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Females and Detention: Female Refugees in the UK

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In recent years, there have been a number of high profile stories reporting increasing levels of female refugees in detention. As stated in these high profile stories, female refugees use to be spectators hovering on the periphery streets of London but today are hard core victims of male abuse in detention centres by staff. As female “refugees”, woman are seen to be vulnerable, they come from countries where they have been raped, imprisoned or tortured. Using findings from secondary research of females and detention, this article examines the experiences and feelings of females through male abuse in a detention centre.

The Social Construction of the Female Refugee

The portrayal of female refugees in the media is an academic subject of particular concern. Media coverage of female refugees related stories are often sensationalist and not necessarily concerned with accurate or conscientious reporting but rather pandering to public concerns in the hope of selling the next tabloid story. Furthermore, the images of the female refugees portrayed in the media are mixed and majority of the time are not positive. The representations in the media are powerful and essential in developing public opinion. A lot of newspaper articles on the female refugee’s coverage around a central theme: powerless vulnerable woman. The women live in poor and uncomfortable conditions and find it difficult to survive.

As far as the female Asylum seeker is concerned, in 2014, the Woman for Refugee Woman highlighted through a YouTube video three refugee women who had talked about their experiences of detention in the UK. Almost, 2000 women in 2012, who came to the UK to seek Asylum were locked in detention centres. The three women in the video stated the reasons why they had left their country. Firstly, one said that she did not have a choice and a woman brought here to work as a prostitute. The second women said she left her country because she was a lesbian and it was illegal to be a lesbian in her country, she was arrested and imprisoned twice. The third women stated no reason but she came here because she had left the country as something was bothering her. Citing evidence provided by the Woman for Refugee Woman, one in five women in detention centres tried to kill themselves. Through evidence is often cited that assets to the rise of female refuges in detention, it must be emphasised that much of the academic research on the female refugee in the UK remains limited.

Refugee Women in the UK

In the UK, academic research on female refugees is very limited and there are only a few studies few studies that illustrate the existential experience of a woman. One study that does again consider female refugees is the Woman for Refugee Woman and the detainees at Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire. The report particularly focuses on how these women felt and how they were treated during their arrests and detention. Also, how detention had a negative impact on their mental health.

The detention centre has brought out attention because of the allegations of sexual abuse at the centre. “The allegations are so serious, we can’t just leave it at that” members of Parliament stated. With reference to a sample of 38, 6 women stated that a member of staff made a sexual suggestion to them and 3 said that they were touched sexually. One woman at the detention centre quoted: “Officers were asking some women for sex, I knew one woman in particular who was having sex with the guard”. It is without doubt unacceptable that the male staff at the detention centre should not be talking to these females in this particular way. The male staff at the detention centre should understand and acknowledge that some of these women could have been sexually abused in their country before coming to the UK and they do not need to be reminded of what they have been through.

It seems to be quite normal that the male staff at the detention centre enter the women’s bedrooms and bathrooms without a knock for example, both when women are on suicide watch and when they are not. There have been claims that these women were naked or partly dressed, in the shower or on the toilet when the male staff saw them in these situations. One woman at the detention centre said: “Roll call is meant to be at 10am, at 9.45am a man came into the bathroom and looked at me up and down, I was naked”. For these reasons, women, especially those that come from traditional countries or communities who have survived sexual violence can have trouble with mental problems, when these types of situations occur.

The search of the female detainees was often carried out my male staff. Some of the woman at the detention centre admitted that they were searched by a man while dressed and they were searched by a man while undressed. However, this is strange as the Home Office states that where a full search or strip is taken on a female detainee, the search has to be conducted by two officers who are females. Also, the Home Office states that staff should also take into account the detainee’s religion, for instance, one woman stated she took off her hijab in front of a male officer.


To complete the overview of female refugees, it is obvious that these women have been hurt by those who have had power against them. Although, through their vulnerabilities and fear, they have tried to cope as best they can on what their life has brought to them. The female refugees do what they can to achieve some understanding, support and love. This is established through interaction with other refugee woman who have been in similar life experiences to themselves. As the Woman for Refugee Woman states “Together we are strong”. Therefore, the issues such as tackling further victimisation should be addressed.

Author: Michelle Karsparian is a researcher and academic in Law and Criminology.

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