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The Detention of Pregnant Women: It Needs to Stop (20 June 2016)

Date: 20/06/2016
Duncan Lewis, Public Law Solicitors, The Detention of Pregnant Women: It Needs to Stop

In his January 2016 review into the Welfare in Detention of Vulnerable Persons, Stephen Shaw, the former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales, recommended that ‘the Home Office amend its guidance so that the presumptive exclusion from detention for pregnant women is replaced with an absolute exclusion.’

On the 12 April the House of Lords voted to stop the detention of pregnant women.
After the usual ‘ping-pong’ between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, where the nature of the Immigration Act 2016 was thrashed out, the Government has responded with section 60 of the Immigration Act 2016, due to come into force on 12 July 2016, which limits the detention of pregnant women to 72 hours, with the possibility of extending the detention to a week, with Ministerial authority, reflecting the intentions outlined in a written statement by Theresa May, published on 18 April.

It is easy to get caught up in the academia of policy and legislation when considering this issue, but it is vital to focus on the blunt reality of what it means for pregnant women to be arrested and detained. Our clients at Duncan Lewis, who were detained whilst being pregnant, bravely shared some of their experiences with ILPA, who used their anonymous accounts to lobby Parliament in banning the detention of pregnant women. Accounts of pregnant women in detention can also be found in the comprehensive 2013 report ‘Expecting Change: The Case for ending the detention of pregnant women’ by Medical Justice.

Pregnant women are arrested without any notice, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and usually when reporting to the Immigration Office. After the shock of being arrested, and a confusing time in a Police Station or in the Immigration Office, they are then taken to a short-term holding facility, which notoriously lack basic facilities, or straight to the infamous Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, known by detainees as the ‘Detention Camp’.

Accounts of journeys to Yarl’s Wood IRC are harrowing. Many pregnant women, nervous and nauseous, are often sick on the long journeys to Yarl’s Wood in the serco vans. By all accounts these caged vans are hot and stifling and the detainees sit in the back, where there are no windows. There are not always enough sick-bags which means that pregnant women are forced to be sick in their hands or on themselves. They are not offered comfort-breaks, on the premise that there is no place safe to stop, though their escorts do often find time to stop and have a cigarette, leaving the pregnant women in the back of the transfer van.

Some pregnant women, needing to go to the toilet, have been given bags, and are told that they should just urinate into them in the back of the van. The inevitable humiliation caused by this is compounded by the fact that there are CCTV cameras in the vehicles.

On arrival at Yarl’s Wood IRC, often late at night, often with bladders bursting, they are left in a room with Orwellian leaflets flaunting the ‘well-being programmes’ at Yarl’s Wood, as if they have arrived at a spa. They then see a nurse, and are administratively ‘processed’ before being taken, exhausted, to their rooms. These rooms are shared, and are often noisy, with the TV often left on until the early morning. Many pregnant women, anxious and bewildered, suffer from sleeplessness. Unsurprisingly, like other detainees, many pregnant women lie awake wondering when they are going to be taken by the guards, and removed from the UK.

Life in Yarl’s Wood IRC is hard for anyone, let alone pregnant women. The mattresses are thin, the rooms are cold, the food is of poor quality, and it can take several days for them to get their special dietary requirements recognised and met. This can mean that pregnant women do not eat enough for long periods of time.

No care is taken to get hold of medical records before arresting pregnant women, and so when they arrive they are required to explain everything to a new midwife. There is no continuity of care; if they do ever see a midwife, they may never see the same midwife twice. The care received by pregnant women in detention is simply inadequate, a fact that is all the more concerning as many of those arrested and detained have high risk pregnancies.

As Stephen Shaw put it when he appeared before the Home Affairs Committee on 9 February ‘it is simply impossible, inconceivable, to deliver care, whether it be maternal care or care for pregnant women or mental healthcare, that is equivalent to the very best in the community. The very nature of detention speaks against that.’ Indeed, in the review itself, Shaw argues that the declaration ‘that detention has an incontrovertibly deleterious effect on the health of pregnant women and their unborn children’ is a ‘statement of the obvious’.

After this punishing experience, 90% (in 2014) of pregnant women are then released back into the community, often depressed and suffering feelings of guilt and anxiety, having had their maternity care disrupted.

Organisations such as Medical Justice, Women for Refugee Women, Detention Action, Liberty and ILPA, as well as lawyers at Bhatt Murphy and barristers at Garden Court Chambers have campaigned and litigated hard to get this far, but the fight must continue as long as pregnant women are being detained. Current policy states that pregnant women should only be detained in ‘very exceptional circumstances’. Current practice is that pregnant women are detained as a matter of routine. This hypocrisy is actually acknowledged by Theresa May in opening sentence of the written statement mentioned above: ‘The Government plans to end the routine detention of pregnant women’.

On 15 April Duncan Lewis Solicitors issued a Judicial Review, challenging the legality of our pregnant clients’ detention as well as generically challenging the current policy (and its implementation) of detaining pregnant women. The experience of many detained pregnant women is that the first week in detention, when they arrive at a the detention centre after gruelling journeys, where their medical history is unknown, their dietary requirements are not met and they have not been able to adjust to their sleeping arrangements, is the worst week of all.

Limiting the detention of pregnant women to a week is not a fair compromise; it is legislation made in outright defiance of the clear recommendation of hundreds of NGOs, the House of Lords, and senior civil servants: the detention of pregnant women must stop.

About the author - Patrick Page

Patrick joined Duncan Lewis in February 2016 as a caseworker in the Public Law department. Since arriving at Duncan Lewis, Patrick has become accredited as a Level 1 Probationer Immigration caseworker, and has focused on challenging the detention of pregnant women.


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