A trafficking victim was unlawfully detained for six months, the Home Office has admitted, as renewed calls were made for an overhaul of the UK’s immigration detention system.

Lawyers said the “shocking” case highlighted that a government policy designed to protect vulnerable people from being placed in immigration detention was failing to meet its aims.

The Chinese woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was detained despite being ”extremely vulnerable” and showing multiple indicators of trafficking.

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She was found in a brothel in Yorkshire during a police raid in 2016. It later emerged that she was concerned about paying off large debts, had no passport and family or friends in the country – all trafficking indicators set out in Home Office policy.

Yet she was not identified as a potential victim and was instead detained in the controversial women’s removal centre Yarl’s Wood.

A week later, she was released due to lack of bed space. She disappeared until she was found again by the Home Office at a massage parlour in Wales in April 2018. She was again detained and treated as an absconder. Then she remained in immigration detention for six months.

During her time in detention, staff at the centre recorded that she frequently had visions of a man in her room at night burning her with boiling water. She was seen on multiple occasions walking around with only her underwear on or taking her clothing off. 

At one point she was found outside screaming in the garden.

A psychiatric report carried out in detention states that she “appears to have decompensated in the context of her detention” and cited an “unclear personality structure, noted history of abusive relationships”, as well as “symptoms suggestive of a depressive episode with agitation and psychotic symptoms”.

A day before her case was to be heard at the High Court and following two court orders, the Home Office admitted the woman’s detention was unlawful and that she was entitled to compensatory damages for the entire period of detention.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott MP said the case highlighted the “horrible and inhumane” consequences of detaining people indefinitely.

“This is the most shocking case of neglect and despite early warnings, the Home Office has failed to identify this person as a victim of trafficking,” she said. 

Solicitors said the case highlighted failings in the government’s Adults at Risk policy – which sets out a framework for identifying different levels of vulnerability and is designed to ensure vulnerable people are not detained “inappropriately”.

It comes after a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) last week found the policy was failing to give adequate protection to individuals at risk of harm in detention and called for more to be done to identify vulnerable detainees and treat them appropriately.

The instructing solicitor in the woman’s case, Shalini Patel, said there were multiple trafficking indicators that were “clearly ignored” by the Home Office, adding: “The claimant should never have been in immigration detention. The Home Office’s own policies recognise that potential victims of trafficking are not usually suitable for detention. Sadly, the claimant’s experience is not atypical. This is just one snapshot of the failures of the Adults at Risk policy.”

Kate Roberts, head of the Human Trafficking Foundation, said the woman’s case highlighted a “clear conflict of interest” between detaining someone on immigration grounds and supporting them as a victim of trafficking to access their entitlements to recovery.

“It is known that being held in detention is likely to trigger memories of trafficking and may well suppress disclosure of key indicators. However in this case, as well as in other documented cases, even clear indictors of trafficking have been missed or ignored,” she added.

Sonya Sceats, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said the case exposed the “terrible human cost of the Home Office’s poor decision-making, as well as its failing Adults at Risk policy to keep vulnerable people out of detention”.

“If the government is serious about its professed commitment to keep vulnerable men and women out of the prison-like detention centres, it must immediately overhaul its current way of working,” she added.

Natasha Walter, director of Women for Refugee Women, said: “Instead of following its own rules to protect victims, the Home Office is subjecting them to detention and threats of deportation. It is shocking and heartrending that this is happening in the UK. Change needs to happen, fast.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”


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