Case Study Pin

Guards of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre have been accused of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour.

Staff at Yarl’s Wood, the largest immigration removal centre for women in the UK, was accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour with the inmates. Since 2007, the private security firm Serco is responsible for managing this centre.  

Keywords: migration, sexual violence, poor training


The Yarl’s Wood immigration removal center for women, located in Bedfordshire, has been managed by the private security firm Serco since 2007. It can house up to 400 women. In 2011, Sana, a Pakistani inmate, accused healthcare staff at the centre of misbehaving with her. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, at the age of 17, Sana was forced to marry an older family friend, following which the relocated to London. After her divorce, her second relationship also ended up being abusive. She then applied for asylum. After a routine immigration appointment in 2010, she was sent to the Yarl’s Wood centre. Reportedly, she feared that she would be raped at Yarl’s Wood.

Sana accused one of the healthcare staff of sexually assaulting her and reported how he repeatedly approached her. She was supported by one of the female guards, who in turn, ended up being criticised by her colleagues for failing to consider that Sana might be fabricating her testimony as the accused was clearly a “family man with strong religious beliefs”. The following police investigation was not satisfactory, with Sana’s interrogation lasting only for 30 minutes and an ordinary constable being sent instead of a specialist sex abuse officer. The police apparently pointed out the lack of independent witnesses and Sana claimed that she was accused of lying so that she would not be deported back to Pakistan. Shortly after, Sana was sent back to Pakistan.

In 2014, a 23-year-old inmate claimed unwanted sexual contact with two guards at the centre. Serco in turn hired reputation management lawyers. Being aware of Sana’s case and the existence of Serco’s internal inquiry report, The Guardian requested access to the report. Following a four-month legal battle between Serco and The Guardian, the company was forced to publish this internal report into the claims of repeated sexual assaults.

Serco’s handling of this case was accused of being inadequate and an external review was demanded. More women came forward after this, with claims of abuse dating as far back as 2007.

The Incident

One inmate who was detained from 2008-2009 stated that the guards would often flirt with the detainees and that some of the guards would give the impression that if the inmates slept with them, they would put in a good word for them. Another inmate claimed that some of the inmates would have sex with the guards in exchange for favours. Inmates who witnessed sexual contact were threatened with deportation. It is suspected that many victims were deported before being able to testify, thereby ensuring their silence.

The guards have been accused of breaking company policy and entering the inmates’ rooms at night. Some of the inmates reported that fights would break out occasionally between the inmates if they suspected each other of having sex with the same guard. Some also claimed witnessing guards dancing provocatively with the detainees.

Legal Aspects


Sana’s case was settled by Serco with a modest amount of damages. According to data that Serco submitted to the Home Office, over 8 staff have been sacked or have resigned over inappropriate behaviour. However, Serco denied any allegation of widespread sexual misconduct between staff and inmates. They claimed that “on the occasion when a complaint of sexually inappropriate behaviour between staff and a resident was brought to our attention in 2012 the matter was properly investigated and the police were kept fully informed throughout. As a result, three members of staff were dismissed.”

The Home Office stated that any claims of misconduct would be thoroughly investigated. However, the Home Office denied the Observer access to the detention Centre. Even the United Nations expert into violence against women was refused permission to inspect the Centre by the Home Office.

According to a 2015 report by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, more detainees stated that they felt unsafe compared to the previous inspection. Four women reported sexually inappropriate comments and though no one reported direct experience of sexually inappropriate behaviour during the interviews, some inmates did mention a past incident where an inmate became pregnant due to a guard. In 2016, an independent investigation report was submitted to the Serco board. The report concluded that “there is no abusive culture at Yarl’s Wood”. However, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) in 2016 found that “staff at the center were not adequately trained to deal with the particular concerns, issues and vulnerabilities of those in immigration detention”.

The International Code of Conduct

Under the International Code of Conduct companies cannot allow their personnel to engage in or benefit from sexual exploitation, abuse, or gender-based violence or crimes. Security companies must require their personnel to remain vigilant for all instances of sexual or gender-based violence, and report these instances to competent authorities. (Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) or Gender-Based Violence (GBV): paragraph 38)

Guidelines on Preventing and Addressing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Resources on Preventing Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

The Code also mandates that personnel of Member and Affiliate companies shall not engage in trafficking in persons and will remain vigilant for such instances and report it to Competent Authorities when discovered. The Code describes human trafficking as the “recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for (1) a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or (2) labour or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery” (paragraph 39).

The Code requires stringent selection and vetting of personnel, assessment of performance and duties (paragraphs 45 to 49), and training of personnel of the Code and relevant international law, including human rights and international criminal law (paragraph 55).

Resources on working conditions

The Code also requires that incident reports are to be made for any incident involving its personnel and the use of weapons, criminal acts, injury to persons, etc. (paragraph 63). It also mandates the establishment of a Grievance, Whistleblowing and related procedures to address claims brought by personnel or of third parties regarding the failure of the Company to respect the principles mentioned in the Code (paragraph 66-67).

Meeting the requirements of the Code of Conduct can help private security companies and their clients ensure that private security personnel are qualified, trained, supported, informed, and responsible.


In 2016, Serco agreed to the recommendations made by the independent investigation report. They announced that they implemented changes like the introduction of body cameras for all front-line staff, hiring more female staff, reviewing of recruitment to ensure suitable candidates are selected and more.

In 2020, Serco was awarded a 200-million-pound contract by the Home Office to run two other immigration removal centres in the UK: Brook House and Tinsley House immigration centres.


Discuss the importance of an effective Grievance, Whistleblowing and Complaint mechanism in preventing widespread sexual abuse. What factors contributed to the guards abusing their power and exploiting the vulnerabilities of the detainees? How can they be made less vulnerable to such exploitations?

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This case was prepared by Shilpa Suresh, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. 

Descargo de responsabilidad

De acuerdo con la cláusula de exención de responsabilidad de la página de inicio, ni la Asociación del Código de Conducta Internacional ni ninguno de los autores pueden identificarse con las opiniones expresadas en el texto o las fuentes incluidas en «Defender la Seguridad Responsable: El Mapa de Casos del Código Internacional de Conducta».