LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Female asylum seekers, often survivors of sexual violence, are denied dignity and privacy by being routinely watched and searched by male staff in Britain’s Yarl’s Wood detention centre, a report by rights group Women for Refugee Women said.
The UK Home Office has stated - in response to a previous report from the group - that male staff would not supervise women in intimate situations, but women’s privacy is still being abused, said the report, published on Wednesday.
“We are committed to treating all detainees with dignity and respect, and take any allegations to the contrary very seriously,” a Home Office spokesperson said, commenting on the new report.
“The latest independent inspection by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons found that Yarl’s Wood was a respectful and safe place.”
The charity interviewed 38 women who came to Britain to seek asylum and were detained in Yarl’s Wood detention centre between June 2012 and October 2014.
One third of the women told Women for Refugee Women that they were searched by male staff, and more than half of them said they were watched by men while being searched by women.
“Men enter your room without knocking and see you in bed every day. I have been seen partly naked more than once,” the report quoted one woman as saying.
A majority of the women said they were seen by male staff in intimate situations including when naked, in bed, on the toilet and in the bathroom, a situation they described as uncomfortable, frightening and distressing.
“When you are on a suicide watch (and) you ask for a woman when you want to take a shower, they said we don’t have enough staff,” the report quoted one woman as saying.
“I was on suicide watch and so was my room mate. A man and a woman were watching us. We asked if the man could leave while we went to the toilet and he refused. They didn’t respect us.”
Yarl’s Wood is one of 12 centres Britain uses to detain asylum seekers while they wait to be sent home or have their cases examined.
Moe than 70 percent of the women interviewed by the charity said they had experienced sexual violence in their home countries before arriving in Britain.
“This report shows that survivors of sexual violence who come to the UK seeking protection are routinely being locked up and are denied privacy and dignity in detention despite claims to the contrary by the Home Office,” the group’s director, Natasha Walter, said in a statement.
Six of the women interviewed said the staff at Yarl’s Wood had made sexual suggestions to them and three said they were touched sexually.
“The behaviour of staff, particularly male staff, in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, is adding to the trauma of survivors of sexual violence,” said Walter.
Citing figures from the Home Office, Women for Refugee Women said that in 2013, 6,396 women came to the UK seeking asylum in their own right - not as wives or dependants - and 2,038 were detained, more than half of them for more than a month.
In 2013 one third of the women who had been detained after seeking asylum were deported, while two thirds were eventually released while their asylum claims were being processed.
Women for Refugee Women says that detaining those who seek protection is unnecessary and all asylum claims can be considered without detaining the asylum seekers.
Women interviewed by the charity were detained in Yarl’s Wood for an average of 93 days, while one woman was held for one year and three months.
The report said that while Britain was taking steps to combat practices that harm women, such as forced marriage or trafficking, protection of women should extend to creating a dignified asylum process for those fleeing persecution.
Reporting By Magdalena Mis; Editing by Tim Pearce