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The presumption against detention should be extended to victims of rape and sexual violence, and the presumption of exclusion from detention of pregnant women should be replaced with an absolute exclusion according to the recommendations made by Stephen Shaw in a review of welfare in immigration detention of vulnerable persons. The review focuses mainly on healthcare and the impact of detention upon detainees’ mental health, but includes some recommendations pertaining specifically to the issue of women in detention.
A presumption against detention for victims of rape and other sexual or gender based violence, and includes victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) as coming within this definition
The review finds that there is a strong case that those who have been the victims of sexual violence, or (in the case of women) gender-based violence, should not be in immigration detention. Under current policy, being the victim of rape or sexual violence is not, in itself, one of the published criteria for exclusion from immigration detention. The review states that the presumption should be that victims of sexual violence should not be detained, and calls on the Home Office to put in place arrangements for excluding them from detention at the earliest opportunity.
Shaw recommends that the Home Office amend its guidance so that the presumptive exclusion from detention for pregnant women is replaced with an absolute exclusion. It urges the Home Office to acknowledge the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, the detention of pregnant women does not result in their removal. The review also recommends a short-term measure, where the Home Office should ‘closely monitor any cases in which pregnant women are detained, and arrange for their immediate release if there is any sign of removal not being achievable imminently or if the woman concerned shows any indication of physical or mental distress’
The review recommends that the service provider at Yarl’s Wood (Serco) should only conduct searches of women and of women’s room in the presence of men in the most extreme and pressing circumstances. It does not, however, recommend a change to the wording of Home Office policies on searching. Rather, it states that the staff at Yarl’s Wood have at times been operating outside the ‘spirit’ and ‘thrust’ of Home Office policy, under which men should only be present when there is an operational need. The review stresses that the proportion of female staff at Yarl’s Wood must be increased.
The review finds that immigration detention has been subject to too little research, and that this situation should be remedied by clinical studies on the impact of detention on women, in particular. Shaw expresses concern about both the detection and treatment of mental illness, and the impact that detention itself may have on mental wellbeing. The review acknowledges that sexual violence is associated with an increased risk of mental illness in detention, a fact that influenced the above recommendation regarding victims of rape and other sexual attacks.
The Government has stated that it accepts the ‘broad thrust’ of Shaw’s recommendations and that the Home Office will carry out three key areas of reform, including a wider definition of those ‘at risk’ to include pregnant women and survivors of sexual violence.
This article was originally published in Women’s Asylum News 133 December 2015/January 2016.