Life behind bars at Yarl’s Wood

‘Voke’, a refugee from sexual violence in West Africa, describes her incarceration at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre

May 21, 2019 · 7 min read
A demonstration outside Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre. Photo by Darren Johnson / Flickr

This article contains discussion of abuse, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

I was brought to the UK because I wasn’t safe back in West Africa. My stepfather forced me to have sex with men to bring in money for the family. When I told him that I was scared and that I didn’t want to do it, he attacked me and I was hospitalised. I tried to go to the police but they wouldn’t do anything, so when I left the hospital I had to start doing it. My mother knew what he was doing to me, and sometimes she would beat me too.

After a few years of this abuse, one of the men who had been paying to have sex with me said he could get me out of the country. He helped me get a visa and I came to the UK. But then my visa expired. I couldn’t go back; I knew what would happen to me.

I spoke to some solicitors, who said they could help me renew my visa, but they never did any work on it. I also paid thousands of pounds to a company who told me that because I was a from a Commonwealth country, I could make an application to become a British citizen straight away. I didn’t know they were lying. I wanted to sort out my visa the right way, but all the advice I had was wrong. None of the solicitors I saw asked me about what had happened to me in my country.

Shocked and scared

The man had told me that the UK was safe. So I was shocked and scared when I was arrested and taken to Yarl’s Wood detention centre. I’d never heard of Yarl’s Wood before I was taken there. I never knew that places like that existed. It looked like a prison to me.

I was taken to a small, cold room that I had to share with someone I didn’t know. Every night at 9pm, we’d be locked in the room. But where were we going to go anyway? Nowhere. At 7.30am the guards come and open the doors, some would knock, others wouldn’t. There was no privacy. During the days there was just such a sad atmosphere. Every woman there is walking around with her own problems, so no one really talks to you. And the food was awful – I don’t think dogs would eat that. I stopped eating, I wasn’t sleeping and my mind was full of worry. I was never told how long I would be there. When I was first taken to the police station I was told it would be for a few hours, but then they took me to Yarl’s Wood. I thought that would just be for a short time, but the hours, days and weeks went by and in the end I was locked up there for eight months. The hardest part was not knowing when it would end.

Being locked up in Yarl’s Wood triggered my mental health problems. It was like reliving what happened to me in my country: being locked up and losing control of my life. I gave up on life and started to see myself as damaged goods.

I started to feel really bad. I was so depressed, but whenever I went to Healthcare I felt like they weren’t really listening to me. I told them I couldn’t sleep, that something wasn’t right in my head, that I had been thinking about hurting myself. But they didn’t do anything. I started to feel like no one would ever help me, that what was happening to me would never end.

No point in life

After I had been in detention for a long time, I couldn’t see the point of my life anymore, and I told the people in Healthcare that was how I was feeling. But even when I told them how I had started to hear voices, telling me to end my life, they still didn’t help me.

So I tried to kill myself. I just felt like my life had been taken away from me. It was at the weekend, so they put me on constant supervision, and told me I would see a doctor in a couple of days. But I didn’t feel like there was any point, and the next day, after they had stopped watching me, I tried again. After it happened, one of the officers asked me why I had done something so silly. It made me feel so bad, like no one would ever listen to me, or take my feelings seriously.

The next day, although they had told me I would see a doctor, I was sent to see a mental health nurse instead. In fact, after I tried to kill myself, I didn’t see a doctor at all. I now have a legal aid solicitor, and she has told me that Healthcare should have done a doctor’s report after I attempted suicide, but they didn’t do this, even after she wrote to them – they just didn’t reply.

Eventually, after I had been in detention for eight months, my solicitor went to court and a judge told the Home Office they had to release me. It was such a relief to get out of there, but I don’t understand why they had to put me through it at all. I hope I will start to feel better soon, but I will never forget being detained. I am having counselling and I am making progress: I just try to take one day at a time. But every time I have a flashback, it breaks my heart because this wasn’t the picture I had of the UK.

 

‘Voke’ is supported by the charity Women for Refugee Women (refugeewomen.co.uk). According to the government’s ‘Adults at Risk’ policy, she should never have been locked up in Yarl’s Wood because of the trauma she had gone through in West Africa. Voke is still waiting for a decision on her asylum claim.


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