Yarl's Wood - ‘Exit Denied’: Life and Death in Detention - parallax 3


‘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.


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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.