A former detainee at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, in Bedfordshire, southeast England, has alleged that women held there have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances and abuse by security guards and other officials.
In testimony seen by the Observer and now with police, “Tanja,” a 23-year-old Roma woman released from Yarl’s Wood in March last year, describes having had sexual contact with three male guards.
Tanja — not her real name — said attempts were made to deport her within days of her informing the center’s management of the incidents. She also claims that one security guard had inappropriate relations with at least four women.
The claims raise fresh questions over the treatment of vulnerable women at the Bedfordshire site, which is Britain’s largest immigration removal center for women and can house up to 400 people. Sources at Yarl’s Wood say that more cases are likely to come to light following Tanja’s testimony, as women have been too fearful to come forward until now.
Two alleged victims had left the detention center by the time the claims were examined and have not been traced. The professional standards unit at the British Home Office has advised the UK Border Agency (UKBA) — London’s border control agency — to consider interviewing other women at Yarl’s Wood to establish if inappropriate relationships are an endemic problem.
“The women in Yarl’s Wood are some of the most vulnerable you can imagine. Many have escaped horrific abuse in their own countries; most are very isolated from friends and family. The state has a duty to investigate such serious allegations, but it has repeatedly failed. Now the government wants to remove legal aid altogether for detainees and foreign nationals, giving a green light to abuse at Yarl’s Wood to continue,” said Harriet Wistrich from law firm Birnberg Peirce, who is representing some of the alleged victims.
She said there was evidence of “systemic supervisory defects” in the management of the center.
Yarl’s Wood is run by British government services company Serco under contract from the Home Office.
Earlier this year, the company paid an undisclosed sum to a 29-year-old asylum seeker from Pakistan who claimed she was sexually assaulted by a nurse at Yarl’s Wood, although the company did not admit liability. However, the shocking detail of the latest allegations is likely to trigger a full-blown inquiry into the running of the center.
“A lot of officers were taking advantage of the girls that were detained. They would promise favors or offer to make life easier, saying they would have more chance of winning their case or staying in the country,” Tanja said.
In a formal witness statement she has sent to Bedfordshire Police, she said that one Serco official she was involved with sexually told her: “Don’t worry, there is no way they can deport you.”
She also claimed the sexual contact was not all consensual.
Wistrich said questions needed to be asked over whether consent could ever be freely given by individuals who were in such a vulnerable situation.
A letter to the UKBA from Wistrich concerning Tanja reads: “Our client has indicated that she was a reluctant participant in some of the sexual contact and, given the huge power imbalance, at least some of the conduct by the officers she complains about may amount to assault. Furthermore, she has suggested that there have been attempts by officers to destroy and suppress evidence of their misconduct.”
A letter to Tanja from UKBA said it had found “sufficient evidence” to indicate that Serco guards “did behave in an unprofessional way.”
“When an allegation of sexually inappropriate behavior between staff and a resident was brought to our attention in 2012, the matter was fully investigated and as a result three members of staff were dismissed,” said John Tolland, Serco’s director at Yarl’s Wood.
The UKBA’s professional standards unit, which has responsibility for investigating allegations of misconduct by agency officials or private contractors, has said the alleged victim did not indicate to its investigator that her sexual contact with guards was “anything other than consensual.”