Plans for women’s immigration centre faces legal challenge

The planned opening of a new immigration detention centre for 80 women in County Durham, the Home Office’s first new detention centre since 2014, is being challenged.

Women for Refugee Woman, whose work includes advocating for women in immigration detention, challenges whether the Home Office is complying with equality rules in the development of the new detention centre.  Legal action has begun against the Home Office over a planned centre at Hassockfield in County Durham, which is due to open in the autumn.

Director of Women for Refugee Woman, Alphonsine Kabagabo, said: “The majority of women seeking asylum who are locked up in immigration detention are survivors of rape, trafficking, torture and other horrific violence. Detention will re-traumatise them and makes it even more difficult for them to resolve their immigration cases”.

The government had previously indicated that it planned to reduce its use of immigration detention so the development of the new centre represents a change of direction.  There has been a reduction in the number of people detained by around 60% between 2013 and 2019 and several centres have closed or are due to close.

A freedom of information response from Durham county council, indicated that after a meeting which included Home Office and council officials last November, the council had only recently heard about the plans and feels that it was important in the interests of transparency that the intended use of the centre was clarified.

In a document dated January 2021, the Home Office stated that the new centre “will form part of the business-critical infrastructure supporting effective immigration controls in the UK”.

More than 200 people with connections to the north-east, including MPs, faith leaders, people who have sought asylum and academics, wrote to the home secretary to express concerns about the proposed new centre.

Signatories include Mary Foy, MP for the City of Durham, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, and Peter Flannery, playwright and scriptwriter for Our Friends in the North.

The letter outlines serious concerns regarding the plans to use the site for a detention centre.  It had previously been earmarked for new homes.

The site at Hassockfield has a disturbing history.  It was previously Medomsley detention centre.  During the 1970s and 80s hundreds of young men were physically and sexually abused by members of staff while held there.  Durham police’s investigation into the abuse, Operation Seabrook, is ongoing, and to date over 1,800 men have come forward to give evidence.

Organiser of the No to Hassockfield campaign, Owain Gardner, said: “The human rights and mental health implications of the site being re-used for detention are enormous, not least because of its horrendous past”.

Kabagabo called on the government to focus on community-based pilots.  The Home Office is conducting two pilots exploring community alternatives to detention, one for women and the second for both women and men, and is working with the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) on these pilots.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Immigration detention plays a crucial role in a robust immigration system and a significant proportion of women detained are facing deportation because of criminal offences.  All detained individuals are medically assessed by a nurse within two hours, offered an appointment with a doctor within 24 hours, and welfare teams are also onsite to arrange specific support.  Detention staff are trained to identify potential victims of trafficking and slavery”.