By Gemma Lousley, Detention Policy and Research Coordinator at Women for Refugee Women

In February this year, it emerged that the Home Office is planning to open a new immigration detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham. This is despite the fact that the number of women detained is currently at a historic low. Five years ago, at the beginning of 2016, there were over 300 women in detention. By the end of March this year, this number had fallen to just 25.

The Home Office could end its use of detention for women today, then. Instead, it has decided to open a new immigration prison which will hold around 80 women.

The Home Office is fully aware of the immense harm that detention inflicts. Women for Refugee Women has been supporting and listening to women in detention for many years – and the research we have published has repeatedly shown that the majority of women detained are survivors of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and trafficking. Locking these women up devastates their mental health.

Our 2014 report Detained, for instance, found that one in five of the women we interviewed who had been locked up in Yarl’s Wood – until recently the main detention centre for women – had tried to kill themselves there.

One woman who we interviewed for the report told us:

‘I was tortured in my country of origin and now I am getting a second torture by the Home Office. Being back in detention has brought back all the memories of torture.’

Another woman said:

‘I saw so much misery and depression and mental illness while I was in detention. There is constant crying and self-harm because the women don’t know why they are there or for how long. These are women who are desperate.’

Nonetheless, the Home Office is planning to open the new Hassockfield detention centre for women in early October. Attempting to justify this decision, the Immigration Minister, Chris Philp, has recently stated that the operation of Hassockfield will ‘reflect the lessons learned from detaining women at Yarl’s Wood’.

Yet there is very little evidence of this. In fact, what we know of the Home Office’s approach to Hassockfield so far indicates that it will also be characterised by the lack of concern for women’s dignity and rights with which Yarl’s Wood became synonymous.

One of the most significant issues that we highlighted through our research on Yarl’s Wood was the complete lack of regard for women’s privacy and dignity there. Our 2015 report I Am Human showed how, for instance, women were being subjected to pat-down body searches by male officers, or while male officers were present. Male staff were also searching women’s rooms.

Additionally, women were routinely being watched in intimate situations by male staff. So, women who were deemed to be at risk of suicide, and placed on ‘constant supervision’ – meaning that they were watched at all times by detention centre staff – were being watched by male officers while they were showering, on the toilet, or getting undressed.

One woman we spoke to for I Am Human said:

‘I felt ashamed. A total stranger just saw you naked and you have to see them all day. It breaks your confidence.’

When we initially raised these concerns with the Home Office, they denied this was happening, and stated: ‘Male staff would not supervise women showering, dressing or undressing, even if on constant supervision through risk of self-harm.’

Yet, the Prison Inspectorate’s subsequent report on Yarl’s Wood, published in late 2015, corroborated our findings. Following this, the Home Office accepted the recommendation that, in women’s detention centres, at least 60% of staff in direct contact with women should also be women – to ensure that male staff are not used in inappropriate situations.

Despite this, the Home Office has been deliberately vague on this issue in relation to Hassockfield. In a recent parliamentary answer, for example, the Immigration Minister gave the weak response that: ‘It is our aim that around 60% of uniformed staff will be women.

The reasons for his non-committal answer seem clear. Yarl’s Wood consistently struggled to reach the minimum target of 60% and recruit enough female staff. Two years after the Home Office accepted this target, in 2017, the Prisons Inspectorate went to Yarl’s Wood again and found that the proportion of female officers there ‘was still too low, at 54%’.

Alongside this, the Home Office has contracted a private company to run Hassockfield that has recently had allegations of sexual harassment made about its staff. In July this year, a woman quarantining at a hotel in Birmingham said that a male security guard provided by Mitie – which has been given a contract worth £166 million to run Hassockfield – had sexually harassed her.

The Home Office’s careless approach to conditions for women at Hassockfield demonstrates how little they are concerned with treating women with dignity and respect, and upholding and protecting their rights.

The Home Office also knows that detaining women is usually completely pointless. The stated purpose of detention is removal from the UK. Yet, figures that we recently obtained show that in 2019, just 122 of the 1,550 asylum-seeking women released from detention were removed from the UK. That’s 8%.

The vast majority – 1,428 women, or 92% – were released back into the community, to continue with their cases.

Soon after the decision to open Hassockfield became public knowledge, the Immigration Minister said: ‘The public rightly expects us to maintain a robust immigration system, and immigration detention plays a crucial role in this’. But, as the Home Office is well aware, immigration detention is not a necessary or inevitable part of the immigration system.

In early 2019 the Home Office began an ‘alternative to detention’ pilot scheme, focused on resolving women’s immigration cases without the use of detention. This scheme has now been abandoned, even though fewer than half the number of women the Home Office intended actually participated in it.

But it is not too late to reverse this harmful change in direction. We are calling on the Home Office to halt its reckless approach to detaining women, by cancelling its plans for Hassockfield immediately. Instead, it should invest in programmes that support women to resolve their immigration cases, and rebuild their lives, in the community.

Please sign and share Agnes Tanoh’s petition to stop Hassockfield detention centre for women from opening: