“When I am released, I want to be released in the day, so I can go and collect my daughter at the school gates. So everyone will see my daughter has a mother.” These are the words of Mabel Gawanas, originally from Namibia, who has been in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre for almost three years. Having already had to leave behind one daughter when she fled Namibia, she is also mother to a seven-year-old girl living in London with her father.
When I first met Mabel, back in December 2015, she joyfully told me she would be released any day and brandished a school photo of her youngest daughter, which she carries around with her inside the centre. Two Christmasses later Mabel was still locked up in the notorious detention centre in the middle of the Bedfordshire countryside, positioned incongruously as it is next to a Red Bull motor racing testing site and a pet crematorium.
I have been visiting women with the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders since October 2015, having been moved by their plight when I attended a demonstration outside the centre earlier that year.
As women reached out of the few inches their small windows would open, many of us could barely believe what our eyes were seeing. We may have read about Yarl’s Wood, about the ongoing scandals – including a Channel 4 undercover film that exposed Serco officers using racist and sexist language while discussing the women held there – but only on seeing those hands reaching out of the windows, behind the layers of fencing, out in the middle of nowhere, did the horror really dawn on me.
This is happening now, in the UK – a country which has long prided itself on its human rights record. Indeed, the UK has lectured other countries about their own approach to civil liberties. I resolved that day to campaign against immigration detention, but in the short term, to try to support the women trapped inside Yarl’s Wood.
So far I have visited 13 people: 12 women and one man. Yarl’s Wood has a family wing for couples and their adult children (the detention of those under 18 came to an end in 2011). Every single person I have visited has been through horrors, quite often because of their sexuality, and many have experienced gender-based violence. The trauma is then compounded further by being subject to indefinite detention.
By far the most upsetting thing I have seen volunteering as a befriender, however, is the sight of children visiting their mothers in detention. Last year I was waiting to go through to the visits hall alongside two tiny children, aged one and two, bundled up in red coats. The little girl clung to a social worker; the boy buried himself into the corner of the sofa he was sitting on, as though he wanted the piece of furniture to swallow him up. I didn’t blame him; Yarl’s Wood is an intimidating place to visit. Despite the soft furnishings, the prison guard–style uniforms and the levels of security one needs to go through in order to visit someone are off-putting for an adult, let alone a child.
I saw the two children again. They were visiting their young mother and father, who were in detention together. When the time came for the children to leave – they were allowed to stay an hour, no longer – the mother dissolved into tears. The social worker cautioned her not to cry in front of the children as it would upset them, but once the children were out of the room, her sobs became loud and uncontrolled, as she stood in the middle of the room, alone.
Without thinking it through, I went to her and hugged her. There were no words that could really comfort her, but it just seemed the natural thing to do. I told her my name. She told me hers: Laura*.
A few weeks later, at the Christmas event held by the Befrienders inside the centre, I spotted Laura and her husband Victor*, among the crowds. Laura was staring straight ahead of herself, ignoring a paper plate in front of her on the table, onto which had been placed some festive food. Victor, meanwhile, sat at his wife’s side and looked at her with great concern. I talked with them.
“I just want to be with my children at Christmas time,” Laura told me. She explained that Daniel* was two and Denise* was one, and they were living with a foster family as they had no other family in the UK. The couple were from Nigeria, though both children were born in the UK. Victor had been initiated into a secret fraternity in Nigeria and tortured. Having fled the group, he feared being sent back to his home country. “I am not eating or taking my medication,” Laura told me, “as a protest at being separated from my children.”
Over the next few of months, I visited the couple in Yarl’s Wood. Together with one of my fellow befrienders, I attended the Royal Courts of Justice when Laura’s hearing took place.
The barrister acting for the Home Office asked Laura, who appeared in the corner of the courtroom between two guards, whether she knew the name of her son’s nursery teacher. Laura said quietly that no, she did not.
The point of this questioning was, of course, to persuade the judge that Laura was, as far as her children were concerned, superfluous to requirements, having been separated and effectively “replaced” by a foster mother. Fortunately the judge decided that Laura should remain the mother of her children, and a few weeks later, following a bail hearing, Laura and Victor were released from Yarl’s Wood.
The family remain split up, fighting for suitable accommodation while the children remain in care, but at least they are able to see the children more freely now.
Of being separated from her children, Laura says now: “It is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. It was like my world had come to end. I was lonely, frustrated, hopeless and very anxious.” Since her release, Laura has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder.
Laura feels that the children have also suffered due to their parents’ detention. “The children’s rights were violated,” she tells me. “They were forced to live with a person who they didn’t know. I can still remember the transition process, it was a nightmare for them. Emotionally and psychologically they are severely affected.”
Of course it is a good thing that children are no longer routinely detained in the UK – but we have to ask, at what price do we separate children from their parents for the purposes of immigration control?
Laura and Victor are the lucky ones. While they still have much fighting to do to reunite their family and establish their lives in the UK, for now, at least, they have their freedom.
Mabel Gawanas is not so fortunate. She faces another Mother’s Day in Yarl’s Wood, separated from her daughter, with no idea when she will be released.
She remains hopeful, however, and her plans for the future are modest: “I want to be a mother to my child. I want to have a normal life like everybody else. I don’t ask for much.”
Sarah Cope is acting communications executive for Women for Refugee Women and a Yarl's Wood befriender
*Some names have been changed to protect contributors’ anonymity