Detained refugees treated like ‘caged animals’

MPs are calling for an end to the indefinite confinement of asylum seekers after a report revealed horrific abuses in a UK detention centre. How can such abuses be occurring on British soil?

‘They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up. Right?’ These words sound like a nightmare from a Soviet gulag, but in fact they come from the mouth of an employee at the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire.

An undercover reporter from Channel 4 found a harsh, unforgiving place when he entered Yarl’s Wood, a centre run by the private security firm Serco. The investigation raised concerns about several guards’ callous attitudes towards inmates, as well as a questions over the problem of self-harm among those held. One staff member is recorded saying ‘let them slash their wrists’, while another dismisses their desperate actions as ‘attention seeking’.

Yarl’s Wood is the largest immigration detention centre in Europe, with space for up to 900 inmates. Its purpose is to hold immigrants who may not have the right to remain in the UK while their cases go through the legal process.

Since its opening in 2001, it has been dogged by controversy. In February 2002 it was almost destroyed by a fire. Hunger strikes and riots are common occurrences at the centre. Many refuse food in protest at the unlimited time inmates can spend there. In the words of lawyer Philippe Sands, ‘The UK is one of the few European countries that puts no time limit on such detention’.

Around 90% of Yarl’s Wood’s inmates are women, while about half the staff are male, and there have been several confirmed cases of sexual assault by staff members. The 2014 decision to give Serco a new £70m eight-year contract to run the centre was criticised in many quarters, with many saying Serco had proved itself clearly unfit to run the centre.

Those critics will feel vindicated now. Many do not even think such a place should exist. As long as migrants remain innocent until proven guilty, they must not be treated like criminals. Many say the best thing for Yarl’s Wood would be to shut it down.

Habeas corpus

What a sad indictment of Britain this story is, some say. How can we be so horrified and judgemental of human rights abuses abroad when these things happen in our own country? These events are the natural logical conclusion to our unforgiving attitude towards asylum seekers. These events do away with Britain’s claim to be a tolerant, free nation.

The mere fact that these abuses are being openly discussed puts us far ahead of many other countries, others reply. Action has been taken already, with one worker suspended. In a truly sinister country, such abuses would go unreported for years with the tacit complicity of the authorities. This is not a symptom of a wider problem; rather, it is just one unfortunate and distressing case.

You Decide

  1. Britain takes one fifth the number of asylum seekers of Germany. Should it take more?
  2. What rights, if any, should citizens of a country have that non-citizens do not?


  1. ‘Our country is full and should allow no more immigrants.’ Hold a class debate on this proposition and put it to the vote.
  2. Write a letter to your MP expressing your views on immigration and asylum.

Some People Say...

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

What do you think?

Q & A

Refugees mainly head to rich countries, don’t they?
No. In fact 80% of the world’s refugees go to developing countries. Most often these are countries bordering their own. The country with the most refugees is Pakistan with 1.6 million. Most of these fled the war in Afghanistan.
Why are people forced to leave their country of origin?
Asylum seekers are classed as people who flee their homeland because they are being persecuted ‘for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion’. They leave home because they are unable to trust the authorities in that country to protect them.

Word Watch

Gulags were forced labour camps introduced under Stalin in the Soviet Union. Inmates varied from petty criminals to political prisoners, and many had not gone through any sort of legal process before being sent to a gulag.
Hunger strikes
When people refuse to eat, and risk starving themselves to death until their demands are met. The first hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood was begun by 25 Roma detainees. In May 2007 there was another involving around 100 women.
Time limit
There is currently no limit in the UK on the period people can be held in detention while their immigration status is reviewed. There have been widespread calls for this to change.
Many Yarl’s Wood detainees are women who have been victims of sexual violence in various conflicts around the world. In 2006, in a survey by a charity,70% of women at the centre reported being raped inside Yarl’s Wood.
Innocent until proven guilty
Many say that the existence of Immigration Detention Centres contradicts the idea of the presumption of innocence as detainees are being held captive before a verdict is passed.


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