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The innocent mothers-to-be behind bars in Yarl’s Wood

Home Office policy states that pregnant women should only be detained under exceptional circumstances, when removal is imminent and when medical opinion suggests the woman will not go into labour before her deportation date. However, research conducted by Medical Justice and Women for Refugee Women show that there is a big difference between policies and practice.

Most pregnant women who are detained are taken to Yarl’s Wood, a controversial detention centre that has been under recent scrutiny regarding conditions and the treatment of detainees. In 2014, 99 pregnant women were detained in Yarl’s Wood, of whom only 9 were deported. The remaining women were ultimately released back into the community, their harrowing detention completely unnecessary.

Detention can have a profound impact on the physical and mental health of all detainees. However, according to the Royal College of Midwives, the detention of pregnant women “…increases the likelihood of stress, which can risk the health of the unborn baby.” Despite the government stating that pregnant women should have access to maternal health services and should be treated with respect, healthcare provision in Yarl’s Wood is inadequate. The most common problems are women having their appointment or scans cancelled, not receiving test results, being prescribed incorrect medication, not having direct access to a midwife, being declared fit to fly despite presenting with bleeding and abdominal pains, and not having ultrasound scans throughout their time in detention.

Alongside poor service provision, the conditions inside Yarl’s Wood are a significant problem. Women for Refugee Women research discusses the issue of guards humiliating and violating the personal space of women in Yarl’s Wood by entering their rooms whilst they are naked, and being present whilst they are in the bathroom or shower. There have also been allegations of guards sexually assaulting women in Yarl’s Wood, whereby 10 staff members have been fired over the last 7 years. Women in Yarl’s Wood also experience verbal abuse by guards, exposed by an undercover investigation by Channel 4. The documentary showed detention staff calling detainees ‘animals,’ further highlighting why pregnant women should not be in such a degrading environment in the first place.

The stories of two women highlight the level of inadequate healthcare and the impact guards have on pregnant women in detention. Firstly, a former Medical Justice client, who was due to be deported, was prescribed Mefloquine, an anti-malarial medication that the Home Office states should not be given to pregnant women in the early stages of pregnancy. According to Medical Justice, the woman was given this too late to test her tolerance to the medication if deported, and had not had a scan. Her deportation was stopped by the High Court, but she remained at Yarl’s Wood until the 20th week of her pregnancy, when she began experiencing abdominal pain and bleeding. She sadly gave a still birth, for which a guard was present throughout; she was later transferred to a psychiatric unit due to feeling suicidal. Secondly, a former Women for Refugee Women client who was 3 months pregnant and hospitalised for 3 days stated,

“I had three men guarding me. Even when the gynaecologist was doing an examination on me there were male guards in the room watching me. When I went to the toilet they were the ones who took me. When I sat down on the toilet the male guards were there. It made me feel ashamed”

These cases clearly demonstrate how health care services in detention are inept, how the dignity and respect of pregnant women are frequently violated by intrusive behaviour, and the detrimental effects of detention on the mental health of pregnant women. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents, as many other expectant mothers have faced problems with accessing healthcare services in detention, according to advocacy reports.

To some relief, in April this year, Theresa May announced that she will introduce a 72 hour time-limit (extendable up to a week) for pregnant women to be in detention, after the House of Lords voted in favour to ban detaining pregnant women altogether. Additionally, in his Review of Welfare of Vulnerable People in Detention report, Steven Shaw recommends, “that the Home Office amend its guidance so that the presumptive exclusion from detention for pregnant women is replaced with an absolute exclusion.”  Although the time limit does not fully exclude mothers-to-be from being detained, it is a step in the right direction to much needed reforms.  

Conclusively, the lack of adequate healthcare service provision, intrusive behaviour by detention staff, and the failure to respect guidance that states pregnant women should only be detained in exceptional circumstances, portrays the immoral attitude of the government and detention staff to this vulnerable group. The Home Office must release the numbers of how many pregnant women are in detention, in order to make sure they are adhering to the new rules and are only detaining women in exceptional circumstances.

Featured image © Darren Johnson


Kalina ShahKalina Shah recently graduated from UCL with an MSc in Globalisation, after studying Human Geography as an undergraduate. She is currently volunteering for Doctors of the World, and is interested advocating for the rights of vulnerable people, healthcare access in the UK and health policy.

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