Yarl’s Wood is no longer being used as a women’s immigration removal centre and has been temporarily repurposed to house people who have arrived on small boats across the Channel to cope with the increase in arrivals, it has emerged.
The privately run detention centre in Bedfordshire has been dogged by controversies including hunger strikes, damning inspection reports and allegations of sexual abuse.
The Home Office has confirmed it is to be used to house recent migrant arrivals, where they will undergo immigration and health checks, similar to those conducted at short-term holding facilities across the immigration detention estate.
It is understood the move is to alleviate the burden on facilities in Kent, where the majority of small-boat arrivals land.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Owing to public health restrictions and Home Office action as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of women in detention is low, and we are currently housing this small group in immigration detention accommodation with facilities for women other than Yarl’s Wood. These women are in the country illegally and we continue to seek their removal.”
The development comes after the Home Office insisted it had systems in place to ensure all unaccompanied asylum seeking children are cared for and given an appropriate local authority placement after Kent county council said it is unable to look after any more children who arrive in the UK.
Children who arrive on Kent’s shores will continue to be taken to the Kent Intake Unit – a short-term holding facility (STHF) – where they complete immigration and health checks before they are referred to a local authority outside Kent, whereas previously authorities would have sought to house them in the county.
The Kent Intake Unit consists of a large room designed to hold up to 58 detainees, with a small separate room for families, that can seat six people, and areas for searching and the storage of property. Most detainees will be present in the holding room for no longer than 36 hours. The holding room is a 24-hour facility which can receive detainees at any time of day or night.
The UK has seen a record number of arrivals across the Channel this year with more than 4,300 in 2020 so far, more than double the number of arrivals in small boats in the whole of 2019. The government has pledged to make the route “unviable” while humanitarian groups have urged ministers to bolster safe and legal routes to the UK for asylum seekers to reduce demand for the crossing.
Kent county council has cared for and found homes for more than 1,500 unaccompanied child asylum seekers since 2014. It is currently responsible for 589 who are under 18 and 945 care leavers aged 18 to 25.
A national transfer scheme exists to encourage local authorities to help support unaccompanied refugee children, but participation is voluntary. Many have not joined, leaving a small number of councils to look after a large proportion of the group.
Kent gave notice that it was close to full capacity on Friday. In its announcement on Monday, it called for participation in the national transfer scheme to be made mandatory.
The Home Office said it was working urgently with Kent council to address its immediate concerns and to ease the burden on its services.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This is an unprecedented situation and we continue to work closely with the Department for Education and local government on provision for unaccompanied minors.
“Unaccompanied children arriving in Dover are being cared for in the Kent Intake Unit before being placed in appropriate social services care.”