A decision to allow outsourcing giant Serco to continue running a controversial Bedfordshire immigration detention centre for women that has been subject to claims of sexual misconduct by staff has been condemned by campaigners for asylum-seekers’ rights.
Yarl’s Wood faced heavy criticism by human rights campaigners amid reports of sexual misconduct by staff, women being detained for long periods and pregnant detainees being held without justification.
Despite the troubles faced by the centre, the Home Office has awarded Serco a £70 million contract to operate the immigration jail for a further eight years.
Natasha Walter, of Women for Refugee Women, said: ‘We are more than disappointed that the Home Office has re-awarded the contract to manage Yarl’s Wood to Serco.
“We have spoken directly to women who say that they were abused by Serco staff in Yarl’s Wood, and we have heard how women’s privacy is constantly invaded by male staff in the detention centre.
“Serco is clearly unfit to manage a centre where vulnerable women are held and it is unacceptable that the Government continues to entrust Serco with the safety of women who are survivors of sexual violence.
“However, the problem of the detention of women who seek asylum goes beyond one contract with one company. It is a failure of government policy that women who seek asylum are locked up unnecessarily for long periods. Their claims should be considered while they are living in the community.”
It emerged last year that two members of staff were fired for engaging in sexual activity with a detainee at the centre, while a third employee was sacked for failing to take any action when the female detainee reported the two men.
Serco was first appointed to manage the centre, which holds 410 detainees, in 2007.
A Home Office spokesman said: “Serco Ltd will continue to manage Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre on behalf of the Home Office after emerging as the preferred contractor following a comprehensive re-tendering process.
“Serco’s bid demonstrated that its offer was the best in meeting quality and cost criteria and providing value for money for the taxpayer.”
Earlier this year, a United Nations (UN) investigator was blocked from entering Yarl’s Wood despite repeated requests to access the centre, which holds mainly single adult women but also holds a number of adult families.
Prison inspectors found a number of women at the centre – where none of the detainees has been charged with an offence or held through normal judicial circumstances – were detained for long periods, including one for almost four years.
They also discovered that 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.
And detainees who had clear human trafficking indicators – such as one woman who had been picked up in a brothel – had not been referred to the national trafficking referral mechanism, as required.
James Thorburn, Serco’s managing director home affairs, said: “We understand the challenges of looking after vulnerable and concerned people and we recognise the responsibility that we have in managing the Centre in a caring and efficient manner.
“We know that the people who are in our care are at a difficult stage of their lives. The team at the Centre work hard to ensure that they are safe and treated with respect and that the highest standard of care is provided for them at all times.”