Yarl's Wood: deported asylum seekers to give evidence to parliament

Women once held in Yarl's Wood will give evidence including allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by guards
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Deported asylum seekers who have made allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by staff at the Yarl's Wood detention centre are to be called before an ongoing parliamentary inquiry.

The home affairs select committee will formally interview female former detainees, including some who were subsequently deported, about their claims. MPs will also visit Yarl's Wood to inspect conditions following accusations of secrecy and a recent refusal by the Home Office to allow the UN special rapporteur into violence against women to inspect the centre.

Last week, during the hearing, MPs accused Serco of quoting selectively from various inspections into the centre, which the company runs for the Home Office, at a cost of £12.5m a year.

The committee chairman, Keith Vaz, said: "There remain serious questions over the thoroughness of their [Serco's] investigations. It is vital that we have the full facts. The statements made by Serco must be tested. The committee feels strongly that those whose accusations have brought about these investigations should be given an opportunity to voice their concerns. We will look to call further witnesses."

Protesters outside the Home Office on 18 September 2013. Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis Photograph: Guy Corbishley/Demotix/Corbis

Serco said last Tuesday that it had received and investigated 31 complaints of inappropriate sexual behaviour involving staff – more than double the number that the company stated in a letter to MPs last September.

The company also said that 10 staff members, relating to eight of the complaints, had been dismissed following complaints of inappropriate behaviour, two more than it previously stated. Confusingly, however, a freedom of information response by the Home Office, dated 30 April 2014, said that it knew of only one case of sexual contact that has been substantiated since Serco began managing Yarl's Wood seven years ago.

Meanwhile, a 20-year-old Ugandan has alleged that she was deported after submitting a written complaint about an officer's alleged sexual advances. A wheelchair user known as Prossie N claims that a male guard in her room touched her leg and, according to her interpretation of his behaviour, propositioned her by implying that he could help her escape if she consented.

Speaking from Uganda, she said: "It was clear that he wanted to have sex with me. The way he was acting, it was clear what he wanted. He asked if I needed his help. He said he would help me to get out of Yarl's Wood. I told him to get out. I said I know what he wants."

Prossie N claims she submitted a complaint over the alleged incident, in mid-November last year, but said no one came to investigate her account. She was deported the following month.

Serco, however, says it has no record of a complaint being made in November 2013. "They didn't do anything. I wrote a complaint and put it in the box but they just deported me," Prossie N claimed.

Another alleged case involves a current detainee from South Africa who claims male guards entered her room without knocking, which is in breach of Serco guidelines. Serco denied this practice during Tuesday's hearing. The woman alleges that on 8 June a group of male guards and one female staff member entered her room without warning while she was in bed and that, although she made a complaint, nothing appeared to have happened.

"I was in bed when they came in: they were demanding I just get out of bed because they wanted to search the room. It's still OK for them to walk into any room, any time they want," she said.

She also alleged: "I have seen male officers behaving in an inappropriate manner with ladies. You see some flirting, things like that, touching the women."

Norman Abusin, Serco's director at Yarl's Wood, said: "The complaint was thoroughly investigated by Serco and found to be unsubstantiated. The corridors leading to residents' rooms are covered by CCTV, which is monitored in the control centre, and this footage was used as evidence in their investigation."

He added: "We view all allegations or complaints extremely seriously. There are two reporting systems, independent of Serco, which residents can use to raise concerns. Complaints are thoroughly investigated and, if substantiated, disciplinary action is always taken. Where appropriate the relevant external authorities are notified and involved." He added that every aspect of the way they treated detainees was independently scrutinised.


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

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