Pregnant women are being held in immigration detention by the British government, violating statutory legislation, and subjecting them to the use of force, says Natasha Tsangarides
Around 7,000 women are detained in Britain for immigration purposes each year. Some of these women are pregnant. At Medical Justice, a charity that supports the health rights of immigration detainees, we are seeing more and more women being detained. The precise number of pregnant women being detained is unknown because, as explained by then Immigration Minister Damian Green in the House of Commons on October 25th 2011, “The UK Border Agency does not hold such information centrally.”
According to government policy and legislation, pregnant women should not normally be detained for immigration purposes; there need to be “exceptional circumstances”. However, in many cases this rule is flouted, causing Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons to remind the UK Border Agency of its policy last year.
The British government has come under criticism for its treatment of all vulnerable groups. This is because it consistently fails to apply the correct legal tests when taking the decision to detain them, and then fails to adequately review their detention. This leads to a situation where people who should never have been detained are left languishing in detention, whilst their health deteriorates.
Last year, there were three deaths in detention. There were also four separate instances where High Court Judges have found the treatment of three individuals to amount to a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits "inhuman or degrading treatment".
Most pregnant women who are detained are held in Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre with a controversial history. Opened in 2001, part of the centre was burnt down the following year during a protest by detainees, following the physical restraint of a woman by staff. Since then, Yarl’s Wood has consistently been the site of protest and hunger strikes amongst the people who are held there indefinitely.
Yarl’s Wood is managed by Serco, a private company with its own history of scandal including contract breaches, abuse of detainees, inappropriate restraint techniques and inadequate training. It has been profiting from the incarceration of immigrants both here and overseas since the beginning of the global trend of privatisating detention facilities.
Serco subcontracts the healthcare services to Serco Health. Legislation dictates that detention centres should offer NHS equivalent healthcare. However, in reality, service provision is poor.
Common problems include: appointments and scans being cancelled, records not being transferred when detainees are moved between centres, test results not given, inappropriate medication being prescribed, or detainees missing medication altogether. Many women have been signed fit to fly in the absence of test results and scans, or have been declared fit for removal when they had reported bleeding and pain. Many of our pregnant clients are also victims of torture, rape or trafficking. However, they are not routinely offered STI screening or counselling services. Allegations of abuse and racism are also commonplace.
Sara, a former Medical Justice client, was detained at Yarl's Wood in the early stages of her pregnancy. She had had two early miscarriages in the past. A removal was booked to her home country where there is high risk of malaria and she was prescribed mefloquine, an anti-malarial that according to Home Office policy should not be given to women in the early stages of their pregnancy. In addition to being an inappropriate drug for women in the early stages of pregnancy, she was prescribed the medication too late to establish tolerance if returned. She had also had some bleeding and had not had a scan.
Her removal was stopped by the High Court, but Sara remained in Yarl's Wood until she was 20 weeks pregnant. At 20 weeks she complained of bleeding and abdominal pain. After some delay she was taken to hospital where she had a still birth. A guard was present throughout the birth. She was granted temporary release from detention while in hospital and transferred to the psychiatric unit because she was feeling suicidal.
Sara’s experience is not an isolated incident. Amongst 56 of our clients who were pregnant in detention in the past three years, four have reported to have miscarried whilst being held in detention. However, the actual number of miscarriages is unknown because the abuse is happening behind closed doors with an absence of published data. Another woman who was deported to a country where malaria is endemic lost her baby upon being returned.
The state has even sanctioned the use of force on pregnant women when attempting to remove them from the country. In June this year, Damian Green stated: “Control and restraint on pregnant women to assist their removal from the UK is permitted. Approval has to be provided by a director in the UK Border Agency”. That the British government permits the use of force on pregnant women is an outrage, and demonstrates the lengths to which it is willing to go in order to fulfil its draconian policy objectives.
The poor quality healthcare, the use of force, and the failure to abide by published statutory legislation to only detain pregnant women in very exceptional circumstances, demonstrate a belligerent attitude towards this group. Medical Justice believes this inhuman treatment of women who are pregnant must end.