Originally published as a guest post at mumsnet.com:
Lucy* was 23 when she fell pregnant as a result of brutal sexual violence. Her mother bought her a plane ticket to the UK, thinking she and her baby would be safe here – but she was detained straight from the airport. She arrived frightened, alone and pregnant, and was locked up.
Lucy spent four weeks in Yarl’s Wood between months five and six of her pregnancy. She told me that she couldn’t believe places like this existed in the UK.
Her pregnancy had been painful, Lucy said. At one point, things got so bad that her solicitor had to intervene to ensure she was taken to the nearby hospital for medical attention. The staff at Yarl’s Wood were dismissive of her complaints; there’s a prevalent culture of disbelief, and women are often accused of pretending to be ill to strengthen their asylum case. Concerns have repeatedly been raised about the quality of the healthcare provision at Yarl’s Wood, and Lucy had no idea what was going to happen to her or her baby.
About a month after she was detained, Lucy was released. She had nowhere to go, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers until her baby boy was born. Her son is now three months old and they are living in the community, but their asylum status is still in limbo.
About a month after I first met Lucy, I also met Priya* in Yarl’s Wood, where she’d been for about six weeks. She was 25, and around five months pregnant; her story is also told in this video.
I visit Yarl’s Wood about once a month, and always take small gifts for the women I’m visiting – usually nice smellies, body lotions and shampoos. When I asked Priya what she wanted me to bring, she asked for a photo of a baby girl to look at, and I felt so saddened by the simplicity of her request. During her time in Yarl’s Wood, she’d been taken to Bedford hospital for her 20 week scan, so she knew she was having a girl and desperately wanted to imagine what she might be like.
Priya had been taken late for her appointment, escorted by Yarl’s Wood officers, and hadn’t had time to speak to the midwife afterwards. She was clearly frustrated, anxious, and uncertain about what to expect. “I used to worry about myself, but now I only worry about what will happen to my daughter,” she told me.
She also felt very alone. She has no family, either in the UK or her home country, and her partner, like her, is an asylum seeker. Although they spoke on the phone every day, he lived in asylum support accommodation at the other end of the country, and couldn’t afford to visit. At the time, I was the only ‘social’ visitor she’d had. I couldn’t believe how tiny and fragile she looked when we first met, but she told me she felt weak and sick all the time.
She struggled to eat the food that was provided, and had been unable to access proper support for her depression, low blood pressure, and problems sleeping. The experience of detention is immensely distressing, and over half the women we surveyed in detention said they thought about killing themselves. For Priya, pregnancy and the separation from her partner also made her more emotionally vulnerable, but staff were again dismissive and unkind when she sought help for her mental health problems.
Lucy and Priya’s stories are heartbreaking, but sadly they are not alone in their experiences. Over the course of 2014, 99 pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood – despite the Home Office’s own policy that pregnant women should only be detained under ‘exceptional circumstances’.
At Women for Refugee Women we know, from the stories of women like Lucy and Priya, that detention is no place for pregnant women. And it’s not just our opinion – two recent independent reviews, by HM Prisons Inspectorate and Stephen Shaw, as well as medical and legal experts, have expressed similar concerns about pregnant women being detained. Join our Set Her Free campaign to ensure all women who seek asylum in the UK are treated with dignity and respect – sign the petition here.
*Names have been changed