A Judge has Granted Permission for our Legal Challenge: We’re Taking the Government to Court in June!

For the first time ever, we’re taking the Home Office to court.

A judge has reviewed our case against a new detention centre for women and has granted us permission to move to the next stage. We now have a two-day hearing at the end of June. 

But we need your help to ensure we can cover our court costs and legal fees – chip in here! 

We have been campaigning tirelessly against the opening of the new detention centre for women, Derwentside (formerly known as Hassockfield), for over a year.  

Despite the wealth of evidence on the lasting damage that locking people up in detention inflicts, of which the Home Office is well aware, the Government continued with their plans to open Derwentside in County Durham in December 2021. 

The Government chose to lock up women at Derwentside without provision for them to access in-person legal advice, which has severely damaging consequences for their cases: 

  • The majority of women in detention are survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence. Survivors of such violence experience significant and particular difficulties disclosing what has happened to them. Many women we have spoken to have said they felt too ashamed to talk about their previous experiences 
  • Being denied access to in-person legal advice will exacerbate the difficulties women already face in disclosing these experiences, since they will be expected to talk about what happened to them to someone they have never met, over the phone.
  • Difficulties in disclosing previous experiences can have significant negative consequences for women in detention. It can result in delays in release from detention, their credibility being questioned in asylum and trafficking cases, and inaccurate or incomplete legal advice. 

The reason for this appears to be due to the shortage of legal aid providers operating in the North East of England. 

Following the latest developments in Government policy, such as the recent policies on Rwanda offshoring, the need for proper, in-person, legal advice at Derwentside IRC is more pertinent than ever. It is now clear that women have not been excluded from the Government's offshoring plans, and that anyone in detention facing removal to Rwanda will only have 7 days to challenge this decision.

Similarly, the case could have implications for the Home Office's obligations to ensure access to justice in its new asylum reception centres, including in the new site in Linton, where upwards of 500 people will be accommodated.

The Government are harming women and locking them up without access to justice. That’s why, for the first time ever, we are taking them to court. 

Women for Refugee Women is represented by Toufique Hossain, Shalini Patel and Emma Dawson of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who have instructed Alex Goodman and Miranda Butler of Landmark Chambers. A woman who was previously detained at Derwentside and struggled to access legal advice while there has also issued a legal challenge based on her personal experience.  She is represented by Lily Parrott and Jamie Bell of Duncan Lewis Solicitors. 

The hearing is in June and we need your help to make it happen!  

We need to raise £25,000 to cover our court costs and legal fees.  

Derwentside should have never opened in the first place, and now it’s time to shut it down! 

Agnes Tanoh, Detention Campaign Spokesperson at Women for Refugee Women, who was herself detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre for over 3 months in 2012, says:

When you come here to seek protection from abuse, exploitation and persecution but instead the Home Office locks you up, you wonder if you are in a good country or in hell. I am still living with the trauma of detention and I don’t want other women to go through this pain. That’s why I’ve been campaigning to stop the Home Office from opening Derwentside. That’s why I’m asking them now to shut it down.

From my own experience I know how important it is to meet your solicitor and build trust so that you can tell them your story. Body language is so important, particularly if there is a language barrier. To see a warm and kind face is like a hug when you need it most. Imagine having to tell a stranger about the most horrific intimate violence you have suffered. How would you feel? It’s not right! Women seeking safety should be able to live freely in their communities and have access to justice.

 

Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women, says:

For eight years we’ve stood alongside women seeking asylum who have been locked up in detention to call on the Home Office to end this harmful practice. We’ve worked with hundreds of survivors of rape, torture and trafficking to document how detention has retraumatised them. The Home Office hasn’t listened. Instead, they’ve opened a new detention centre for women in an even more remote location and without adequate legal advice provision in place. We can’t stand by and let this harm go on so we are taking the Home Office to court. Women seeking safety in the UK should be supported to rebuild their lives in the community.

 

Shalini Patel, Public Law Solicitor at Duncan Lewis, says:

The Home Secretary’s decision to detain women at Derwentside, despite the issues with access to face-to-face legal advice is extremely concerning. Her own policy recognises that survivors of trafficking and / or gender-based violence may have additional difficulties with self-identifying and disclosing their trauma and yet she has continued with a women’s detention centre, in the knowledge that its location would severely restrict the detainees’ fundamental right to access of justice. At a time when the Home Secretary’s policies are very much at odds with the Rule of Law, it is comforting that we have been granted permission on all grounds and the Court has recognised the importance of the issues before it.

 

Dr Jo Wilding, author of Droughts and Deserts: A report on the immigration legal aid market andThe Legal Aid Market, who has provided a witness statement in support of the legal challenge, says:

Derwentside is in County Durham, which has no legal aid providers. My research shows that there is already not enough legal aid provision in the surrounding area, with over 5000 asylum applicants accommodated in the North East as of March 2021, and fewer than 2000 legal aid cases opened by all of the legal aid providers in the region in 2020-21. There is clearly no surplus capacity to expand into face-to-face legal advice in the detention centre. That information is available to the Home Secretary as well. There was never any real prospect of getting face to face legal advice if she opened a detention centre for women at Derwentside.

 

Dr Juliet Cohen, an independent forensic physician who has provided an expert report in support of the legal challenge, says:

I have clinical experience of assessing many women who are survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence. Since the pandemic I have had to make some of these assessments remotely, by telephone or video-link. Their traumatic experiences are often very difficult to disclose, and survivors may have poor mental health as a result of their experiences. Their mental health may become worse by the effect of their being detained, and this deterioration in mental health may then further affect their ability to disclose. I have no doubt that a remote assessment runs the risk of being partial and incomplete.


Welcoming Andrea Vukovic as our new Deputy Director!

Today, Women for Refugee Women is delighted to welcome Andrea Vukovic to the team, as our new Deputy Director with a focus on external affairs.

Andrea says:

I'm delighted to be joining the inspiring team at Women for Refugee Women, an organisation that I have long admired for its commitment to empowering and supporting refugee women to become confident advocates for change.

At a time when refugee rights are facing unprecedented attack, the work of Women for Refugee Women and its partners has never been more urgent.

Building on the strong foundations of the organisation and working alongside women seeking protection, I'm looking forward to undertaking impactful and dynamic campaigns that will dismantle the increasingly hostile asylum system and build support for a more compassionate alternative.

Alphonsine Kabagabo, Women for Refugee Women's director, says:

I am delighted that Andrea Vukovic has joined Women for Refugee Women as our Deputy Director, to lead our external affairs strategy. Andrea is coming to us from Asylum Matters where she led and established the organisation as an independent charity and co-led the award-winning Lift the Ban campaign. She is bringing a wealth of experience of leading impactful campaigns.

Andrea is joining us at an exciting time for the organisation, when we have just finalised our new strategic plan for 2022-2025. She will be working closely with me and the campaigning and communication team to continue to ensure we amplify the voices of women seeking asylum in UK to influence the changes they want to see, despite the increasingly hostile environment we are faced with. Her experience, skills and passion for campaigning for change will be a real asset in our fight for a more welcoming, humane and compassionate asylum system for the women we support.


'Cruel and inhumane': UK government plans to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda

Today, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson announce their cruel agreement to fly people seeking asylum here in the UK over 5,000 miles away to camps in Rwanda.  

The five-year trial, which will cost hundreds of millions of pounds from the public purse, will mean that people are removed to Rwanda on a one-way ticket. Under this plan, people will have their asylum claims processed in Rwanda and, if they are successfully granted refugee status, will be forced to settle there, rather than in the UK.   

People who are seeking asylum are fleeing for their lives from war and persecution. The threat of being flown to Rwanda won’t stop people from needing to claim asylum in the UK, but it will cause them immense harm. 

Our director, Alphonsine Kabagabo, says: “I know how it feels to have to uproot your life to seek safety. I just cannot imagine the impact it would have had on me to be flown to another country as soon as I had arrived somewhere where I thought I would be protected. I am appalled that the UK Government would be so cruel as to even consider this policy.” 

This new trial agreement, which comes before the Nationality and Borders Bill has passed through Parliament, means that people who need protection will not be able to access a fair hearing in the UK. Offshore processing has been subject to fierce opposition from across the political spectrum in debates on the Bill so far. In what appears to be a deliberate tactic to avoid scrutiny, the Government is introducing this policy at Easter, when MPs are on recess. 

For years, we have been campaigning to end the racist practice of detention here in the UK because it is extremely harmful and retraumatising. Our research has shown how women who have survived rape, torture and trafficking are routinely detained, in breach of the government’s own guidance, and we have documented how being locked up devastates women’s mental health. In December 2021, the Home Office started locking up women in the new Derwentside detention centre in County Durham. Ensuring that women have access to support and legal advice in this detention centre 270 miles away from London has been extremely difficult. How will there be any oversight of conditions and access to justice in camps 5,000 miles away? 

Furthermore, history shows that offshore processing doesn’t work as a deterrent for desperate people looking for safety: all it does is harm. In Nauru, where people seeking asylum in Australia were previously sent while their asylum claims were considered, over 2,000 incidents of assault, abuse and self-harm were uncovered. Australia did not see a reduction in people arriving on boats to claim asylum. 

This agreement with Rwanda is an inhumane and disproportionately expensive way to handle the asylum claims of people who desperately need a safe place to rebuild their lives. We are in total opposition to these disgraceful plans and call on the government to scrap them immediately before immense harm begins. 


Women and Equalities Committee: Our experience

On Wednesday 23 March 2022, two members of our network, Olivia and Tee, attended Parliament to watch evidence presented to the Women and Equalities Committee on how the UK asylum process is unequal for women. In this Q&A blog, Olivia and Tee share their responses and feelings about the evidence session.

Our Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, Priscilla Dudhia, gave evidence alongside Roxana and Annie (Ambassadors for the VOICES Network), Pip McKnight (Head of Policy and Advocacy at Refugee Women Connect) and Kathryn Cronin (Barrister at Garden Court Chambers). You can watch the evidence session here.


As women who have been through the asylum process yourselves, how did you find going to Parliament to watch the Women and Equalities Committee evidence session on inequality in the asylum process?

Tee: “Going to Parliament to watch the Women and Equalities Committee gave me the privilege to understand more. It helped me understand that the issues affecting me are also affecting children.”

Olivia: “Going to watch this evidence session was very important to me. I was looking forward to listening and learning in a space that was specifically for discussing the issues that women face when they seek asylum. There are many issues that women face that have not been addressed. In the asylum process, women are silenced. Even Priti Patel has said ‘Where are the women and girls?’ But we are here. It is the asylum process that makes us seem invisible. I wanted to listen to MPs as policymakers and hear how they related to our stories. Do they understand what is happening to us? Do they understand how their policies work?”

 

How did you feel hearing Roxana and Annie's testimonies?

Tee: “It was unbelievable to hear Roxana and Annie’s testimonies. I was listening and melting inside. They have gone through thick and thin, including Annie’s 13-year-old child. We heard how they were moved from house to house at such short notice, to the extent of not having time to gather their clothes. Imagine sleeping rough with only a coat on the floor. Annie’s child was stopped from going to school because of being moved all the time. I thought of the trauma that the child was going through, seeing her mother with tears all the time. Where is the respect as a person?

When you apply for asylum you think you will be protected. I felt so sad when I heard about the lack of privacy in their accommodation. Roxana told a story about how a man in her accommodation had put a camera in the toilet and was uploading the videos to the internet. I felt scared myself. What about her? What about other people in the accommodation? They came here for protection. They came for safety.

How can this be stopped? How can we be loved like anyone else? All I can say is, ‘Thank you, Ministers.’ Thank you everyone who was there. People keep on helping us, please keep trying. Please don’t give up.”

Olivia: “Those testimonies were powerful. They were personal, individual experiences. They were really brave to be able to stand and reach that stage. They were prepared. If more people going through the system were supported like that to prepare then they would be ready to sit and voice their experiences knowing that they will not be disbelieved. If you are prepared you go with more confidence. I hope that Annie and Roxana will inspire other women to have the courage and confidence to use their voices to call for change!

You could read the room – everyone was quiet. There were tears. The Chair, Caroline Nokes, gave them time to speak and listened to them. The Committee really wanted to hear from them and this is really important. Now they have this information, I keep asking myself do they have the power to take this information and use it to change the system? It was the third evidence session and there will be more sessions. The MPs will see that the asylum process is damaging people’s lives.

I was concerned that there wasn’t a chance to talk about the Nationality and Borders Bill because they ran out of time. The asylum process is already crushing people, but with this Bill it will kill them.”

 

Priscilla argued that the Home Office needs to end its culture of disbelief. Why is that so important?

Olivia: “This culture of disbelief is one of the worst parts of the asylum process. We tell our stories and are called liars. It comes from a total lack of respect for us as human beings. MPs need to know how it dehumanises us, how it harms our mental health.

The people conducting asylum interviews should come from a background of trauma-informed experience so that they understand the state of mind of the people they are interviewing. It was suggested that a psychologist could carry out the interviews. I like this idea.

We also need decision-makers to act in a way that is gender-sensitive. We are lucky that we are with Women for Refugee Women, and the same goes for women with Refugee Women Connect, because they are organisations that are sensitive to women’s issues. The Home Office is for everyone, but there are steps it could take to support women through the process and understand their experiences. Women should be interviewed by women.

It worried me to hear that the Home Office has targets for denying people asylum. It is like the Home Office is looking for reasons to disqualify you from protection. A culture that puts pressure on staff to disbelieve us means that those people making decisions on our cases cannot do a proper job. Kathryn Cronin mentioned that she had heard of the Home Office rewarding staff with vouchers for reaching refusal targets. To me, that shows so clearly that there is a culture for refusing people.

That culture has to change and start at the top. Not many people who are refugees are involved in shaping Home Office policies. If people with lived experience of the asylum process could be heard in that space, things would be different. There would be more understanding. If you know how it feels yourself, then you will act differently."

Tee: “I agree that people with lived experience of the asylum process need to be heard by the Home Office. You can tell that these policies haven’t been designed by people who know how it feels to have to claim asylum. They do not put themselves in our shoes. The process hurts us, it reminds you of the trauma you went through. They are damaging people’s health and brains. By the time you get your papers, you are not yourself, you do not have the confidence anymore There is no trust when we tell our stories, they call you a liar. You cannot open up after being called a liar, you leave some things within you because you don’t feel safe to share them.

I was struck by what Annie said about being interviewed by a 26-year-old man who was so rude to her. How could I be expected to tell an arrogant man who is young enough to be my child about the trauma and rape I went through? I would tell my story in a different way because I can’t tell it to him, and then I would be punished for that.

I think it is an important recommendation to involve us in the design of the asylum process. I hope that MPs will hear that message because we do have a lot of answers about how to improve the system. We have already suffered enough.”

 

Do you have a message for the MPs in the Women and Equalities Committee?

Tee: “Please keep on fighting for every woman who has to seek asylum. Keep listening to our voices. Give us time. Hear our voices when we are talking. Feel our stories and the pain that we have inside. Please don’t give up.

It is very important to engage with people with lived experience. Our stories are real, they are not from a book. At times I felt that the MPs were surprised by what they heard, but if they listened to us they would already know. It was a shock to them because they haven’t been through it. The asylum process is another trauma for us.

I invite them to join me at court or when I go to report because I want them to see how it feels, I want them to see what we go through as women.”

Olivia: “If you care about women, please look at all this evidence, all these testimonies. Please use this to help to fight the Nationality and Borders Bill. Please be the voice for women in your parties and convince more people that the Bill is harmful.

I am so glad that the Committee decided to launch this enquiry because this system is designed to crush women. What I really want to see now is change. We have the information on how the asylum process needs to be improved, and we want to see monitoring and action on this. We want to see results.”


Celebrating the creations of refugee and asylum-seeking women

To mark International Women's Day 2022, we held a short and lively event where refugee and asylum-seeking women shared their creations.

Members of our writing, photography and drama groups shared poetry, their thoughts on womanhood and women who inspire them.

The event was moving and uplifting, and we were so pleased to be able to come together to celebrate the refugee and asylum-seeking women in our network. Thank you to all who joined us!

We hope you enjoy their wonderful creations!

Writing Group

Our writing group is a welcoming space where women spend time together writing on a different theme each week. The inspiration for each piece can come from anywhere - an object, experience, thought, scent or colour. Women are encouraged to use their hearts and imagination to create their piece, whether it's a poem, prose or a short story. The group then share their work to learn from and to inspire one another.

To mark International Women's Day, the group wrote pieces on womanhood.

Because I am a woman

A woman is like

 

Photography project

Our photography project was all about photography, friendship and conversation. Each week the group would come together to chat about their lives, look at photos, learn new techniques and to take their own pictures.

The finished results were beautiful, personal photographs accompanied by poetry.

During our event, Angela shared her poem about self-love.

Your basket life

 

Drama group

Our drama group meet weekly at the Southbank Centre. We currently have two classes, beginners drama and our playwriting group for women with more experience. Our drama group isn't just about performance, theatre and writing. It's about building women's confidence and skills, making friends and having fun.

As 'Marie' told us, "Drama makes me feel loved. I feel happy. I don't feel lonely anymore."

During the event members of our drama group spoke about the women who inspire them, with a reminder that we can all inspire each other every day too!

The women who inspire me...


Solidarity with all those affected by the invasion of Ukraine

Women for Refugee Women stands in solidarity with women fleeing Ukraine and their loved ones.

As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, we urge the UK government to step up and do all they can to protect Ukrainian refugees.

The quickly escalating situation is a clear reminder of the need to uphold the right to asylum. The UK government must be prepared to protect Ukrainian refugees and to ensure their safety.

But the current Government and Home Secretary are actively reshaping the UK refugee protection system to be more hostile, difficult and punitive.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will make it harder for people under threat to find safety in the UK, including those fleeing the current crisis in Ukraine.

There's still time for the UK government to do the right thing and abandon the bill.

That is why we are joining other organisations who work with people seeking asylum, to call on the government to act now.

Take action and sign our joint petition to Boris Johnson urging him to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine:

 

We've compiled a short list of resources and organisations supporting Ukrainian refugees here.


Women for Refugee Women and ILPA: Joint Briefings on the Amendments to Clauses 31 and 32 of the Nationality and Borders Bill

Women for Refugee Women and ILPA have prepared joint briefings on the Amendments to Clauses 31 and 32 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, both of which will seriously harm women and survivors of gender-based violence seeking safety in the UK.

Clause 31

Women for Refugee Women and ILPA have prepared a joint briefing on Amendment to Clause 31 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, supported by 27 organisations which have significant expertise in working with people seeking asylum in the UK.

We are seriously concerned that the Government's proposed test will result in protection wrongly being denied to people at genuine risk of persecution.

Clause 31 introduces a higher two-part test for determining whether an asylum claimant has a 'well-founded fear' of being persecuted and should therefore be entitled to refugee protection in the UK.

In summary, the proposed test:

  • Imposes an even higher hurdle for asylum claimants to overcome and will result in people wrongly being denied refugee protection in the UK
  • Disproportionately affects particularly vulnerable groups
  • Contravenes international obligations
  • Will cause confusion in decision making, resulting in an increased number of appeals, and increased costs and delays in an already back-logged asylum system

Clause 32

Women for Refugee Women and ILPA have prepared a joint briefing on Amendment to Clause 32 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, supported by over 40 organisations across the End Violence Against Women and Girls and the anti-trafficking sectors.

We are especially concerned about the change in Clause 32 to the definition of 'particular social group'. This change will result in protection being wrongly denied to women at genuine risk of persecution. 

Clause 32 is a serious concern. In summary, the proposed definition:

  • Imposes an additional hurdle for survivors of gender-based violence, and other vulnerable persons, to overcome, and will result in people being wrongly denied protection
  • Disproportionately affects women and girls who rely on the ground of 'particular social group' when claiming asylum
  • Contravenes UNHCR standards
  • Reverses UK case law

We strongly urge members of the House of Lords to vote for the amendment tabled by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester to Clause 32, supported by Baroness Lister of Burtesett.

The amendment would maintain the approach to 'particular social group' and would be in keeping with the Government's commitment to tackling violence against women.

For further information, or case studies:
Priscilla Dudhia, priscilla@refugeewomen.co.uk

 


Women for Refugee Women mounts a legal challenge against the Home Office

For the first time ever, we are taking the Home Office to court. We've been campaigning against the opening of the new Derwentside detention centre (formerly known as Hassockfield) in the North East of England for a year. The Home Office didn't listen. Instead, they started locking up women there without provision for them to access in-person legal advice. Women are being unnecessarily harmed without proper legal advice. We can't let this happen.

The Home Office began detaining women at Derwentside in County Durham on 28 December 2021. The detention centre has capacity for 84 women to be locked up at any one time and replaces Yarl’s Wood as the main site where women are detained for immigration purposes.

Unlike in other detention centres, where men are detained, women at Derwentside are only able to access legal advice over the phone. There is a shortage of legal aid providers operating in the North East of England, which appears to be the reason provision comparable to other detention centres has not been secured. Despite assurances in the Equality Impact Assessment that an in-person service would be available, the Home Office opened Derwentside without this in place.

We are taking the Home Office to court because they are locking up women without access to justice. The lack of in-person legal advice at Derwentside is problematic for many reasons:

  • Women for Refugee Women’s research (summarised in the notes below) has demonstrated that the majority of women in detention are survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence. Survivors of such violence experience significant and particular difficulties disclosing what has happened to them. Many women we have spoken to have said they felt too ashamed to talk about their previous experiences.
  • Being denied access to in-person legal advice will exacerbate the difficulties women already face in disclosing these experiences, since they will be expected to talk about what happened to them to someone they have never met, over the phone.
  • Difficulties in disclosing previous experiences can have significant negative consequences for women in detention. It can result in delays in release from detention, their credibility being questioned in asylum and trafficking cases, and inaccurate or incomplete legal advice.

The problems that women face in disclosing traumatic experiences over the phone are further intensified by the fact that the mobile reception at Derwentside is very poor. Women for Refugee Women has often found it difficult to get hold of women we are in touch with, and we have also been cut off several times during phone conversations with women there. It also appears to be very difficult for women to find quiet and private spaces within Derwentside that also have mobile reception, which poses an additional barrier to disclosure.

Women for Refugee Women is represented by Toufique Hossain, Shalini Patel and Emma Dawson of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who have instructed Alex Goodman and Miranda Butler of Landmark Chambers. An individual who is detained at Derwentside and has struggled to access legal advice there is also issuing a legal challenge based on her personal experience, she is represented by Lily Parrott and Jamie Bell of Duncan Lewis Solicitors.

To take this legal action, we need your help! If you are able to, please donate to enable us to go ahead:

The individual claimant says:

“It has been really difficult for me to find legal advice since coming to Derwentside detention centre. I spoke with many employees here about getting a lawyer, but they gave me excuse after excuse, always telling me to come back tomorrow. I was detained in Derwentside for around 1.5 weeks before a lawyer took on my case on a Friday afternoon, even though my removal directions were on Monday. I was really struggling and suffering. If I hadn’t received good legal representation, I would have been removed by now and I’m afraid that I would be dead.

I believe that getting access to a lawyer is a right because no one else can hear you and help you like a lawyer can. A good lawyer listens to you and has the power to help. My biggest concern now is to be released from detention so that I can prepare my case properly.”

Agnes Tanoh, Detention Campaign Spokesperson at Women for Refugee Women, who was herself detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre for over 3 months in 2012, says:

“When you come here to seek protection from abuse, exploitation and persecution but instead the Home Office locks you up, you wonder if you are in a good country or in hell. I am still living with the trauma of detention and I don’t want other women to go through this pain. That’s why I’ve been campaigning to stop the Home Office from opening Derwentside. That’s why I’m asking them now to shut it down.

From my own experience I know how important it is to meet your solicitor and build trust so that you can tell them your story. Body language is so important. To see a warm and kind face is like a hug when you need it most. Imagine having to tell a stranger about the most horrific intimate violence you have suffered. It’s not right. Women seeking safety should be able to live freely in their communities and have access to justice.”

Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women, says:

“For eight years we’ve stood alongside women seeking asylum who have been locked up in detention to call on the Home Office to end this harmful practice. We’ve worked with hundreds of survivors of rape, torture and trafficking to document how detention has retraumatised them. The Home Office hasn’t listened. Instead, they’ve opened a new detention centre for women in an even more remote location and without adequate legal advice provision in place. We can’t stand by and let this harm go on so we are taking the Home Office to court. Women seeking safety in the UK should be supported to rebuild their lives in the community.”

Shalini Patel, Public Law Solicitor at Duncan Lewis, says:

“The Home Secretary’s decision to detain women at Derwentside, despite the issues with access to face-to-face legal advice is extremely concerning. Her own policy recognises that survivors of trafficking and / or gender-based violence may have additional difficulties with self-identifying and disclosing their trauma and yet she has continued with a women’s detention centre, in the knowledge that its location would severely restrict the detainees’ fundamental right to access of justice.”

Dr Jo Wilding, author of Droughts and Deserts: A report on the immigration legal aid market andThe Legal Aid Market, who has provided a witness statement in support of the legal challenge, says:

“Derwentside is in County Durham, which has no legal aid providers. My research shows that there is already not enough legal aid provision in the surrounding area, with over 5000 asylum applicants accommodated in the North East as of March 2021, and fewer than 2000 legal aid cases opened by all of the legal aid providers in the region in 2020-21. There is clearly no surplus capacity to expand into face-to-face legal advice in the detention centre. That information is available to the Home Secretary as well. There was never any real prospect of getting face to face legal advice if she opened a detention centre for women at Derwentside. And to redeploy the legal advice from Yarls Wood as remote advice is clearly inadequate, given the evidence there is about remote advice for people who have experienced trauma.”

Dr Juliet Cohen, an independent forensic physician who has provided an expert report in support of the legal challenge, says:

“I have clinical experience of assessing many women who are survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence. Since the pandemic I have had to make some of these assessments remotely, by telephone or video-link. Their traumatic experiences are often very difficult to disclose, and survivors may have poor mental health as a result of their experiences. Their mental health may become worse by the effect of their being detained, and this deterioration in mental health may then further affect their ability to disclose. I have no doubt that a remote assessment runs the risk of being partial and incomplete.”

Owen Temple, who is the claimant in another legal challenge focused on planning permission for Derwentside and member of the local campaign group No To Hassockfield (Derwentside was previously known as Hassockfield), says:

“I, and everyone in No to Hassockfield, has been appalled at the way the Home Office has cut corners at every step of the way in its headlong rush to incarcerate vulnerable women at this notorious site. We're delighted to see them being called out again through legal action by Women for Refugee Women.”


A year with Women for Refugee Women

by Alphonsine Kabagabo

I joined Women for Refugee Women (WRW) as director one year ago. And what a year it has been!

When I joined WRW last January, in the middle of the pandemic, I was very much impressed by how the team has been able to innovate and continue to support the women in our network to access services online and to make them feel included and looked after despite a very challenging time. I was struck by the commitment and passion of our staff team, volunteers and trustees who are determined not to let the pandemic make women seeking asylum more vulnerable than ever before.

Above all, I have been struck by the resilience of the women we support who continue to share solidarity, love and joy despite being badly affected by the pandemic and the increasingly hostile political environment.

I am very proud of what we have achieved:

  • Strengthening our digital inclusion project so women seeking asylum can access the internet and continue to support each other and build networks. Last year more than 100 women accessed equipment or training to enable them to connect with their support networks and join our activities.
  • Strengthening our partnerships with organisations that provide immigration advice and support the mental health and wellbeing of the women in our network.
  • Running two campaigns to challenge harmful new proposals by the government and advocate for a just and humane asylum process:
    • We have worked to challenge the government’s harmful new Nationality and Borders Bill by speaking out in Parliament, working with leading barristers and organisations in the women’s sector to provide evidence on the dangers of the Bill, and co-organising a large #RefugeesWelcome rally.
    • We have worked hard with local campaigners in County Durham to stop the opening of a new women's immigration detention centre in County Durham, as we know how inhumane it is to detain women who are seeking safety and protection. Despite our efforts, the Home Office began detaining the first women at the site on New Year’s Eve and so our fight for justice must intensify this year.
  • Through social media and work with TV, radio, print and digital journalists we’ve ensured that the voices of women in our network can be heard by wide audiences.
  • We have embarked on a strategic review to ensure we can provide excellent support to the women in our network so that they are able to rebuild their lives and campaign for the changes they want to see in the asylum process. It is clear that our focus will remain on empowering women to thrive through online and in person support and activities, amplifying their voices to influence the public perception and equipping them with the tools and skills to continue to campaign for an asylum system that listens to them and treats them with humanity. We would like to continue to strengthen how we put the women at the centre of everything we do, and how we live our values and principles of being an antiracist, feminist and inclusive organisation. We would like to strengthen our collaborations and partnerships with other organisations and be part of building a movement for change.

As we look ahead to 2022, we are realistic about the challenges that the pandemic and increasingly hostile government policies will pose. However, I feel inspired and hopeful because I know that the power of our network of women seeking asylum and our connections and partnerships with others will again be an important and effective force for change. Together, we will keep pushing for a just and humane asylum process through which women can rebuild their lives and achieve their ambitions.

I would like to thank everyone who has supported us and stood up for women seeking asylum over the last year. We have shown the power of solidarity, compassion and hope and that will carry us through the next year as we continue to advocate for a fairer society for everyone!

Above: Members of our Rainbow Sisters group for LGBTQI+ people seeking asylum at the Refugees Welcome Rally in October 2021 (credit: Natasa Leoni)


Home Office set to detain women at new 'Derwentside' detention centre in North East of England

We understand that the Home Office is transferring women from Yarl's Wood to the newly opened Derwentside immigration detention centre (formerly known as Hassockfield) near Consett in County Durham, despite previous pledges to reduce the number of vulnerable people detained. The detention centre has capacity for 84 women to be locked up at any one time.

Since this plan was announced a year ago, local residents, women who were formerly detained, and campaigners have united to resist the opening of the new centre, describing it as “cruel and unnecessary”. We will continue to stand together to call for its closure.

The opening of Derwentside marks a concerning reversal in Home Office policy that will harm vulnerable women:

  • Research has shown that the majority of women who are locked up in immigration detention are survivors of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and trafficking. Detention is retraumatising and harmful, and women’s immigration cases can be far more effectively and humanely resolved within the community.
  • In 2016, following Prison Ombudsperson Stephen Shaw’s damning review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, the Home Office committed to reducing the detention of vulnerable people, including women who are survivors of sexual and gender-based abuse.
    • By December 2019 the number of women detained had fallen by around two-thirds to 121 women, and during the pandemic these numbers reduced still further, with the most recent figures showing there are 30 women in detention. These historically low numbers mean it is illogical for the Home Office to open a new detention centre for women. Derwentside will be the first new detention centre to open for almost 8 years, and marks a reversal in Home Office policy regarding the use of detention.
  • Derwentside is in a remote location, in a region that lacks immigration and asylum legal aid providers, and so women detained there will be isolated from their support networks and will face significant barriers to accessing good quality legal advice.

Our Detention Campaign Spokesperson, Agnes Tanoh, was detained at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire for 3 months before she was granted refugee status. Today she says:

“We hoped this day would never come. It takes me back to the day I was taken to Yarl’s Wood. Everything was taken from me, including my phone, so I could not get in touch with my family to let them know. The journey to Yarl’s Wood was long and I didn’t know what was happening. Fear. Fear. Fear. That is what I felt.

Fear is what my sisters who were taken to Hassockfield today will be feeling. The journey from Yarl’s Wood is 5 hours. Imagine their terror on that journey.

I don’t want the Derwentside detention centre at Hassockfield to be open. People coming here to seek asylum are hoping for security and freedom. They want to rebuild their lives after what they went through. They believe that they are coming to a country of human rights but they find themselves in a prison. I don’t want that. I want the women at Yarl’s Wood to be released, not locked up in another far away place.

Right now, other families are writing cards, doing their Christmas shopping, having a joyful time and sharing love. Thinking about these women who will be locked up alone and afraid, not knowing what to do, makes me cry. This should be a time of smiling, loving, sharing and being together. It is not a time to be locked up.

Priti Patel, why are you locking up other women this Christmas?”

TAKE ACTION: Please sign Agnes's petition to stop the Home Office from using Hassockfield as a detention centre for women: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women