and adult family groups awaiting immigration clearance” [2].

“Largest networks of immigration detention facilities”

Britain has “one of the largest networks of immigration detention facilities in Europe”, according to the Migration Observatory [3]. Between 2008 and 2014, the number of people detailed under powers in Immigration Acts have fluctuated between 2,200 and 3,400.


The number has fluctuated, but remains large for a European nation. (Source: Migration Observatory)

In 2013, about 81% of the detainees leaving detention had been held for less than two months. A persistent 6% have been held for six months, with 1% of total detainees being held for more than a year. Unlike all other European countries, Britain places no upper time limit on immigration and asylum detention [4].


Some cases are taking an exceptionally long time. (Source: Migration Observatory)

The focus on Yarl’s Wood comes from its detainees, who are mostly women, often escaping dangerous plights for which they have sought asylum. The Yarl’s Wood centre has been plagued by many severe controversies, including fires, hunger strikes [5], deaths [6], detaining children and sexual abuse.

Whilst Serco refutes “the suggestion that there is a widespread or endemic problem of such behaviour at Yarl’s Wood”, there have been numerous allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour against the detainees, some supported by CCTV evidence [7].

The 46-year-old Nigerian woman, reported in The Guardian, said:

Some of the women are succumbing to whatever they are being propositioned to do. Some of the guards are touching the women; the girls are being promised that they are going to get their freedom. They say things like: ‘You better be nice to me if you want to get out of there.’ They make funny gestures: one puts his fingers in his mouth and winks at me.

When Serco won the re-tendering process, Natasha Walter of Women for Refugee Women said [8]:

Serco is clearly unfit to manage a centre where vulnerable women are held and it is unacceptable the government continues to entrust Serco with the safety of women who are survivors of sexual violence.

Special rapporteur

Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations special rapporteur was barred from entering the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre [9]:

When I reached Yarl’s Wood I was notified by the director that she had received a phone call [saying] I would not be allowed in. She indicated that the call was from the highest levels of the Home Office but would not give me a name or share written information on who had given the instruction. But the instruction was given in the time period that I was on the train to Yarl’s Wood.

(Video: Channel 4 News)

Whilst the standards of care provided to those who seek asylum and want their immigration claims reviewed should be shocking, there are also financial implications.

According to the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory:

In answer to a 2007 request made under the Freedom of Information Act, the Home Office revealed that in 2005/6 the weekly cost per detainee ranged from £511 (Lindholme IRC) to £1,344 (Colnbrook IRC).

On 29 June 2011, the UK Government reported in Parliament that the average overall daily cost of detaining an individual at an immigration centre was £102 (Hansard 2011). Government data indicate that in the third quarter of 2014 the average cost per day of holding an individual in immigration detention was £97 (Home Office 2014b).

There are alternatives

As Ellie O’Hagan highlights in The Guardian [10], there are alternatives to this high usage of immigration detention centres. Canada, for instance, uses a bail mechanism for managing irregular migrants and asylum seekers in communities, not detention centres. Government-funded agencies act as ‘bond-persons’, such as the Toronto Bail Program, in favour of a detainee’s application. This provides case management support, and supervision for those seeking asylum or awaiting the outcome of their immigration claim. The Toronto Bail Program costs between CA$10 and CA$12 per day, compared to an average cost of CA$179 for detention. This is a saving of approximately 93%. In 2009-10, this programme had a compliance rate of 96.35%.

As the International Detention Coalition concludes [11]:

The research found asylum seekers and irregular migrants rarely abscond while awaiting the outcome of a status determination or other lawful process. They are better able to comply with liberty or release conditions, or a negative final decision if they: can meet their basic needs in the community; if they have been through a fair and efficient determination process; if they have been informed through the process, including legal advice and have been provided advice on all options to remain in the country legally and, if needed, supported to consider sustainable avenues to depart.

Immigration detention should be a last resort, and there should be a statutory limit on any such detention. It is time for a complete transformation in how those seeking asylum and awaiting their claims for immigration are treated.


[1] GOV.UK, 2015. Find an immigration centre. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[2] Yarl’s Wood, 2016. Home. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[3] Migration Observatory, 2015. Briefing: Immigration Detention in the UK. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[4] Global Detention Project, 2011. United Kingdom. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[5] Taylor, M., 2010. Fears for health of Yarl’s Wood women in third week of hunger strike. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[6] Taylor, D., 2015. Detainee dies of suspected heart attack at Yarl’s Wood immigration centre. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[7] Townsend, M., 2013. Sexual abuse allegations corroborated at Yarl’s Wood immigration centre. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[8] BBC, 2014. Yarl’s Wood £70m Serco contract renewal ‘unacceptable‘. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[9] Sherwood, H., 2014. UN special rapporteur criticises Britain’s ‘in-your-face’ sexist culture. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[10] O’Hagan, E., 2015. Yarl’s Wood is symptomatic of Britain’s paranoia about migrants. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]

[11] IDC, 2011. Introduction for Policy Makers: There are alternatives. Available from: [Accessed: 26th February 2016]



This entry was posted on March 11, 2016 by in National Politics and tagged , , , .
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