Today, 12 May 2021, over 200 MPs, councillors, faith leaders, people who have sought asylum, charity and community group leaders, health workers, academics and university staff, and public figures raised or based in the North East of England write to the Home Secretary to express concerns about the proposed new immigration detention centre for women at Hassockfield in County Durham.

Signatories include Mary Foy, MP for the City of Durham; Ian Mearns, MP for Gateshead; Kate Osborne, MP for Jarrow; Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields; Jamie Driscoll, Mayor, North of Tyne Combined Authority; Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys; Peter Flannery, playwright and scriptwriter for Our Friends in the North; Umme Imam, executive director of the Angelou Centre; Michael Fawole, centre director of the North East Law Centre; Julian Prior, CEO of the Action Foundation; Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of the Newcastle Reform Synagogue; Father Adrian Tucker, vicar of Caritas Hexham and Newcastle; Professors Cheryl McEwan, John Nash and Catherine Donovan, Heads of Department at Durham University; and many more influential leaders.

The letter outlines serious concerns about the plans to open a new immigration detention centre for 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 deeply re-traumatising and harmful, and women’s immigration cases can be more effectively and humanely resolved within the community. The Government has previously committed to reduce its use of immigration detention, and so these new plans represent a concerning change of direction.
  • The site of this new detention centre (the former Medomsley Detention Centre site) has a disturbing history of abuse. 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. The reopening of the site is also likely to have a traumatising impact on those previously abused there.
  • Local people have been disregarded in the development of these new plans. The site had previously been earmarked for new homes, yet without any local consultation, these plans have now been cancelled.

The letter was coordinated by Women for Refugee Women, No To Hassockfield, the Durham People’s Assembly, Abolish Detention – Hassockfield and students from Durham University.

Agnes Tanoh, who was herself detained at Yarl’s Wood before being granted refugee status and who is now detention campaign spokesperson at Women for Refugee Women, says:

“I claimed asylum here because I was being persecuted in my country and I thought I would be killed. Instead of finding safety, I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre for 3 months in 2012. Now, the government has agreed that I should stay in this country, and I have refugee status, but I still struggle with the emotional impact of being locked up in the UK when I most needed protection. 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.”

Mary Kelly Foy, MP for the City of Durham, says:

“This detention centre will allow the Government to effectively imprison 80 vulnerable women at a site with an appalling history of abuse, despite genuine alternatives to detention existing.

Rather than seeking to extend their hostile environment policy to a small community hundreds of miles away from Westminster, the Government should focus on creating an asylum system that treats people with the compassion and care that they both need and deserve. This starts with scrapping the plans for this abhorrent detention centre.”

Severin Baker, final year Geography student at Durham University who coordinated a separate letter to Mary Foy MP in opposition to the new detention centre (with fellow-student Rachel Cope-Thompson) that was signed by over 1,600 students and staff, says: 

“The plans to open the Hassockfield Detention Centre have prompted a strong reaction across Durham University, with 1,600 students, over 100 members of staff, and the Vice Chancellor signalling their opposition. This Universitywide mobilisation epitomises the local discontent for a regressive and egregious development designed to dehumanise and harm women who are seeking asylum in the UK”

Peter Flannery, scriptwriter of Our Friends in the North, says:

“We should welcome, support and protect refugee women, not seek to detain them. So we do not need to build more detention centres. Let’s display, and be proud of, our common humanity.”

Owain Gardner, Organiser of The No To Hassockfield Campaign, says: 

“The human rights and mental health implications of the site being re-used for detention are enormous, not least because of its horrendous past. The choice of Hassockfield for the proposed Removal Centre is insidious, because of the lack of access to legal representation – County Durham has one of the lowest number of suitably qualified Lawyers in the UK. So we will redouble our efforts to ensure that this Immigration Removal Centre does not open. No one is illegal!” 

Mollie Brown, chair of the Durham People’s Assembly, says:

“Durham People’s Assembly are opposed to this detention centre for two reasons. Firstly, the immorality of incarcerating people who are looking for safety and secondly because of the horrendous history associated with the site dating back to the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and the impact this still has on the community. Whilst we welcome good jobs in the community, we strongly refute the claim that the detention centre will provide this. The types of companies that the government are contracting to run and maintain the site have a history of poor working conditions and exploitative practices for both employees and people who are detained. Good jobs do not come off the back of cruel and inhumane detention.”

A spokesperson for Abolish Detention – Hassockfield says: 

“We strongly oppose the plans to build a new detention centre, especially on a site with a horrific history of abuse. The detention centre entails renewed violence, abuse and mistreatment for migrant women. Its construction is yet another part of the government’s cruel immigration policy that continues to cause senseless and needless suffering. This must end.

No one is illegal. Migration is not a crime.”