Harsh Detention Processes Re-traumatise Abuse Victims

Monday July 29th, 2019

Every year, approximately 2,000 women seeking asylum are detained in the UK, 77 to 85 per cent of whom are victims of gender-based violence, including rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), physical and emotional abuse and forced prostitution or sex trafficking.

Instead of staying in the community, asylum-seekers are put into detention centres as they wait for the results of their claim. However, for many women who are victim of any type of violence, the process of being detained and the harsh conditions of these centres is a re-traumatising experience for them.

The ongoing “Set Her Free” campaign, launched by Women for Refugee Women in 2014, focused on women who had been detained in the UK’s most well-known detention centre, Yarl’s Wood. The organisation interviewed a range of asylum-seeking women who were currently detained, had been detained and now live in the community, and/or are victims of rape, FGM and various forms of violence in their home countries.

The ongoing interviews, from 2014 to 2017, identified the issues and cracks within the UK’s detention system – and the results were concerning.


In 2017, Women for Refugee Women released a report, “We are still here”, which shone light on the ongoing struggles of sexual and gender-based violence victims.

Every woman interviewed stated that they were experiencing some form of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. This is due to the fact that abuse victims were held in captivity in some form by their abusers, whether physically or emotionally. Being detained brings back such memories and causes many to re-live their trauma, with PTSD sufferers being especially affected by this.

The most vulnerable require specialist treatment to recover, as they are strongly impacted by such traumatising experiences. However, putting them in detention is an inhumane practice, as it can cause additional harm to their health and physical state.

In fact, 88 per cent of the women interviewed said their mental health was exacerbated by their time in detention, while almost half stated they considered suicide and two women actually attempted suicide.

Harsh conditions

The majority of female asylum-seekers in the UK have experienced some form of violence in their home countries, and more often than not, at the hands of men. To make matters worse, these removal institutions employ male guards and staff. This can severely trigger and deteriorate mental health issues and traumas of abuse victims, especially for female rape, domestic abuse and trafficking survivors who are most commonly sexually and physically abused by men.

Some female detainees even spoke out about them being mistreated by male staff and described being watched by members of staff, while showering or getting changed, and being directly emotionally, physically and sexually abused by male workers.

Between 2013 and 2015, ten allegations of sexual assault were reported by women in detention centres. In 2016, male guards from governmental contractor Serco were accused of sexually abusing vulnerable women at Yarl’s Wood over the span of three years.

Unfortunately, these sorts of accusations have not been lost in time. Just in February of this year, former detainee, Beatrice Guessie, came forward and revealed that many more women were still being abused by male staff.

Unfortunately, the majority of vulnerable women tend to never speak out about their mistreatment, as they fear losing their asylum claim.
Many women from Yarl’s Wood have described their experiences with interviewers and staff as interrogations, stating that they are treated as though they have committed a crime.

This can worsen the mental state of women who have been sexually abused, as many of these women already carry some level of self-deprivation and blame – something which is particularly common in countries where women are judicially or socially blamed for their own rape.

Uneconomic practice

Not only is the act of detaining victims of abuse inhumane, but it is also extremely expensive, and much more costly than allowing asylum-seekers to stay within the community while making their claim for refuge.
When an asylum-seeker is provided with financial support while waiting for the results of their claim within the community, they receive up to £37.75 per week.

Pregnant women are given an extra £3 per week, while those with children under the age of three can receive an extra £3-5 per week. By contrast, it costs an average of £87.71 to keep one asylum-seeker in detention per day, which amounts to £576.22 per month – a difference of 1154 per cent. So, not only does detaining vulnerable women raise moral questions, but it also doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint.

The detention process is inefficient, immoral and uneconomic. According to findings from Women for Refugee Women, only 15 per cent of female detainees were eventually removed from the UK. The other 85 per cent were released back into the community, with many going on to apply for British citizenship and settling in the UK. This proves the ineffectiveness of the detention process.

Taking into account the harsh conditions and mistreatments which go on in these detention centres, imprisoning vulnerable women – who have experienced abuse and violence – is seriously inhumane and illogical.

The Government must make significant changes to the removal and detention systems in the UK. Vulnerable asylum-seekers can wait for their claim while living in the community, instead of suffering in detention.

Victims of abuse should not be detained, and indefinite detention should be banned and no longer used as the default way to deal with vulnerable individuals who are looking to begin a new life in a safe environment.

Pia Subramaniam writes for the Immigration Advice Service, a team of immigration lawyers and solicitors which offers free legal aid support to asylum-seekers, detainees and victims of domestic abuse and trafficking.