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UN investigator of violence against women barred from UK detention center

Published time: April 16, 2014 11:47
Edited time: June 27, 2014 08:23

Yarl’s Wood Detention Center (Reuters/Russell Boyce)

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A UN special rapporteur investigating violence against women has been denied access by the UK government to the controversial Yarl’s Wood Detention Center after a recent death. A former inmate said, “It’s not a detention center, it’s a prison.”

Rashida Manjoo, a South African law professor and human rights expert who has worked for the UN since 2009, traveled to the UK on a 16-day fact-finding mission. During her visit, she hoped to learn about violence against women, but she was refused access to Yarl’s Wood immigration detention center in Bedfordshire.

“A visit was facilitated and I was accompanied by a staff member of the inspectorate of prisons,” Manjoo told RT. “When I reached Yarl’s Wood I was notified by the director that she had received a phone call that I would not be allowed in.”

She said she believed that the refusal to let her in to the removal center, which holds women and families facing deportation, had probably come from the Home Office. However, a spokesman for the Home Office said: “A tour of Yarl's Wood immigration removal center was never agreed as part of this fact-finding mission.”

Manjoo was particularly interested in visiting Yarl’s Wood, which was opened in 2001, after a Jamaican woman, Christine Case, died on March 30 after allegedly being denied medical treatment. Hers was just the latest case of alleged mistreatment at the facility.

A former inmate, Meltem Avcil, who was held at the facility for three months in 2007, said: “It’s not a detention center really, it’s a prison.” Avcil is now 20 and originally came from a Kurdish area of Turkey. She originally moved to the UK aged eight, after her family was persecuted, and was taken to the detention center with her mother when she was 13.

“There are more than eight metal doors and each one is looked up behind you,” Avcil said, speaking to RT’s Sara Firth. “There are security cameras everywhere. You are very strictly searched with security. They act like you are criminals. It’s not really a detention center or a processing center. It’s a prison.”

After being detained for three months at Yarl’s Wood, Meltem was eventually given indefinite leave to remain in the UK. She is now campaigning for the center to be closed and is highlighting just how hostile conditions are for those who have been taken there.

“I’m a witness of Yarl’s Wood,” Meltem said. “It’s not about Yarl’s Wood the building, it’s about the people who are in there. It’s about those innocent women who are being oppressed. The women who have gone through torture, rape, violence and they’ve fled their country to start a new life.”

In 2012, a total of 6,071 women applied for political asylum in the UK. Of this number, nearly one-third, or 1,902 of them were detained, according to official Home Office statistics.

For its report, the charity Women for Refugee Women (WRW) spoke to 43 vulnerable women who agreed to disclose their experiences in their home country which led them to seek asylum in the UK.

Most of them were detained in Britain's largest Immigration Removal Center, Yarl’s Wood, which can hold up to 405 individuals at any one time.

Over 90 percent of asylum seekers said they felt depressed, 85 percent felt scared, and more than half confessed to thinking about killing themselves during their detention in the UK. More than one in five had tried to kill themselves, and one-third had been on suicide watch in detention.

According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the role of the Special Rapporteur is to, “seek and receive information on violence against women, its causes and consequences from Governments, treaty bodies, specialized agencies, other special rapporteurs responsible for various human rights questions and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including women's organizations, and to respond effectively to such information.”

The UN says the Home Office clearly failed to observe this mandate in failing to allow her to visit the detention center. A frustrated Manjoo told reporters she was deeply concerned at her exclusion, “because if there was nothing to hide, I should have been given access.”

Manjoo was equally as damming about what she believes to be a culture of sexism and a “boys’ club culture” in the UK. She said the British media was responsible for "negative and over-sexualized portrayals of women,” with some websites and TV channels dealing in the “marketization of their bodies.”Ms Manjoo said it was clear “there is a boys' club, sexist culture that exists, and it does lead to perceptions about women and girls in this country.”

She was making her comments as she presented her preliminary findings from her visit to the UK, before she is due to report back to the UN Human Rights Council.

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