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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 07-Mar-16 17:40:10

Guest post: "Detention is no place for pregnant women"

Sarah Graham of Women for Refugee Women shares the stories of two pregnant women held in Yarl's Wood detention centre

Sarah Graham

Women for Refugee Women

Posted on: Mon 07-Mar-16 17:40:10


Lead photo

"One woman told me that she couldn't believe places like this existed in the UK."

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.

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'.

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

By Sarah Graham

Twitter: @4refugeewomen

RhodaBull Mon 07-Mar-16 18:28:14


I feel sympathy for them, but if the message is "if you are pregnant you will not be detained" what is the natural consequence of that?

sooperdooper Mon 07-Mar-16 18:37:17

No, sorry but if pregnant women are fast tracked or given what's viewed as a easier process then surely it could also lead to women trying to be pregnant on arrival purely for that reason - all people should be treated with dignity but I don't think this is a solution that should be sought

emilybohemia Mon 07-Mar-16 18:40:33

They're being treated like criminals. It is awful. They should be treated with dignity and respect,

To be honest, detention centres don't sound like good places for any women, let alone pregnant ones.

Limer Mon 07-Mar-16 18:48:59

Pregnancy shouldn't confer any special treatment.

Otherwise how many other thousands of "Lucy's mums" will be buying single tickets for their pregnant daughters?

The NHS is struggling enough as it is.

rhodes2015 Mon 07-Mar-16 18:55:53

no, same as what rhodabull said!

IPityThePontipines Mon 07-Mar-16 18:56:22

There are many horrific stories about detention centres, but the armchair critics on here won't believe any of them.

Redroses11 Mon 07-Mar-16 18:59:07

Citizens in the UK struggle and fail to receive proper support for mental health issues.

While it's sad, I'm not sure what the solution is.

On what basis are they seeking asylum?

PalmerViolet Mon 07-Mar-16 19:09:44

Sarah, thank you for this well written and informed post.

It's very sad but, of late there has been a massive swing to the right on Mumsnet and because of that, you're not going to get a fair hearing for the women of Yarl's Wood on here now. Or even much of a hearing.

I completely support your work, and am fully aware that the stories you relate in your post are not by any means the worst. I'm really sorry that the kind of reception you're going to get for these women's stories will be so heartless. Take care.

scallopsrgreat Mon 07-Mar-16 19:17:10

Well said Palmer. Thank you for this post Sarah.

I'm saddened by the lack of empathy so far on this thread.

sportinguista Mon 07-Mar-16 19:19:50

The answer is perhaps that they should not be at Yarl's Wood but maybe more humane but secure accomodation could be provided with more access to midwife/medical facility. It would actually be nicer for all the pregnant ladies to be housed together.

It seems to boil down to lack of support through the pregnancy and in some cases support for mental health issues. As I don't know what the funding etc is for this I can't comment if there is the will or money to create a separate, better facility for these ladies.

I don't know whether fast tracking would make it any better as I'm not sure the support would be easily accessible in the community and they could end up being housed in some inadequate temporary acommodation.

No easy answers to this one.

Viviennemary Mon 07-Mar-16 19:28:47

It is a sad tale. But pregnant women cannot be treated any differently from anybody else. This country's treatment of asylum seekers is far more sympathetic than a lot of places. So much so that many see the UK as the very best place to come. The UK must stop being looked upon as the Shangrila to where all people in the world think they will have a wonderful life. This gir'ls mother was quite wrong to think buying her a plane ticket would solve all her problems. That is a very dangerous way of thinking and should not be encouraged.

emilybohemia Mon 07-Mar-16 19:36:09

'The UK must stop being looked upon as the Shangrila to where all people in the world think they will have a wonderful life'.

It isn't, Vivienne. Far from it.

'Pregnancy shouldn't confer any special treatment'.

It should mean women are treated with dignity and respect and that they are listened to and not ignored if they have pains, which the woman op referred wasn't. This could have led to disastrous consequences.

This will probably be another thread with posters piling in to blame the UK's ills on asylum seekers and refugees.

I think the women should all be treated well and looked after properly. The present sytem sounds traumatic and terrifying.

bedheadrestless Mon 07-Mar-16 19:54:53

How horrible is the swing to the right here at mumsnet!

As a refugee and an activist I know the horrors of detention in the UK. Thank you for writing about it and sharing it here. And by the way, asylum seekers aren't the reason for the NHS not coping it is the Tory government and its policies. I say let them in, treat them with utmost dignity, assess their cases fairly and with compassion and those that you will allow to stay will pay far more into the system compared to what they take out.

Redroses11 Mon 07-Mar-16 20:05:23


Are you now given asylum here?

kirinm Mon 07-Mar-16 20:33:35

It's funny because the bigots on Mumsnet claim they give their full support to refugees and just save their hatred and bile for 'economic chancers' yet a thread about refugees brings out those vile opinions still. How utterly surprising.

Redroses11 Mon 07-Mar-16 20:41:03

Heartless bigots eh?

No. Just no.

Shutthatdoor Mon 07-Mar-16 20:48:47

bigots on Mumsnet

Wow, just wow.

People don't have to always agree with you.

Calling people bigots is a way of shutting down debate.

Limer Mon 07-Mar-16 20:51:36

Swing to the right?

More like a healthy dose of realism.

Asylum seekers are fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries. Why aren't they thanking the UK for their free shelter, food and medical treatment, instead of moaning?

emilybohemia Mon 07-Mar-16 20:59:26

Limer, 'moaning'? Have you read what the post said? A woman that was pregnant was ignored when she was having pains. I wouldn't want to be treated like that. Would you?

Other women feel suicidal. Imagine how they must feel, locked up and not knowing what is going on and not being listened to in a strange country where the language and food may be unfamiliar and you have noone.

The tone of some posts here is odd, as if it ok to treat these women not that well as some kind of deterrent to stop them from coming.

Bedhead, I hope things are better for you now. It must have been a difficult experience for you.

emilybohemia Mon 07-Mar-16 21:00:59

Oh and I signed the petition Sarah. I hope things get better for these women.

Viviennemary Mon 07-Mar-16 21:05:58

Perhaps the word will be passed round that the UK is full of heartless bigots that treat asylum seekers in a cruel way. hmm Then the problem might solve itself.

CutYourHairAndGetAJob Mon 07-Mar-16 21:06:53

I don't think any innocent person should be locked up indefinitely in a detention centre, but pregnant women are particularly vulnerable and I support your campaign.

Redroses11 Mon 07-Mar-16 21:09:48

Message deleted by MNHQ. Here's a link to our Talk Guidelines.

CutYourHairAndGetAJob Mon 07-Mar-16 21:13:26

There is also a campaign for a maximum time limit for immigration detention here - some people have been detained for years

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