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'I felt nobody was safe' at detention centre, says former Yarl's Wood detainee

Yarl's Wood Detention Centre in Bedfordshire. Photo: PA Wire

By Joy, a member of the Survivors Speak OUT group - a nationwide network of torture survivors - and three time Yarl's Wood detention centre detainee.

“Welcome to Yarl's Wood Detention Centre" - that’s what they said when I got out of the van and went into the building. But the place wasn’t very welcoming, and I wasn’t treated like a guest.

I had arrived in the UK seeking asylum the previous year. I worked as a journalist in my home country and had been imprisoned and tortured there because of my work. In the UK, I expected some humanity. Where I come from the UK is a role model for human rights, so I was shocked to find ill-treatment and abuse.

On entering Yarl's Wood I was led down a long corridor with a lot of doors by a uniformed man. He didn’t say anything to me; the only sounds were his heavy footsteps and his keys in the endless doors. As a victim of imprisonment and torture in my home country it felt intimidating and scary.

I was sharing a room with another young girl. She told me she didn’t want to go back to her country. I didn’t ask her why because it made me think too much of my own situation.

One night, four guards came into our room. They had come to send my roommate back to her country. We were both terrified. She said: "I’m not going, I’m going to die here." She asked if she could go to the toilet as the guards waited, sitting on the bed watching the locked door.

Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes passed. They called another security guard to unlock the door.

She’d drunk the shampoo. She tried to stop them touching her. They took her stuff out of her cupboard and put it in a black bin liner, then they started dragging her out of the room.

A guard at the centre Credit: PA Wire

I was sitting there stunned, watching her flailing arms as she tried to stop them taking her away. I didn’t know what else to do, I just watched.

After a few minutes I started to vomit and then my bowels went. I was terrified this would happen to me. It was like watching the future. I did not know what I could do to save myself.

Before I was detained at Yarl's Wood I was receiving treatment to help me recover from the psychological impact torture had had on me. My doctor prescribed me tablets to help with my anxiety and depression, and sleeping pills to help me at night when the nightmares came.

But in Yarl's Wood I didn’t have my medication. My mood was affected, my emotions were affected. I began to deteriorate psychologically.

I was scared of the security guards. Their white shirts and black trousers reminded me of the violence I had experienced in prison. I felt nobody was safe. The only place I trusted was my bed.

– Joy

I didn’t eat for five days after my first roommate was taken away and my new roommate asked for a doctor to come and see me, but security refused to call one.

Some of the other detained women became worried about me. They helped me to shower. I was so weak I couldn’t stand. At lunchtime the same women made me go to the dining room. They brought me some soup and told me to drink it. I started but I couldn’t keep it in. I vomited.

Security called a nurse to clean up my vomit. He grabbed my wrist and asked "why are you vomiting here? You should vomit in your own room." I tried to pull my hand away but I was too weak.

The nurse and my roommate held me up as we went back to my room. In the corridor we saw a female security guard, who took one look at me and instructed the nurse to call the doctor.

In the afternoon the doctor came to my room. He looked shocked and called an ambulance – an hour later I was in hospital. I couldn’t walk but they still sent two security guards with me.

The hospital doctor asked me what had happened but the security guards were sitting right by me so I couldn’t tell him anything. He kept asking again and again but I kept my mouth shut.

Inside Yarl's Wood Detention Centre Credit: Reuters/Russell Boyce

Day and night guards stayed by my hospital bed watching me. Even when I used the toilet they came with me and told me to leave the door open. I felt that animals have more rights in this country than asylum seekers. I asked the doctor to help me, and after five days the security guards left.

After eleven days, the Home Office said that if I had an address to go to I could be released. If not, I had to go back to Yarl's Wood. Of course I found an address.

My experience in Yarl's Wood stayed with me for many years. I lived in constant fear of being sent back there and lost all faith in the system.

I wouldn’t have come to the UK if I wasn’t in fear for my life in my home country - I expected protection. Now I know that what you see and hear, and what you expect, can be totally different.

Following an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News which revealed incidents of self-harm in the centre; raised concerns of the detention of pregnant women; and found guards showing contempt for detainees, James Thorburn, Managing Director of Serco's Home Affairs business, said: “We will not tolerate poor conduct or disrespect and will take disciplinary action wherever appropriate…. We work hard to ensure that the highest standards of conduct are maintained at Yarl's Wood and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons has found the Centre to be a safe and respectful place….”

A former barrister, Kate Lampard, has been appointed to carry out an independent investigation into Yarl’s Wood.

For more information about Freedom from Torture or the Survivors Speak OUT network visit http://www.freedomfromtorture.org