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New Statesman: Why are pregnant women being detained in Yarl’s Wood?

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When the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre opened its doors in November 2001, it was billed as an extension of an airport waiting lounge, but for some of those who have passed through its barbed wire fences, it feels more akin to a prison. And a secretive prison at that. Just last year, the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was denied entry. Cameras are prohibited within the facility.

Rather than a short “transit”, some detainees will spend months and even years in detention. And despite the hotel-like description on its website (“All bedrooms have en-suite wet room and toilet and are tastefully decorated with floral curtains”), two former detainees I spoke to, a husband and his pregnant wife, described their experience as “worse than in the third world – the UK says it has the best human rights, but as someone who’s been through the system, I didn’t experience this”.

Yarl’s Wood has become notorious for a number of controversies since its opening, including the detention of children until as recently as 2010. Over the years, campaigners have pointed to consistent allegations of abuse within its walls, including racist taunts and “improper sexual contact” with female detainees. And in 2011, the treatment of pregnant women at the centre hit the headlines when it was revealed one pregnant detainee collapsed after enduring a four-day journey from Belfast to Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire via Scotland and Manchester. In a recent case, a pregnant detainee miscarried after collapsing at the facility.

New evidence from the charity Medical Justice now shows that some pregnant women in detention are receiving sub-standard medical care, putting the life of both mother and child at risk.

A Home Office investigation is currently pending into claims against Serco, the private company contracted to run the centre, made by the couple I spoke to. The allegations include the manhandling of an expectant woman, despite it being unlawful to use force on pregnant women to achieve removal, and accusations medical staff ignored serious symptoms including abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. The woman, who is currently five months pregnant, complained: “I kept being told everything was normal, but I knew something was wrong.” Upon release, she was treated for an infection that can cause miscarriages and stillbirth.

A recent investigation by Channel 4 News highlighted the abuse and harassment of women within the centre and the devastating consequences for their mental and physical wellbeing, particularly when many have been victims of sexual assault, trafficking, and various forms of violence in their countries of origin. The consequence of this abuse is even more precarious for pregnant women who – according to the government’s own guidelines – should only ever be held in exceptional circumstances. In damning evidence to an inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and the all-party parliamentary group on migration into the detention of pregnant women, team inspector at HM Prisons Inspectorate Hindpal Singh Bhui stated: “…we haven’t found those exceptional circumstances in the paperwork to justify their detention in the first place.”

Serco claims it provides “a comprehensive primary care service for all of our residents” but Medical Justice, a charity whose volunteer clinicians visit and assess detainees, has observed that the standard of care within the centre often falls short of NICE Guidelines and comparable recommendations. One volunteer midwife said:

I’ve seen women who need urgent medical and obstetric care, who I would have admitted immediately to hospital if I’d seen them in my normal practice, be denied access to hospital, one had an ambulance they called turned away at the gates and many have been denied pain relief and other symptomatic treatment. The delay in getting them to an obstetrician was sometimes over a week. Some of these women had risk factors for life-threatening conditions.”

The UK Border Agency claims not to know the exact number of pregnant women detained, but over a ten-month period beginning in March 2013, Medical Justice saw 21 detained pregnant women, one of whom was held for 122 days. Their case review showed that the detained pregnant women were around 7 times more likely to experience complications in pregnancy and for Phoebe Pallotti RM, a registered midwife and academic who volunteers with Medical Justice, the reasons are all too clear: “I’ve seen women with serious complications of pregnancy been forced to miss vital appointments because of their detention and recommendations from previous treating doctors and advice given by myself be routinely not acted upon and urgent care seriously delayed.”

For Pallotti, stories of pregnant women’s concerns about their and their child’s health being ignored by medical staff at Yarl’s Wood are all too common. In the majority of the cases she documented, medical staff seemed to flout standards of care applied in the wider community, including basic procedures such as informing patients about the medications they were being given and their potential side effects: “I’ve seen very vulnerable pregnant women with documented histories of depression or presenting with symptoms of depression and PTSD been given medication for preventing malaria (so that they could be removed) which we never use in the NHS for anyone with mental health problems because it can and does cause psychosis and suicidal ideation. In some cases their mental health seriously deteriorated.”

One former detainee charged midwifery staff from a local trust with falsifying information in her pregnancy records – she says she was denied routine consultations, including the standard testing for down-syndrome. She also accused the nurses at Yarl’s Wood of being complicit in the abuse she says she suffered: “They [the guards] were pulling me by my (pregnant) stomach and the nurses were just watching on even though I was calling for help.”

The primary purpose of detention is removal, but according to the most recent review by Medical Justice, of the 21 pregnant women they visited, none were actually removed and all but one were released back into the community. One woman left the UK voluntarily.

In response to the allegations made by Medical Justice, a Home Office spokesperson said:

Home Office detention policy is that pregnant women should not normally be detained. However, pregnant women may be detained when their removal is imminent and medical advice does not suggest the baby is due before the woman’s expected removal date. Women who are less than 24 weeks’ pregnant may also be detained under the fast track asylum process.

All detainees have access to healthcare facilities and medical advice at all times. There is a complaints system for anyone who feels they have not been treated in accordance with our standards and all complaints are investigated thoroughly.

The former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, is undertaking an independent review of detainee welfare and will pay particular attention to detainees who may be especially vulnerable, including pregnant women.”

As debates on immigration heat up close to the elections, the cost of detention to the tax payer is a hot topic. But the charity points out that detaining someone is around £30,000 more expensive annually than supporting them in the community and that contrary to popular belief, not only do pregnant women rarely abscond, but where deemed necessary, they can be removed from the country after the child’s birth. For Pallotti, this just confirms her view that the policy of detaining pregnant women needs reviewing. “Regardless of one’s views on immigration,” she noted, “the detention of pregnant women may not often be successful at achieving deportation, costs a lot of unnecessary money, and can be very damaging to the pregnant mother.”

You can read the original article here


Written by Myriam Francois

April 1, 2015 at 11:04

Al Jazeera English: Maternity Discrimination on the Rise as Women Pay the Price of Austerity

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My latest at Al Jazeera English, also on the Huff Post:

When Sarah approached her manager at a large media company about taking maternity ‎leave, she found herself bargaining over the duration: “I knew I wanted six ‎months to be with my son, but she immediately started talking me down, saying four months ‎was plenty. I felt pressured to agree to take less time”. When Sarah returned to work, her ‎manager informed her that she would not be entitled to “special treatment” and announced ‎she’d been posted to a new job which involved travelling every few weeks, for months at a ‎time. “I wasn’t sacked, but they made it impossible for me to stay. I’d specifically said I ‎didn’t want a post which involved too much travelling for extended periods, but when I ‎returned, that was the only job on offer to me.” ‎

Stories like Sarah’s are increasingly common. A report released today by the group Working ‎Families has revealed high levels of maternity discrimination for the third year running, ‎reinforcing recent research suggesting this is a growing trend. ‎

Despite this, very few women take any formal action. According to the most recent national ‎research in 2005, of women who lost their jobs due to discrimination, 8% took action, while ‎only 3% went to tribunal. The vast majority (71%) did nothing, a statistic advocacy group ‎Maternity Action put down to women being “very cautious out of fear, they’ll be labelled ‎trouble makers – a lot of women simply go quietly”. Sarah Jackson, chief executive of ‎Working Families stated “we have far too many callers who, even when advised about their ‎rights, are reluctant to take action for fear of losing their jobs”. And as of this year, women ‎taking a pregnancy discrimination claim to an employment tribunal will face fees of £1,200, ‎deterring many more. ‎

In 2005, the Equal Opportunity Commission found that 30,000 women each year were losing ‎their job as a result of pregnancy discrimination. Today, campaigners describe increasing ‎levels of unfair selection of pregnant women and new mothers for redundancy and described ‎the discrimination as increasingly “blatant”. Figures show that one in seven women in a recent ‎survey by OnePoll had lost their job while on maternity leave. The Fawcett Society believes in ‎times of austerity, when employers cannot afford to take any perceived risks to profits and ‎growing business, discrimination against women in the workplace is likely to rise. The ‎downsizing and restructuring of many companies due to the economic recession has meant a ‎hike in redundancies, with many pregnant and new mothers adversely affected and those in ‎less skilled jobs perceived as dispensable.‎

In many cases, pregnant women or new mothers are made to feel they no longer have a place ‎within the company, with attitudes towards pregnancy increasingly hostile. Just last month, ‎Mark Thomas, the former chief executive of BBC Studios & Post Production, was accused of ‎declaring that “female workers of child-caring responsibilities should not hold senior ‎management positions”. Businessman Lord Alan Sugar, who’d previously stated that the way ‎to get round the laws protecting pregnant women was not to employ them, has also criticised ‎laws which ban interviewers from grilling women about whether they want children. And ‎such attitudes are not restricted to a few renegades, with a government survey indicating that ‎‎24% of men thought that women on maternity leave should be made redundant before ‎anyone else. ‎

For Rosalind Bragg, whose organisation Maternity Action has also recorded a hike in ‎discrimination, media coverage of pregnancy leave negatively affects women’s perception of ‎their rights: “Media coverage of maternity leave increasingly represents this as a burden on ‎business, and this has definitely influenced women’s approach to their maternity rights”. The ‎consequence of these misrepresentations is women often feel unsure about their entitlements, ‎and guilty for demanding their rights. She added: “Many women are unaware of the law ‎prohibiting pregnancy discrimination and do not recognize their experiences as ‎discrimination.” From the notion of ditzy mums ill-equipped to handle the pressures of work ‎through to portrayals of ‘yummy mummies’* unabashedly enjoying iced Frappuccino’s while ‎their employers foot the bill, feminist writer Glosswitch notes “almost all mummies – no ‎matter who they are or what they’re doing – are perceived to be a bit rubbish.” ‎

The very perception of pregnant woman betrays assumptions concerning their abilities and ‎reliability. A 2007 study found that “visibly pregnant women managers are judged as less ‎committed to their jobs, less dependable, and less authoritative, but warmer, more emotional, ‎and more irrational than otherwise equal women managers who are not visibly pregnant”. ‎What’s more, research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests bearing children ‎means women are “judged to be significantly less competent” and were “least likely to be ‎hired or promoted”. Such perceptions are born out in the cases handled by charities like ‎Working Families. One caller who was four months pregnant was sacked following her three ‎month probationary period with her employer stating that she “would be focusing on other ‎things and that she wouldn’t be capable of doing the job”.‎

Among the core concerns listed in Working Families’ report is “employer imposed changes to ‎working patterns which undermine parents’ ability to combine work and childcare”. The ‎organisation found many more employers in 2012 were too quick to turn down a request for ‎flexible working, which combined with the impact of childcare tax credit cuts, ‎disproportionately and negatively impacts women. Britain has some of the highest childcare ‎costs in the world, in an economic climate which renders the cost of childcare relative to ‎wages so disadvantageous as to push women towards non-remunerated work within the home ‎‎- even when they’d rather be out working for a salary.

Among the incidents handled by the ‎group was an employer insisting that a female staffer work a late night rota. If she did, she ‎could not pick her child up in time from nursery and it would cost her between £60 and £80 ‎in charges for every late night worked. Despite informing the employer that she was ‎struggling to feed her children and was feeling “completely and utterly desperate”, her ‎employer responded that it was “her choice to have children”. For many women, flexible ‎hours are not simply a luxury, they are a basic necessity allowing them to remain in the ‎workplace. ‎

Liz Gardiner, head of policy for Working Families believes the government’s Children and ‎Families Bill, which seeks to promote a system of shared parental leave, including extending ‎the right to request flexible working to all employees, could help tackle pregnancy related ‎discrimination. “Improving rights for fathers to take paternity leave, would make it harder for ‎employers to view women of child bearing age as the problem”. She also believes it is high ‎time an EHRC review was conducted to document what she deems a ‘hardening of attitudes ‎among employers’. At a time when the UK ranks 18th of 27 countries on job security and ‎pay for women, the ‘motherhood penalty’ perpetuates the glass ceiling and fails to recognise ‎the true contribution of mothers to society. ‎

Written by Myriam Francois

March 15, 2013 at 18:27