Report documents sexual abuse at immigration detention centre

The chief inspector of prisons has called for male staff to be banned from entering the rooms of female immigration detainees uninvited, after two guards were sacked following allegations of sexual abuse.

A report on conditions at Serco-run Yarl's Wood did not find any further evidence of sexual abuse but warned that the approach to vulnerable women at the centre was in need of a radical overhaul.

"Some of the findings of this inspection are shocking," Refugee Council women's advocacy and influencing officer Anna Musgrave said.

"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."

Inspectors found there were insufficient female staff for an establishment with mostly female detainees and warned it was unsuitable for men to walk in their room uninvited, especially given they often did not wait for a reply after knocking.

Women detainees also reported embarrassment at male officers searching their room and personal property.

The chief inspector of prisons raised concerns at the way the women were imprisoned in the first place – with some waiting up to four years for a decision on their case – and the effect this had on vulnerable inmates.

"This exercise reinforced our view that women's histories of victimisation were not sufficiently acknowledged by the authorities," Nick Hardwick said.

None of the women at Yarl's Wood detention centre have committed a criminal offence or been detained through the judicial process. Several are understood to have been trafficked by gangmasters, forced into prostitution or have been in abusive relationships.

Hardwick also reported that pregnant women were being detained without the evidence of exceptional circumstances required to justify it.

"Yarl's Wood has had a troubled past, punctuated by serious disturbances and controversy surrounding the detention of children," he said.

"This inspection found that the improvements we have noted since the detention of children ended have continued. Nevertheless, despite the good progress made, improvement continues to be necessary."

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."

A Home Office spokesman said: "Detention is a vital tool that helps us remove those with no right to be in the country, but it is essential that our facilities are well run, safe and secure.

"Safeguarding those in our care is our utmost priority and misconduct is dealt with swiftly and robustly.

"We are carefully considering the contents of the report and will respond to each of its recommendations in due course."