Riot and Fire in Detention Facility in U.K.

07 May 2002

According to a February 15, 2002 report by the electronic Romani news source Ustiben, fire swept through Yarl's Wood, the United Kingdom's largest asylum-seeker detention centre, at Bedfordshire, the same day, following a clash between private security personnel and an elderly Romani woman. What Ustiben has called the "Yarl's Wood Uprising" followed weeks of unrest among inmates, during which a woman was separated from her 4-month-old child.

According to the Ustiben report, the elderly Romani woman had been seeking medical attention for three days when security personnel finally came to transport her to a medical facility. When the wardens produced handcuffs, a struggle reportedly ensued with the elderly woman, in which other detainees became involved. At first, approximately fifty Roma reportedly joined the struggle, then later in the day, approximately two hundred people succeeded in getting onto the roof of the facility. Several buildings at Yarl's Wood were set on fire, beginning in the reception centre and the administrative block. According to Ustiben, keys were taken from one warden, two side gates were opened and approximately thirty people fled from the facility into the surrounding fields. Several wardens claim to have been attacked, and one warden allegedly jumped out of window, reportedly sustaining back injuries in the process. Ustiben reported that as of 8:00 PM of February 15, fifteen fire engines attended the fires, which destroyed most of the visiting centre and at least one wing. Approximately one hundred police officers surrounded Yarl's Wood and helicopters flew overhead as the buildings burnt. According to Ustiben, seven men and one woman were re-arrested within hours, while police and immigration officials continued to search for the remainder of the escapees, who were believed to number about forty people. Later the same evening, women and children were reportedly moved from the facility on buses to the Harmondsworth Detention Centre, near Heathrow Airport, in London, leaving only men in the unburned blocks. As of April 5, 2002, police were reportedly carrying out a criminal investigation into the fire and police sources told members of the media that some of the recaptured Roma may face criminal charges.

According to BBC News Online of February 19, 2002, a spokeswoman for the Home Office in London stated that sprinkler systems had not been installed in any of the new detention centres, nor in older converted buildings, where asylum seekers are held while their cases are pending. According to the report, the spokeswoman stated that packages of safety measures were put together after consultation with experts, but sprinkler systems were not included in the package.

Yarl's Wood opened in November 2001 and can reportedly accommodate up to 900 asylum-seekers. To date, approximately 300 Roma have reportedly been detained at Yarl's Wood and Oakington, a similar facility. The high number of detainees has been linked to the recent government efforts to expel Roma from the United Kingdom. Ustiben reports that, during February 2001, Roma were being deported to the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and elsewhere every week. According to Ustiben, the newly formed non-governmental organisation Trans European Roma Federation held a demonstration outside the Home Office in London on December 10, 2001, to oppose the deportation of Roma from the U.K. Political action has also been undertaken inside the Yarl's Wood facility: Prior to the riot, two Czech Romani brothers initiated a 10-day hunger strike that was joined for 24 hours by approximately 125 detainees and led to the formation of a "detainees committee". This body put forth demands for reforms in the prison-like facility, particularly that food and drink be available at all times, as well as that detainees have increased access to telephones and medical facilities, improved visitation procedures and that there be an end to handcuffing during medical treatment and court visits.

In other news regarding asylum-seekers in the U.K., Representatives of the U.K.-based Church Mission Society reported to the ERRC on February 18, 2002, that on February 1, 2002, Ms B.K., a Czech Romani woman, had been subjected to humiliating treatment after being taken into custody and brought to a detention centre in Dover. Her 28-year-old daughter, Ms S.K., and her 1-year-old grandson, A.K., were reportedly detained at the same time and brought to a detention centre in Badford.

In detention in Dover, the room in which Ms B.K. was detained reportedly had no toilet; cells were closed and lights put out at 10:00 PM and the cell was only opened again at 8:00 AM. On one occasion, guards did not open the cell until 1:15 PM. Despite repeatedly calling for assistance and banging on the radiators in the cell, no one came to open the cell, and Ms B.K was forced to urinate into a blanket in the cell. She was expelled from Britain on February 6, 2002, despite reportedly having valid permission to stay in the United Kingdom until April 2002. She was not provided with any explanation for her detention or her untimely expulsion, and her expulsion from Britain may contravene international refugee law, as it is not clear whether she had received a final decision on her asylum application.

Ms S.K. was taken with her infant son A.K. to a detention centre in Badford. Ms S.K. was reportedly not provided with any information as to why she had been detained and was precluded from contacting a legal advice centre as the telephone she was provided was apparently fitted with a blocking device for certain numbers. No interpretation was provided to her and officials reportedly filled out a series of forms in her presence without providing any explanation of what they were. Also, a powdered milk formula for feeding A.K. was taken away from her and it took over three hours of negotiation before it was returned. There are reportedly no facilities for children in the Badford detention centre, and Ms S.K. was not allowed to take any food into the rooms, though her son was accustomed to a snack in the late evening. Ms S.K. and A.K. were released from custody on February 5, 2002, but A.K.'s birth certificate had still not been returned to him as of February 26, 2002. A.K. was born in Britain, and his birth certificate is his only form of identification document. Ms S.K. believes she was only released from custody due to strenuous lobbying efforts by her fiancé, who is British, and the intervention of a local advocacy group.

When Ms B.K.'s son, 17-year-old M.K., realised that his mother, sister and nephew had been taken into detention, and presuming that his mother would be expelled to the Czech Republic, he reportedly went to the detention centre in Dover and requested to be expelled with her. Officials there, however, allegedly refused his request. M.K. had arrived in Britain with B.K., and he was listed on her permit of stay as a dependent. As B.K. was expelled from Britain with their common document, he has been informed that he may now be illegally in Britain. As of February 26, 2002, M.K. was attempting to lodge a new asylum application independent of his mother's.

ERRC concerns pertaining to the treatment and protection of Romani refugees can be found online at:

Further information on the asylum practices in Europe as they affect Roma can be found on the ERRC's Internet website at:

(BBC, Church Mission Society, Fire Brigades Union, Ustiben)


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