All photos by Steph Wilson

'Hell on Earth': Surviving in a Women-Only Detention Center

Aimee Stanton

Aimee Stanton

The UK is the only country in Europe that will detain an immigrant indefinitely, which makes institutions like Yarl's Wood a uniquely terrible place to end up in.

All photos by Steph Wilson

A woman cries hysterically into her friend's lap. Another sits with her husband; they grip each other's arms as surveillance cameras and security monitor their every move. These are just four of the 30,000 women and men annually detained in immigration removal centers across the United Kingdom.

There are 11 immigration removal centers (IRC) across the UK. The number of detainees housed can range from a handful to hundreds, and the locations are diverse, ranging from Dungavel House near Glasgow to the all-female Sahara Unit in Colnbrook, Middlesex. Despite their contrasting locations and capacities, the treatment of inmates within these institutions is shockingly similar.

Britain is the only country in the European Union who will detain an immigrant indefinitely. Immigrants who have entered the UK can be detained if they have breached the terms of their visa or have entered the country illegally, but many have simply fled persecution in their home countries.

IRCs are not prisons—not technically, anyway. With management of IRCs outsourced by the UK government to contractors like Serco, reports of human rights abuse have found their way from the immigration centers to the press. Despite the negative publicity, Serco continue to secure multi-million dollar contracts; it was most recently awarded a seven year contract worth almost $100 million (£70m) in 2014.

I've worked legally, I've paid my taxes, I need asylum for my protection.

In January 2016, barrister Kate Lampard conducted an independent investigation of Yarl's Wood, and Serco pledged to carry out major improvements at the center. But is life actually any easier for the women imprisoned inside Yarl's Wood—and those who have escaped it?

You'd be forgiven for not being able to find Yarl's Wood. The UK's most publicized IRC is discreetly hidden in an industrial estate on the picturesque suburbs of Bedford in between a pet crematorium and a Red Bull warehouse. It's only a short 40 minute train ride from London.

The center itself is clinical and characterless; even the indoor flowering green plants are artificial. The clocks of the world are displayed on one wall; the UK one is motionless, forever stuck at 3.45 PM.

Security is also tight for residents and visitors alike. A full body search is required and fingerprints are checked three times before access to the visiting room is granted.

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Even the waiting room is grim. It has a little prayer section with religious iconography on display, a small 'canteen' area with vending machines, and a window the size of the room which opens out onto a colorful farmyard mural on a courtyard wall, presumably to brighten the mood for child visitors. It shows a smirking cartoon sheep roaming free in the countryside.

"You want to block bad memories from your heart, not re-live them here," says Azoba, a 44-year-old Nigerian woman who arrived in Britain in 2013 on a work permit. She has been detained since December 10.

In January 2014, Azoba was outed as an active LGBT campaigner after being filmed protesting in front of the Nigerian High Commission, London. As a result, she claimed asylum in the UK, arguing that her public political activities would make her a definite target if she was forced to return to Nigeria. Her right to asylum was denied as the Home Office ruled there was not enough evidence to prove that she is an LGBT activist. This was strongly refuted by Azoba, who has evidence of her attendance at LGBT pride events as well as televised evidence of her speaking against the Nigerian government.

Ntombi fled sexual and physical violence in South Africa and claimed asylum in the UK. All photos by Steph Wilson

"The Home Office does not believe me," she explains. "They don't think there's any threat to my life even though everyone has seen those videos of me campaigning. I've worked legally, I've paid my taxes, I need asylum for my protection."

The detention of pregnant woman at Yarl's Wood has also attracted much controversy. The government states that vulnerable people should not be detained, including the elderly and victims of torture. Those who are pregnant are not included in this definition.

"I've had morning sickness but I don't tell them anymore because last time I did they put me in isolation," explains Monica, a pregnant 25-year-old student from Cameroon. Monica left Cameroon in January 2012 and has been in detention since February 9.

"I was detained 18 weeks pregnant. I see a midwife but I don't have any sort of antenatal support or even any books about what to expect," she says. "And when I tell them I don't feel well they check me and tell me I'm fine, but I know my body."

There is no mental health support in here. I have depression and since I arrived in Yarl's Wood I've been given no support.

At the time of writing, the House of Lords voted in favor of ending the detention of pregnant women—a decision that was of great relief to those fighting for the rights of female detainees in Britain. A spokesperson for Women for Refugee Women, a charity that has campaigned to close IRCs, says: "We have been recommending this as part of our #SetHerFree campaign, and were pleased to see that recommendation echoed by Stephen Shaw in his January 2016 review of vulnerable detainees, which was commissioned by the Home Office."

Despite this vote, Foreign Secretary Theresa May imposed only a 72 hour limit on the detention of pregnant women. For the time being, Monica remains at Yarl's Wood.

"I feel like I'm losing weight. I can see it in my face," she says, touching her cheeks. "The food here is disgusting and considering I'm pregnant it's non-nutritional. It's plain and dry with no sauce, we don't get enough fruit or vegetables—it's very carb heavy. I once had a chicken dinner and there was still blood on the chicken. They don't care."

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When I asked Serco about the food provided, a spokesperson told me: "Yarl's Wood introduced new menus in December 2015 as part of a wider review of catering in our all Serco's custodial facilities. These menus have been created in conjunction with our catering supplier to ensure they are nutritious, healthy and balanced and address concerns raised around the quality and variety of the food."

Detainees are provided with only the basic necessities of life: simple toiletries such as toothpaste, soap, and sanitary products. However, Monica says that the rooms at Yarl's Wood have no sanitary bins. Razors are provided on the account they are returned immediately too. "It's common for women to harm themselves in here," Azoba says.

According to No Deportations, 2,597 immigrants in the UK IRCs were on suicide watch in 2015. There were 393 attempts at self-harm—that's more than one a day. "Unfortunately, self-harm does occur at Yarl's Wood," a Serco spokesperson says, "but most are of a minor nature. There have been no suicides at Yarl's Wood in recent years. The Serco team at Yarl's Wood are acutely aware of the vulnerability of the women in our care and we work hard to keep everyone safe."

Prudence fled persecution in her Nigeria but ended up in Yarl's Wood after her work permit expired.

"These [self-harm] incidents are kept internal," says Monica. "You only know about them from witnessing the aftermath or hearing from others." Serco says that residents ingested detergent capsules in the past as a means of self-harm, with a woman most recently swallowing washing tablets as an escort team arrived to deport her from the UK.

"There is no mental health support in here. I have depression and since I arrived in Yarl's Wood I've been given no support," says Monica. "They told me I can talk to them but I feel like they're taking the piss." Yarl's Wood actually state on their website that there is a counselling team available Monday to Friday. "That's not true," Azoba protests.

Healthcare is provided at Yarl's Wood by NHS England, which contracts the services to G4S, though mental health support is provided directly by NHS England. "NHS England aims to commission high-quality healthcare services for all, including those in immigration removal centers," says Claire Weston, the head of health and justice at NHS England (East Anglia). "At Yarl's Wood we commission primary and secondary care mental health services to be directly provided in the center. People who require a higher level of mental health care are cared for in external services.

Read more: The Women Helping Refugees Survive Europe's Migration Crisis

"We also commission a psychological wellbeing service provided in the center, and have offered small grant funding to a number of third sector organizations which provide befriending services in the center, since we are aware that these are a valued source of support to detainees."

For those who are released instead of being placed on a chartered deportation flight, life outside detention is not much easier.

Ex-detainees relive the mental torture without support or aid; depression, anxiety, and PTSD are common consequences of incarceration. At the office of Women for Refugee Women, I spoke to Prudence, a 44-year-old-women from Nigeria, and Ntombi, a 43-year-old from South Africa. Both are still adjusting to life outside.

"People don't think a place like that exists in Britain," Prudence says of Yarl's Wood. Like many migrants, Prudence did not know her immigration rights, and the complicated government system does not help. She fled persecution in her Nigeria on account of her sexual orientation, but ended up in Yarl's Wood after her marriage ended and her work permit expired. "The thing is," she explains, "I didn't know how the system worked here, so I kept a very low profile."

Every time I have a meeting at the Home Office I run afterwards. I run as fast as I can, I'm frightened they'll detain me again.

"It is hell on earth!" Ntombi interrupts. After fleeing sexual and physical violence in South Africa, Ntombi arrived in Britain in 2002 and was detained on August 10, 2015.

Financial support for those leaving detention centers also appears to be non-existent. "I get no benefits even though I've legally worked here and paid into the system," Prudence says. "That's why I still keep my sexuality a secret. I have to rely upon the [Nigerian] community who are against it." It costs around $56,000 (£40,000) a year to hold a person in detention according to a report from Women for Refugee Women.

For those who undergo deportation, the outlook is even bleaker. "A friend of mine couldn't cope," Ntombi says. "She developed bipolar disorder and was sectioned. She's now useless in Cape Town."

"I don't know if it's worse to stay in detention or be out," she adds. "It's a painful electricity that runs through you. They know [afterwards] you can't face the outside world. Every time I have a meeting at the Home Office I run afterwards. I run as fast as I can, I'm frightened they'll detain me again."

A poster in the office of Women For Refugee Women.

Serious mental health issues are rife amongst ex-detainees. Research from human rights organization Unitarian Universalist Service Committee on US immigration facilities show that women are at an especially high risk of experiencing past trauma after being held in detention.

"I have nightmares. I still hear the screams of the girls, so I can't sleep. I dream I'm being held down, like how they would pin girls who were distressed down," explains Ntombi. This, in addition to difficulties with relationships post-detention plus a constant fear of reincarceration means a grim future for detainees in the UK too.

"It's the ring tones for me," says Prudence. "There's a ring tone on all our cell phones they give us in detention, and when I hear it my head spins..."

Monica has since been released from Yarl's Wood, but others are not so fortunate. When I contacted Azoba after meeting her at Yarl's Wood, her phone went straight to voicemail.

After spending her final days on British soil alone, in the Kingfisher isolation wing of Yarl's Wood, Azoba was deported back to Nigeria. And like the other thousands of people imprisoned throughout the UK without known legitimate reason or charge, their fate is remains largely unknown. Instead, their stories fall silent behind the walls of Yarl's Wood.

* All names have been changed