LYNNE WALSH tells the story of Ntombi, a woman from South Africa who was trafficked into prostitution and persecuted by Britain’s unjust immigration laws
NTOMBI is a dancer, musician and student. She was also an asylum-seeker who was trafficked to Britain from South Africa. She was detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2015. Now, she campaigns to get it closed down.
She came to Britain on holiday in 2004. She met up with someone her ex-husband knew but realised to her horror that she was in the clutches of a trafficking gang who forced her into prostitution.
“Different faces, different men. You just sleep with them, and you don’t even know them,” she tells me. “They just come and go. Day and night. There’s no rest, until I escaped.”
One day after she escaped, she visited the London Eye and when it got dark — and with nowhere to sleep — she befriended a woman from Chile who showed her where to sleep near Waterloo station.
Life took a turn for the better when Ntombi met some people at Battersea Arts Centre, got involved in performing and delighted in showing audiences the music and dance of her South African heritage.
She met a man and ended up living with him for six years. “He was an angel; he was my lifesaver,” she says. When he died, Ntombi found herself homeless once again.
Afraid of being back on the streets, she started using another person’s identity, and was working as a live-in carer when police and immigration officials came to the door.
She was arrested, tried and convicted and spent eight months in Holloway prison — two months more than her sentence, under immigration hold.
Then, Ntombi was taken to Yarl’s Wood, the “immigration removal” centre near Bedford. Opened in 2001 and outsourced to Serco in 2007, the centre has become notorious, with allegations of sexual abuse and degrading treatment by guards. There have been numerous incidents of self-harm among the 400 detainees.
She says: “A lot of scary things were happening. I was more scared in Yarl’s Wood than I was in prison.”
At her lowest point, she fought off thoughts of suicide.
The centre manager, Steve Hewer, pronounces on the website: “Our role is to provide a caring, yet safe and secure environment for all our residents at Yarl’s Wood [immigration removal centre]. We do this by promoting trust, care, innovation and pride within the centre, and is [sic] at the forefront of all our policies and procedures.”
Janelle Brown, a member of Sisters Uncut, has said: “The devastating sign we saw being hung from the windows by the women inside saying ‘officers in relationships with vulnerable women’ confirms what we already knew: Yarl’s Wood is the embodiment of racist, sexist state violence against women.”
Current guidelines state that pregnant women should only be detained in exceptional circumstances, but an Inspectorate of Prisons report found 99 pregnant women in Yarl’s Wood in 2015.
Ntombi wants the government to consider the impact the immigration system has on women’s lives.
Released from the centre in 2015 after four months, she has leave to remain for a restricted period, has been studying at college and is now working as a mentor.
She has taken part in the Women Speak Out! project, run by the Women’s Resource Centre, telling her harrowing story on film.
She is an activist in Women for Refugee Women’s Set Her Free campaign.
Government statistics show that human trafficking and modern slavery is on the rise, with a 245 per cent rise in potential victims being trafficked into the UK. Some 3,226 people were trafficked in 2015.
June 19 to 25 is Refugee Week, Britain’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees to our society. Hundreds of arts, cultural and educational events are being held nationwide in renowned venues, public squares, libraries, schools and places of worship to celebrate our shared future. Visit refugeeweek.org.uk for more information and to find events near you.