In the spring of 2000, work started on what was billed as Europe’s largest immigration removal centre at a former Ministry of Defence site just north of Bedford. Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre was officially opened in November 2001 with capacity to accommodate up to 900 detainees. However, it was closed after a huge fire in February 2002 destroyed half the building. The undamaged half was reopened in 2003, with only women and families being detained since that time.
In early 2001, the Bishop of Bedford took the initiative in setting up Yarl’s Wood Befrienders to provide visitors to those who would be held in the removal centre. The Befrienders started visiting detainees as soon as Yarl’s Wood opened. Since its inception, the organisation has grown and developed substantially, but our core purpose has not changed – visiting those held at Yarl’s Wood, aiming to affirm human dignity and restore self-esteem by listening and offering befriending support. We have concentrated on developing our detainee visiting scheme, trying to address the complex social, emotional and spiritual needs of the diverse group of people who find themselves detained at Yarl’s Wood.
Now a registered charity, YWB has about 50 volunteers, who visit and befriend detainees on a weekly basis, or work in the office. The group believes that each detainee has the right to be treated with respect and compassion. As a group, we are becoming increasingly diverse, enriched by speakers of several different languages and welcoming members from all faiths and none. This, we hope, is enabling us to provide better support to detainees from a wide range of countries and backgrounds.