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Women in Immigration Detention: Vulnerable but not Visible

Morag Forbes and Phoebe Pallotti, Volunteer Midwives, Medical Justice
31 October, 2017

Women in Immigration Detention: Vulnerable but not Visible

The RCM has produced a new position statement on the detention of pregnant women, after recent legislative changes.

Morag Forbes and Phoebe Pallotti reflect on these changes from their experiences as midwives working with detained women, for which they were nominated for an RCM award in 2016. The RCM still believes that pregnant women shouldn’t be detained.

We started volunteering as independent midwives for Medical Justice (MJ) back in 2013. MJ is a small charity committed to protecting the rights of immigration detainees.  We visited detained pregnant women, provided medico-legal evidence for their individual cases, and used our experiences to campaign for an end to the detention of pregnant women.

Detention isn’t supposed to be a punishment. It is used when someone is about to be removed from the UK. People therefore shouldn’t be in detention for very long. But when we started volunteering for Medical Justice, pregnant women were being held for long periods– one woman was detained for as long as 27 weeks.  We know these women in detention have specific care needs, often from the trauma they have experienced in their lives. Being in detention can lead to further trauma. Thanks to dedicated campaigning by Medical Justice, the RCM and others, the Immigration Act of May 2016 introduced new guidance regarding immigration detention of pregnant women.  The new Act stipulates a 72 hour time limit for detention, which can be extended to up to a week with Ministerial Approval. 

Since the limit was introduced, Medical Justice has not been in contact with any detained pregnant women, so as midwives we have not visited any detainees.  Does this mean the issue has gone away? In short, no.  A response to a Parliamentary Question recently revealed that 27 pregnant women were detained for immigration purposes in the UK between 12 July 2016 and 31 December 2016. However, it is harder than ever to get information on how many women are being detained, and in what circumstances.  So let’s look in some more detail at these 27 cases.

Previously, all pregnant detainees were held at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire.  However, only 13 of the 27 women mentioned above were held at Yarl’s Wood.  There is little information the other 14 women’s locations, but it is likely that they were held at airports and short-term holding facilities.  Of the 27 women mentioned above, 5 were removed from the UK.  A further 12 were released within the 72 hour guideline. 

One woman was detained for 7 days before being released; according to the Yarl’s Wood Independent Monitoring Board report this was "at her own request because of her vulnerability and personal circumstances".  Medical Justice have been unable to obtain any more information on this woman’s circumstances.  However, knowing how vulnerable all of the detainee population are, this report is worrying.  It is unclear how long the other 9 women were held for.

While it is positive that pregnant women are not being detained for long periods of time, this does mean that some couples are now being separated.  Medical Justice is aware of several cases where only the father was detained and the pregnant woman was left in the community. That had the advantage of not disrupting antenatal care, but was very distressing for both partners.  As midwives, we previously saw how worried women were for their partners’ wellbeing when they were detained together; separation must be even more stressful for the woman and therefore for her unborn baby.  We would also question the need to detain men whose wives are pregnant, as this is surely a time when they are very unlikely to “disappear” from the immigration system.

So what conclusions can we draw from the scant information we have about the women who were detained since the time limit was introduced? There are clearly some important concerns.  Detained pregnant women are even more at risk of becoming “invisible”. The short timespan of many detentions means that the MJ team may not hear of the woman’s case at all let alone be able to have a volunteer midwife or doctor visit her.  This is especially important for the women who are subsequently removed from the UK.  Previous Medical Justice research[1] found that women were often given Removal Directions despite being medically unfit to fly and/or having inadequate protection against malaria.  Now, it is unclear if the 5 women who were removed from the UK were fit to fly as no independent midwife or doctor saw them in detention.

It is also unclear if women are being detained in adequate conditions.  Yarl’s Wood itself is a stressful environment for pregnant women. Many women told us they unable to access suitable food and others found the secure environment an unwelcome reminder of previous trauma.  However, the use of temporary holding facilities is potentially even more concerning.  The different facilities vary greatly so it is hard to know if pregnant women are in suitable accommodation. 

Finally, we would question whether it is appropriate for very vulnerable women to be held in immigration detention with no independent oversight, even where detention is reported to be at the woman’s own request.  The case mentioned above of a vulnerable woman detained for 7 days raises a lot of concerns.  How can we be assured that, for example, pregnant women with additional mental health needs are being suitably cared for?  In our previous experience of visiting pregnant detainees, we saw many examples of mental health issues apparently missed or minimised by staff at Yarl’s Wood. 

So what can midwives do? In our opinion, midwives can play a vital part in ensuring that the pregnant women still being detained for immigration purposes are not forgotten.  Most women detained will have had a community midwife and been booked for antenatal care prior to detention.  If you become aware of a woman in your care who has been detained, please contact Medical Justice: http://www.medicaljustice.org.uk/contact/



[1] Tsangarides, N. and Grant, J. (2013) Expecting Change: The case for ending the detention of pregnant women. Medical Justice, London.

Available online: http://www.medicaljustice.org.uk/about/what-we-do/research-and-campaigning/publications/


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