Immigration Bill Committee

Written evidence submitted by Women for Refugee Women (IB 15)

Immigration Bill 2015 Public Bill Committee

Introduction

1. Women for Refugee Women works closely with women who come to the UK seeking sanctuary, to try to ensure they can achieve a fair hearing and a chance to rebuild their lives. This briefing focuses on the Immigration Bill 2015 as it relates to the use of immigration detention for women who are seeking asylum, and the provision of support to asylum-seeking women and their children.

Immigration detention

2. As it stands, the Bill does not address the use of immigration detention for vulnerable individuals including women who are pregnant and survivors of rape, sexual violence and torture, or the lack of a time limit on detention in the UK. However, amendments have been laid which, if moved and passed, would address these issues.

Detention of vulnerable individuals, including pregnant women and survivors of sexual violence

3. The amendment laid on the ‘detention of persons – exempted persons’ would be a new clause in the Bill, and would provide that women who are pregnant, and survivors of torture, trafficking and sexual violence could not be held in immigration detention.

Context

4. Around 2,000 women seeking asylum are detained every year, predominantly in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where they make up just over half of those detained. The majority of women who have been detained after seeking asylum whom we have spoken to are survivors of rape, sexual violence or other torture. Some women are also pregnant when they are detained; 99 pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2014.

5. The previous experiences of women seeking asylum means that being locked up is particularly distressing for them. Women we work with have told us that it forces them to relive the trauma they experienced in their home countries. For our research report I Am Human (2015) one woman told us: ‘I felt so upset and frightened because I was arrested and locked up and tortured back home. I have scars on my feet and arms where I was beaten by police and guards, and so the situation and male guards in Yarl’s Wood made me feel extremely frightened. I feel so frightened because it feels like being locked up in a prison back home.’

6. There are high levels of mental distress in Yarl’s Wood. One in five women we spoke to for our report Detained (2014) said they had tried to kill themselves in detention, and 40% of women we interviewed for I Am Human said they had self-harmed while detained. The most recent independent inspection report into Yarl’s Wood, published by the Prisons Inspectorate in August this year, found that levels of self-harm had almost tripled since the last inspection in 2013.

7. The trauma of being detained is exacerbated by conditions at Yarl’s Wood. Our research has found that women are routinely watched by male guards in intimate situations: more than 85% of the women we spoke to for I Am Human said that male guards had seen them in intimate situations, including while naked, partly naked, in the shower, on the toilet or in bed. This happens when male guards burst into women’s rooms without knocking, or when women who are placed on suicide watch or ‘constant supervision’ are watched by male officers.

8. There are also longstanding concerns about sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood. In June 2014 Serco, which runs Yarl’s Wood, admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee that over the past seven years, it had dismissed 10 Yarl’s Wood staff members as a result of sexual contact with women held there.

9. Healthcare in Yarl’s Wood is poor. Research by Medical Justice has shown how, alongside the distress that detention itself causes to women who are pregnant, the antenatal care and support in detention falls far short of the standards of healthcare pregnant women normally receive.

10. The detention of asylum-seeking women is also ineffective. In 2013, two-thirds of asylum-seeking women leaving Yarl’s Wood were released to continue with their claims in the community, and so their detention served no purpose whatsoever. The release rate for pregnant women is even higher. In 2014, of the 99 pregnant women detained in Yarl’s Wood, just nine were removed from the UK; thus, 90% of pregnant women were released.


11. Detention is expensive. It costs just under £40,000 per year to hold someone in detention. Community programmes have consistently been found to be significantly cheaper. Indeed, international evidence demonstrates that engagement-focused alternatives to detention (as used in Sweden, for instance) are not only cheaper, but support high levels of compliance with immigration processes and high rates of voluntary return for those whose cases are ultimately refused. In the UK, the Home Office evaluation of the new family returns process, which makes minimal use of detention, found that 5% of families within the new process had absconded, which is ‘exactly the same as in the previous process’ when children were being detained at Yarl’s Wood.

12. Home Office policy guidance currently sets out that survivors of torture and trafficking, and pregnant women, are unsuitable for detention. However, our evidence and that of other NGOs and independent inspection bodies demonstrates that this guidance is routinely flouted. Additionally, Home Office guidance does not explicitly set out that survivors of rape and sexual violence should not be detained. The amendment as laid would provide a robust guard against the use of detention for individuals who are particularly vulnerable, and for whom being locked up is extremely harmful.

Time limit on detention

13. The amendment laid, which would be a new clause in the Bill, would introduce a time limit of 28 days on immigration detention.

Context

14. The UK is the only country in Europe that doesn’t currently have a time limit on immigration detention. As such, asylum-seeking women who are locked up in Yarl’s Wood can be held for days, weeks, or even months. In 2013, 43% of asylum-seeking women locked up in detention were held for more than a month.

15. As highlighted above, being locked up is itself distressing, and the uncertainty caused by the lack of a time limit on detention exacerbates this distress considerably – women simply have no idea when they might be released. Detention without time limit is also ineffective: Home Office statistics clearly indicate that the longer someone is held in detention, the less likely it is that they will be removed from the UK.

16. The recent cross-party inquiry into the use of immigration detention concluded: "We believe that the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of upholding justice and the right to liberty. However, the continued use of indefinite detention puts this proud tradition at risk." Alongside recommendations that pregnant women and survivors of trafficking, torture and sexual violence should never be detained, the inquiry report also recommended that a 28-day time limit should be introduced for all immigration detention. These reforms were backed by the House of Commons when the report’s recommendations were debated in September 2015, and a motion was passed supporting them.

Asylum support for families

17. Clause 34 of the Bill brings into effect Schedule 6, which sets out changes to the provision of support to families who have their claims for asylum refused. Currently, families with children under the age of 18 whose asylum claims are refused can continue to receive low-level financial support and accommodation until their youngest child turns 18 or they leave the UK. The Bill will change this, so that support for families whose claims have been refused will be stopped unless it is deemed that they faced a ‘genuine obstacle’ to leaving the UK. Moreover, if ongoing support is refused or discontinued, there will be no right of appeal against this.

18. The Government has set out its belief that removing financial support and accommodation will ‘incentivise’ families with children who have been refused asylum to leave the UK. All the available evidence indicates that this is not the case. Our research has documented the many barriers women seeking asylum in the UK face in getting their need for protection recognised, including the poor levels of understanding of the types of persecution women face and a lack of recognition of their experiences as constituting persecution. Thus, although they have had their cases refused, many of the women we work with have very real and justified fears about what will happen to them if they return to their country of origin – and, if they have children, about the possible consequences for them.

19. Parents who fear for their own and their children’s safety will not be swayed to return to their home countries by the threat of being made destitute, or actual destitution. Our report Refused (2012) found that despite being made destitute, not one of the 45 women we spoke to felt able to contemplate voluntary return. This was also the case when we carried out follow-up research with 30 women a year later, even though some had experienced prolonged periods of destitution, including one for 13 years, one for eight years, one for six years, and others for periods of between six months and five years.

20. The Home Office’s own evidence demonstrates that destitution does not encourage people to leave the UK. In 2005 the Home Office initiated the ‘Section 9’ pilot, which trialled the removal of accommodation and financial support from families refused asylum who were deemed not to be taking ‘reasonable steps’ to leave the UK. The Home Office evaluation concluded that "the evidence from the pilot taken in November 2005 indicates that there was no significant increase in the number of voluntary returns or removals of unsuccessful asylum seeking families", and that the pilot "did not influence behaviour in favour of co-operating with removal".

21. Apart from its ineffectiveness, the implementation of this provision will be extremely harmful. Our research has documented the impact of being made destitute on women seeking asylum. Of the 45 women who spoke to us in 2012 about their experiences of destitution in the UK, 96% had relied on charities for food, 56% had been forced to sleep outside, 16% had experienced sexual violence while destitute, 18% had worked unpaid for food or shelter, and 9% had worked illegally.

22. Women we spoke told us about the serious impact of destitution on their physical and mental health. Some also explained that they had become involved in prostitution or had engaged in transactional sex to survive while destitute. Making women and their children destitute will expose them to a multiplicity of harms, exploitation and abuse.

23. The experience of one of the women in our network is further evidence of the harms that will be cause by such a provision. Mariana, originally from Angola, was helped to the UK by a family friend after her father was killed because of his political activities, and after her brother was also killed. Her claim for asylum was initially refused because the Home Office wrote to her at an old address, and so she missed her substantive interview. When she discovered what had happened and made contact with the Home Office, she was eventually given a year’s leave to remain, but her asylum case was subsequently refused. Following this, her lawyer told her that she was no longer eligible for legal aid, and so she represented herself at her appeal, where she was again refused.

24. She was made destitute and relied on support from friends to avoid sleeping on the streets. She became pregnant, but her boyfriend left her during the pregnancy. Before she went into labour, she stayed with a woman who had two children, where she helped to look after the children and with housework. But when she had her son, she was no longer able to stay there, so she went to social services for help. Social services said they could not help her, but as they had a statutory duty to protect her child they would take her child into care.

25. To avoid losing her child she lived underground for the next four years, staying out of contact with the Home Office. At night she and her son stayed on friends’ sofas, and during the day they would "walk and walk all day, or sit on a park bench, or maybe in a library for a few hours". On one occasion, she was sexually assaulted, but was too afraid to tell the police. She has subsequently been granted refugee status, but the trauma of her and her son’s experience remains with her.

October 2015

Prepared 27th October 2015