Case Study

Yarl’s Wood – Death by Indefinite Detention

Case study

Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is a detention centre in Bedfordshire (UK) where foreign nationals, mostly women and children, await deportation or the outcome of asylum requests, indefinitely. Opened in 2001, and operated by Serco, a private contractor, Yarl’s Wood has gained a reputation for its inhumane conditions. Like Manus Island, Yarl’s Wood has become synonymous with the racialized violence of immigration removal; reported cases of physical and mental abuse, suicide attempts, and death. This centre has also become a focus for resistance, and stories of resilience through not only detainee hunger strikes, demonstrations inside and outside its walls, but also for the ways in which these women find expression through art, and cultural initiatives.

Case Study image by Sleeves Rolled Up (2016)

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this case study may contain images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that this study contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.

At the same time, each screen of these case studies testifies to target communities' strength and courage, as they respond to repeated deaths in custody through myriad creative forms, through lines of solidarity and through an unwavering call for justice.

This case study considers Yarl’s Wood in three ways

1- As a site where the gendered dimensions of racialized violence that exemplifies the standard operating procedures of private military and security companies contracted by governments to enforce increasingly punitive and inhumane immigration policies.

2- As a space where, despite the daily reality of deprivation, physical and psychological violence, detainees forge support networks with others beyond the compound walls to mobilize against the UK government’s reliance on indefinite detention.

3- As a site where racialized death and violence at the external borders of “Fortress Europe” (Franklin, 2018) and those demarcating EU member-state jurisdictions, converge with public outcry over the UK government’s treatment of longstanding citizens from the West Indies. As a number of these members of the “Windrush Generation” find themselves detained in Yarl’s Wood, they become the latest generation of “unwanted populations” being targeting through processes of pervasive criminalization.


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Photo of Yarl’s Wood by Darren Johnson / iDJ Photography (2015)

For these reasons Yarl’s Wood works as a local-global signifier of the military-industrial-prison-border complex that has become embedded in liberal western societies. The conditions of detention in this centre and its links to the Windrush Scandal underscore the variety of ways in which national and local authorities authorize gendered and racialized processes of exclusion and incarceration, including legal double standards for Black and Ethnic Minority citizens, in ways that underscore the inhumane treatment of indigenous peoples, refugees, asylum-seekers, and ‘migrants’.

Yarl’s Wood is a complex, and high-profile case, which has generated a rich research literature and campaigns on behalf of detainees. To capture this complexity we have curated selected themes around Yarl’s Wood as a web-embedded installation using an app called ‘Articulate’. You can navigate in and out of the seven themes that make up this installation in your own time and in any sequence. Click on the image below to get started.

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Photo by Katie Moum (2018).  Unsplash:

 A Rebranding Exercise?

After years of campaigning and advocacy the UK government did end child detention in 2010 (Corporatewatch, 2011). However,  opinions remain divided about the appropriate approach to the detention of adults whilst children are still being detained in so-called pre-departure accommodation centres (Gentleman, 2011), also run by the same private security companies found guilty of unlawful killing (see the case of Jimmy Mubenga).

The period for detention remains a sensitive topic: Some have argued for ending all immigration detention (Corporatewatch, 2011), others such as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2017) and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration (2015) have argued for a maximum time limit to be set on immigration detention.

Despite various recommendations and court rulings, immigration detention continues. By repackaging indefinite detention – a form of imprisonment – with euphemisms like “short detention” or “pre-departure accommodation centres” the UK has been undertaking, in fact, a rebranding exercise.

‘Exit Denied’: Life and Death in Detention

One striking feature of Yarl’s Wood and other places where people are locked up for indefinite periods, without adequate health provisions and legal support (e.g. Manus Island, in US prisons), is how “life” and “death” take on different meanings.

Acknowledging this insight changes the categories underlying official statistics on “death” and “suicide”, or the number of those on “suicide watch” in detention centres: For those who have nearly died after attempting to kill themselves, what does being a “survivor” really mean? What does it mean to be still alive under the “living death” conditions of indefinite detention?

The numbers who attempt suicide, and those who are on so-called suicide watch lists exemplify the  suffering of those detainees who are either dead or  “near death”. Including the number of those who are “near death” would completely change the official record of so-called death incidents.

Understanding the levels of suffering of detainees – and their powers of resilience – along this spectrum of “life” and “death” transcends how governments and their agents monitor their own performance. This would then allow for an analysis that includes the ways in which state agencies and private actors brutalize unwanted others.

All these official categories need to be seen as links in the chain of suffering that asylum seekers and refugee detainees face.

In addition, EU member-states (e.g. Italy, Hungary) have decided unilaterally to push back against refugee and asylum seekers by refusing them access to safe harbours, or holding them indefinitely in makeshift camps (as is the case in Greece where conditions continue to deteriorate). These decisions, at the national and EU level effectively confine large numbers of people to a “near death” state, another ring in the refugee’s chain of suffering; e.g. freezing to death on mountainous border routes in southern Europe. These sorts of pushback policies and the inhumane conditions that follow are tantamount to torture (e.g UNHCR, 2015, see also Refugee Convention). Within or outside the walls of a detention centre, or on any shore, governments remain complicit in these human rights abuses despite refusing to admit liability (Franklin 2018).

Yarl’s Wood, what happens inside its walls to detainees, how women held there find ways to organize and resist, and how activists and support organizations seek to mitigate their suffering, encapsulates the emotional and psychological toll of further traumatising displaced  populations in a globalized system that perpetuates living death by detention.

Reading between the lines of governmental statistics and jurisprudence is integral to apprehending the normalization and institutionalization of a globalized system. These standard operating procedures use of containment (e.g. walls), confinement, and other forms of territorial enclosure (Sawhney, Yacoub, and Norman 2009), dehumanize, and demoralize unwanted populations to further anti-immigration policies of “deterrence”in the name of national security.

Globalizing Deathscapes

Jimmy Mubenga and the plane (UK)

Jimmy Mubenga and the plane (UK)

Letting Moises Die: Perishing in Immigration Detention (US)

Letting Moises Die: Perishing in Immigration Detention (US)

Extraterritorial Killings: The weaponisation of bodies (Australia)

Extraterritorial Killings: The weaponisation of bodies (Australia)

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Photo by Sleeves Rolled Up (2016)

This case study was collectively authored by the EU/UK Hub of the Deathscapes project: Marianne Franklin and Raed Yacoub

To cite this research: Yacoub, R. and Franklin, M.I. 2019, “Yarl’s Wood – Death by Indefinite Detention;

Crisis Support Lines:

Lifeline (Aus): 13 11 14
A free interpreting service for people who do not speak English is available for 13 11 14. To access this service please:
1) Call TIS on 131 450 and ask to talk to Lifeline on 13 11 14 in the language required.
2) TIS will call 13 11 14 on behalf of the caller.
Crisis Services Canada (Can): 1 833 456 4566
Samaritans (UK): 116 123
Suicide Prevention (US): 1-800-273-8255
International Support: International Association for Suicide Prevention and


Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this website contains images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that the site contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.