Recently we were contacted by one of our clients who is currently being detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Centre in Bedford. She told us that no one could access our website from within the detention centre.
This is a development that has happened since Channel 4 aired an exposé of the inside of Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre using undercover footage filmed by a whistle-blower. The documentary captures the abusive, prison-like conditions in the centre. Guards are heard referring to the detainees as ‘caged animals’ and encouraging each other to ‘hit her with a stick’.
Most of the detainees held at Yarl’s Wood, which is one of the all-female detention centres in the UK, are awaiting the outcome of ongoing asylum claim proceedings. According to the Home Office’s own guidelines, detention is supposed to be only used as a ‘last resort’ and only when removal is ‘imminent’. However, HO statistics released for a report by the pressure group Women for Refugee Women (WRW) has showed that of the 1,867 women who sought asylum and who left detention in 2012, only 36 percent were actually removed from the UK. The rest were released back into the country.
Our organisation, The Habeas Corpus Project, challenges cases where people have been detained unlawfully. This can mean that they have been in detention for too many months, or even years, without having had their case decided. It can also mean that they should never have been detained in the first place, such as victims of torture or the seriously ill.
Cuts to legal aid, coupled with mounting pressure on the Home Office to deal with a backlog of cases, means that many detainees are detained unlawfully and have limited access to justice. We are one of a number of organisations that provide essential assistance to people held in immigration detention centres — making them aware of their rights; providing emotional as well as legal support; ensuring that they have legal representation or, when this is not an option, providing some guidance through the impenetrable maze of immigration laws and procedures.
The day after the release of the Channel 4 documentary on Yarl’s Wood, according to our source, all of the computers for use by detainees within the detention centre were down. When they were working again the internet restrictions had been tightened, preventing detainees from accessing a number of websites, including ours.
The Minister for Modern Day Slavery and Organised Crime, when questioned by the recent parliamentary enquiry into detention, conceded that there was currently no standardised policy on internet access across all Immigration Removal Centres, although a review of access is currently being undertaken.
Explaining the process of restricting access for detainees, the Minister told the inquiry panel that: “Suppliers operating IRCs on behalf of the Home Office use specialised software which screens out prohibited categories of sites or sites whose addresses contain prohibited key words rather than blocking individual website addresses.”
“Prohibited categories are based on safety and security concerns, for example potential terrorist or pornographic sites.
Speaking to our source within Yarl’s Wood, we were able to confirm that access was denied to a number of sites including, but not limited to: The Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, Detention Action, Asylum Welcome, Samphire Project, Right to Remain, Kent Refugee Help and the Habeas Corpus Project.
Detainees are prevented from filling out online forms on the website for Medical Justice, which is the only UK organisation that arranges for independent volunteer doctors to visit men, women and children in immigration detention to assess and document scars of torture.
In these examples, it is hard to see how the sites fell within the prohibited categories supposed to be blocked by the software. None of them constitutes a potential threat to safety or security.
Even some solicitors’ firms websites were blocked. For example, when trying to access the page for Hayat & Co Solicitors, who specialise in immigration law, our client was faced with the following message:
The link you are accessing has been blocked by the Barracuda Web Filter because it is blacklisted by your system administrator. The comment from the system administrator is: N/A
If you believe this is an error or need to access this link, please contact your administrator.
Our source did contact the administrator as well as a member of the centre staff who made a note of her complaint on a notepad and told her to contact the Independent Monitoring Board for Yarl’s Wood. A formal complaint was subsequently made by our client on the 16th March, but nothing has been heard since.
One wonders how many websites of such critical importance to the individual incarcerated in Yarl’s Wood could have been blocked. If the third party suppliers operating for the detention centres use software that prohibits key words and categories, one can only speculate as to the words they felt necessary to block following the documentary: ‘Unlawful Detention’? ‘Human Rights’?
Ultimately, these are vulnerable people, who in their moment of greatest need and isolation, have had their last resource taken away from them. For whatever reason might be given for these restrictions being put in place, considering the consequences, they are completely unjustifiable.