Content warning: mentions of suicide and sexual assault
Opposition to Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) at Hassockfield is continuing to grow after the first women were moved into detention there in December.
Local campaigner Owen Temple has filed a legal challenge against the centre.
Durham Student Action for Refugees (STAR), local group NoToHassockfield, national charity Women for Refugee Women, and local faith groups have also been among those protesting against the opening of the centre.
Palatinate interviewed several activists from these groups. Many spoke at length about the “trauma” endured by many women in detention, expressing their anger and frustration over plans for Derwentside.
Gemma Lousley, Policy and Research Coordinator (Detention) at Women for Refugee Women, told Palatinate that many women end up in detention because the cases made for their asylum or refugee status applications are “not as good as they could be”.
This is often due to poor legal advice, as well as language barriers. She explained that “many of these women are also survivors of sexual abuse and violence. This can often be very difficult to open up about.”
Helen Groom of NoToHassockfield told Palatinate that as many as 80% of women detained “will have been abused, raped” or “subjected to trafficking and sexual violence”.
Ms Lousley said that many women will turn up to their reporting appointments with the Home Office “with only the clothes they’re wearing and a handbag” and then be told that they are going to be detained. They will then immediately be transported.
Agnes Tanoh, who now campaigns for Women for Refugee Women, was detained after claiming asylum in the UK because she faced persecution and feared for her life in her home country.
“I was put there because the solicitor who was working on my case didn’t do it properly. I suffered so much and for no reason. I know how detention destroys a woman. Women become depressed and suicidal in detention. I don’t want to see this happen to any of my sisters who are looking for safety.”
Julie Ward, also of NoToHassockfield, said “these women will be very confused and very disorientated, they probably don’t really know where they are. They were probably removed in the middle of the night in a van”.
In an interview with Palatinate, Mr Temple, a Durham County Councillor when the decision to build the immigration detention centre was made, said that the decision had been taken without consulting the community. “Local representatives like myself knew nothing about it, local people knew nothing about it, and as far as I was concerned it was all being done under the cover of Covid-19.”
A legal challenge to the immigration detention centre brought by Mr Temple argues that the necessary procedures were not followed. In his view, the Home Office should have provided a full planning application to change the site from a disused youth detention centre to a specific detention centre for women, many of whom have not been convicted of any crime. He said that “we hope that a court will say there should have been a complete planning application on this site.”
Mr Temple said that “if the court rules that the submitted planning application, which was only for part of the site, wasn’t enough and was incorrectly approved, that decision will be quashed, and we will be looking for the council to take enforcement action.”
Women for Refugee Women launched its own legal challenge against the Home Office over the detention centre in May 2021. However, the group ultimately did not pursue the full legal challenge in that case.
The site in question was previously Medomsley Detention Centre for boys aged 17-21. It closed in 1988, and 25 years later a police investigation into the treatment of boys at the centre began. More than £7m in compensation has since been paid out to over 1,600 men who were found to have been abused at the centre.
In a press release, NoToHassockfield wrote that “five former officers have already been jailed for their part in the abuse with many more thought to have been involved in what was probably an organised paedophile ring.”
Mr Temple said that for many people in Consett, where the centre is situated, “it is reopening an old wound”. When asked by MPs what the rationale for opening the IRC on this particular site was, the Home Office said that, because it is already a government asset, it is “the most cost-effective option”.
A Home Office spokesman told The Morning Star just before the centre opened that it “has vital services such as a bespoke health suite and mental health in-reach. Individuals in removal centres can easily contact their legal representatives by telephone, email and video call and also receive 30 minutes’ free advice through the legal aid scheme.“ Palatinate also directly contacted the Home Office for comment.
The site remains controversial at a national level, with a formal complaint to the Home Secretary from City of Durham MP Mary Foy and almost 20 written questions about the site submitted by parliamentarians to the Home Office.
Mr Temple said that he holds both the Home Office and Durham County Council responsible: “The County Council says it opposes Hassockfield Detention Centre, but they have been standing by without any clear effort to prevent it.”
Palatinate contacted Durham County Council for comment. A spokesperson said: “Once the council was made aware of the government’s intention to re-open the site for detention purposes, consideration was given as to whether planning consent was required. Ultimately it was concluded that the proposal could not be viewed as a change of use in planning terms, and therefore consent was not required.
“In light of this it was not possible for the council to compel the Home Office to carry out consultation although we did strongly encourage it to engage with communities via local councillors. As a result of our request, consultation meetings have subsequently taken place with relevant agencies and councillors, along with a visit to the site.
“While the council did not have legal grounds to stop the development, a motion opposing the use as a detention centre was passed at a full meeting of the authority in July of last year. As a result of this motion, we subsequently wrote to the secretary of state for justice making it clear that we viewed the use as ‘unacceptable’ and that we instead wished the site to be used for housing as had been planned.”
Students from Durham STAR have been fundraising to support Mr Temple’s legal challenge by running a bake sale, karaoke night and yoga night.
When asked how he felt, knowing that the first women would be moved into the detention centre despite protest, Mr Temple said that he is “angry, sad, unsurprised, determined”.
“There are so many things in life where things happen that are appalling, but people who believe in something just have to keep soldiering on, that’s all there is to it. The one bulwark we have against bad politics in this country is our legal system, and I’m hoping that the legal system can deliver what the political system has failed to deliver, which is to listen to people.”
“If they listen to people and the side I’m arguing for loses, then I’ll just have to take it on the chin as you always do; you don’t change your view, you’re not beaten, you’re just temporarily set back.”
Julie Ward, a founding member of NoToHassockfield, told Palatinate that “we are there to be a noisy and peaceful protest, because we believe that these women will be able to hear us, and it’s very important to us that they do not feel abandoned.”
The group protests at the site on the third Saturday of each month, chanting, singing, and holding placards up, often joined by students from Durham STAR. One of the placards has a mobile phone number so that “the women know that there are people who support them at this very difficult time”.
The group has now completed six monthly demonstrations, and an emergency demonstration just before Christmas when the first women were due to arrive. On January 2nd, in response to announcements from the government that women had now been moved into the centre, another emergency demonstration was held at short notice.
Despite it being a bank holiday weekend, the group had a large turn-out. Ms Ward was delighted: “We know we can get people out, taking action together”. The group believes that the women inside the detention centre will be able to hear the protests outside.
Helen Groom, also of NoToHassockfield, said that “each month we hear more ‘beeps’ of support from drivers who are driving past, as the local residents understand that the site is now a prison for women who are seeking sanctuary.”
Ms Ward said that the protests are “a very emotional thing. A lot of the campaigners are women and it is very emotional for a lot of us. What we are trying to do is demonstrate compassion and humanity and solidarity. We haven’t been able to stop the facility from opening but we are absolutely determined to protest until it is closed.”
A former Labour MEP, Ms Ward continued: “There’s a lot of things to protest about and defend right now so there are a lot of conversations with like-minded people, and that is how we came to know what was going on at Hassockfield.”
“What you have are a group of diverse people coming together around a human rights issue.” On her personal motivations for protesting, she said, “I have done lots of human rights work at the European and international level, and I wasn’t going to sit back, watch and do nothing when this abominable facility was going to be opened on my own back door step.”
Ms Ward was especially keen to stress that the issue of immigration detention is not a party political one: “Lots of extraordinary people support us, for example, Lord Arthur Dubs and human rights lawyer Margaret Owen OBE. You cannot describe either of these as ‘hardleft’”. Mr Temple, who is bringing the legal challenge, is a former Liberal Democrat Councillor.
Ms Ward was especially keen to stress that the issue of immigration detention is not a party political one: “The local Conservative MP Richard Holden likes to depict the campaigners in a particular way; as ‘hard-left’. Lots of extraordinary people support us, for example, Lord Arthur Dubs and human rights lawyer Margaret Owen OBE. You cannot describe either of these as ‘hard-left’”. Mr Temple, who is bringing the legal challenge, is a former Liberal Democrat Councillor.
“The people out there campaigning are of all ages, all backgrounds, from lots of different walks of life, and this shows the breadth of support for our campaign.”
On the future of the NoToHassockfield campaign, Ms Groom said: “We are now in discussions about ramping up the level of protest at the site and in the local community. We will continue to work with local politicians to increase awareness and opposition to the site.”
Ms Ward was highly critical of Richard Holden MP: “When he talks about these women, he doesn’t say trafficked women, he doesn’t talk about them as though they’re human beings. He calls them ‘illegals’ or ‘foreign criminals’.”
Palatinate contacted Mr Holden for comment.
She also said that NoToHassockfield are “exploring with Women for Refugee Women and other national groups the potential for further legal challenges. We will seek to build a national profile for the campaign to close the site as well as working in cooperation with other organisations locally to ensure that the women at the site are treated as humanely as possible.”
Liz Archibald, of the Justice and Peace co-ordinating council in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, spoke to Palatinate about monthly prayer vigils, which she helps to organise. They are held outside the gates of Derwentside at 3pm on the first Sunday of every month. The group intends to continue praying for the women now detained there.
Ms. Archibald said that readings “from a multi-faith background” are used at the vigils. The readings demonstrate “how people of faith should welcome the stranger”. The vigils are joined by people of multiple faiths, and those of none.
Speaking personally, Ms Archibald said that “we should be welcoming people who seek asylum here and helping people to be integrated into our society.” Having personally supported refugees and asylum seekers via refugee drop-in sessions, she said that “listening to the experience of people who have been detained and those supporting them it is clear that a more compassionate approach is needed.”
Image: Simone J. Rudolphi (Twitter: @scenebysimone)