Hundreds of female asylum seekers are coming forward to report rape and sexual molestation at immigration detention centres in England, it has been revealed.

Serco, one of the largest and most powerful companies in the UK FTSE 250, privately runs Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire – an immigration removal centre.

However, the Serco staff are at the centre of claims made by many of these vulnerable women who are reporting sexual abuse at the hands of the people who are put in charge of their welfare.

Conveniently enough, some of the alleged victims and witnesses who are coming forward and testifying against Serco staff are being deported rapidly. The last remaining witness to this sexual abuse is in danger of being deported this month, without being given the opportunity to testify to police.

Often the women are forced into rooms where no CCTV cameras are available.

One brave witness, ‘Tanja’ reported in an interview with the Guardian about how both male and female staff bullied victims to withdraw their allegations, while the abuse continued: “They choose younger girls, the most vulnerable. They do whatever they want.”

In 2010 a 30-year-old woman became pregnant by an officer in Yarl’s Wood.

A significant number of these women are fleeing from countries where they have already been sexually abused or victims of brutality.

In fact it is estimated that 50% of women asylum seekers are survivors of rape.

Unfortunately, it is also the case that 57% of women in detention have no lawyers, nor do they have the financial means to get one.

Just last month, two men at a privately-run immigration removal centre for women have been fired for raping a detainee.

A third employee at Serco-operated Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire, was also sacked for failing to take any action when the female detainee reported the two men.

It was reported last month that police were investigating claims that a 23-year-old Roma woman who was held at Yarl’s Wood was subject to inappropriate sexual behaviour from guards.

Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick told reporters: “Yarl’s Wood still holds detainees in the middle of a distressing and difficult experience and more thought needs to be given to meeting their emotional and practical needs.

“For the most vulnerable of the women held, the decision to detain itself appears much too casual.”

An inspection of the prison unit found that many women, including pregnant women had been held without evidence of exceptional circumstances required to justify their captivity. One of the women had been admitted to hospital twice because of pregnancy-related complications.

This diagram shows how women are typically restrained by male officers in Yarls Wood. The drawing came from an ex-captive.

This diagram shows how women are typically restrained by male officers in Yarls Wood. The drawing came from an ex-captive.

Others had been victims of human trafficking. This attracted criticism from many human rights groups and charities.

Refugee Council women’s advocacy and influencing officer Anna Musgrave said: “Some of the findings of this inspection are shocking.

“Women in immigration detention are extremely vulnerable, with many likely to be victims of gender-based violence, so we’re horrified to hear that male officers enter women’s rooms without permission.

“It’s particularly disturbing that officials are not even following current policy and pregnant women are being detained without any clear reason.

“Pregnant women with insecure immigration status already have high-risk pregnancies and we believe they should not be detained under any circumstances. There is absolutely no excuse for compromising the health and well-being of a mother and her baby.

“This report shows that urgent changes are needed at Yarl’s Wood to ensure that vulnerable women feel safe and that their dignity is respected.”

Even the government inspectors themselves concurred that more female staff are needed, along with a review of the conditions under which these women and families are held.

Rachel Robinson, policy officer for Liberty, said: “Revelations of sexual abuse and the unjustifiable detention of vulnerable women still cast a dark shadow over Yarl’s Wood.

“Attempts to avoid scrutiny and challenge via cuts to legal aid and the nasty Immigration Bill would deny more victims a voice and leave the Government that bit freer to act with impunity.”

John Tolland, Serco’s contract director, admitted that “further improvements” need to be made, but stopped short of calling for a thorough police investigation of the detention centre and the men at the centre of the allegations.

He said: “Our managers and staff have worked hard to establish and maintain good relationships with the residents, who are vulnerable people in the middle of a distressing and difficult experience.

“However, we are not complacent. As the HMCIP report says, we need to make further improvements and we are already working closely with the Home Office to implement their recommendations.”

Public service companies like Serco, Capita, and G4S are behind local schools, public bicycle rental schemes, military and nuclear weapons contracts, prisons, ambulances, and the government’s work program for the unemployed.

Even the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The evidence of abuse at Yarl’s Wood is appalling. The Home Office and Serco have a responsibility to act much faster and much more effectively to stamp out abuse and make sure vulnerable women get the support and help they need. Yarl’s Wood is improving much too slowly.

“The Home Office has still not told us how long it knew abuse was taking place at Yarl’s Wood. Or why it is still failing to spot the signs of trafficking or of mental illness.

“The Home Office cannot shirk responsibility. Serco may run the centre but it is up to the Home Office to make sure people are being treated humanely, with proper procedures and training in place.

“I called on the Home Secretary last month to get the independent UKBA inspectorate to review urgently the operation of outsourced centres run by private contractors such as Serco and we have heard nothing.

“This report shows the Home Office are failing in their duties and the Home Secretary needs to put that right immediately.

“Our immigration system must be efficient, effective and beyond reproach – especially in how it deals with vulnerable people. There cannot be any place for abuse anywhere within that system.”

Last year GSL officers at Yarl’s Wood were reported by an undercover journalist describing giving detainees a “good pasting” and how “brilliant” that is. In March this year GSL officers were seen on the BBC’s Detention Undercover programme at another Removal Centre boasting how they assaulted detainees. Again, we heard about how GSL guards boasted of assaulting detainees and how much they enjoyed it.

According to the reports, captives often suffer from bruising, cuts, nerve damage as well as injuries to the genital area.

Alistair Burt a conservative politician, described an example of a detainee’s experience:  “The reason that I have spoken out in such a way is that when a woman from a far country, with a black skin, is shunted around the detention estate, having committed no crime, in a situation in which the system does not believe that it owes an explanation to her, to citizens or to representatives, all our civil liberties are at risk. These women have been assaulted by the state’s escort service … prevented from seeing an investigation completed into an allegation of assault, picked on perhaps for talking to an Opposition MP, and removed at night for no reason at all. Return those ladies to Zimbabwe? Some of them probably think that they have never left.”

 The scandals come just weeks after it was reported that homosexual asylum seekers fleeing from homophobic persecution abroad were often made to “prove their sexuality” by Border Agency staff by video taping themselves performing sex acts.

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