The Home Office has plans for a new immigration detention centre for women in County Durham. The centre is planned to hold 80 women and to open in the autumn on the site of the notorious Medomsley prison, in an area previously earmarked for housing development.

This move undermines previous Home Office commitments to reduce the number of people in detention, especially vulnerable people. Most women held in immigration detention are known to be survivors of trafficking, torture, or sexual violence. Detention has been shown to be harmful for women, as well as expensive, unjust and unnecessary. The proposed new detention centre for women will be the first new detention centre to open for 7 years, marking a shift in the wrong direction.

Agnes Tanoh, a refugee woman and community organiser who was previously held in detention at Yarl’s Wood, has launched an online petition against the new centre. She says: 

‘This is personal for me. I claimed asylum here because I was being persecuted in my country and I thought I would be killed. But I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood for 3 months. 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. Previously, the Home Office said it would make changes so that fewer people are locked up. I thought change was coming, I allowed myself to feel some hope. If this detention centre opens the Home Office will be going back on its promises, and will harm vulnerable women who need support.’

Please sign the petition here: www.change.org/stop-detaining-women 

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

‘Over and over again, we have seen that detention harms women. Most of the women we have worked with who have been in immigration detention are survivors of sexual violence and torture. Locking them up has a devastating effect on their mental health. Last year, the numbers of women held in immigration detention reached a historic low, partly because of the pandemic and partly because of the pressure that has been put on the Home Office to move away from routine detention. Opening a new detention centre for women at this time would be a betrayal of previous commitments made by ministers and a betrayal of all those brave women who have spoken up about their experiences in detention.’

Join us to take a stand against this detention centre:

                         

 


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Home Office proposing?

The number of women in immigration detention is currently the lowest it has ever been. When Women for Refugee Women launched the Set Her Free campaign in 2014, there were more than 300 women locked up in detention. By December 2019, before the pandemic started, the pressure of campaigning by Women for Refugee Women and others meant that this number had fallen to 121. At the end of September 2020, the number of women detained had reduced still further – to 27.

Despite the historically low numbers of women in detention, the Home Office is planning to open a new immigration detention centre for women in County Durham.

The new detention will be on the former site of Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, a prison for children which closed in 2014. Prior to this, the site was Medomsley Detention Centre, a prison for young men aged 17-21. During the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of young men were physically and sexually abused at Medomsley Detention Centre by some of the staff there. According to Durham Police, more than 1,800 men who were formerly locked up in the detention centre have now come forward to report abuse by staff.

The local council had approved a planning application for over 100 new homes to be built on the Hassockfield/Medomsley site. Now, however, the Home Office is proposing to turn it into a prison for women.

There has been little transparency and no public announcement by the Home Office about its plans to convert the site into a new immigration detention centre. On 18th February, however, the local Conservative MP posted an update on his website, confirming that the new detention centre will have space to lock up around 80 women.  

                         

 

What’s the problem with immigration detention? Why should a new detention centre be opposed?

Immigration detention is racist

As the Labour MP Kate Osamor explained during a 2019 debate in Parliament on survivors of trafficking in immigration detention:

‘To truly understand and appreciate the reality of immigration detention, it is necessary for all of us to critically examine the ethnicity and race of those impacted by the process. Immigration detention is a racist practice, and the policies used are racist and discriminate against certain groups. There is nothing controversial or novel about my statement. Just ask the many women and men who have been detained.’

Home Office statistics show that, across 2020, 9,917 of the 14,773 people detained were originally from countries in Africa, the Middle East, Central, South and South East Asia, and Central and South America.

Clearly, then, it is people who are racialised as non-white who constitute the vast majority of those locked up in UK detention centres.

It has been argued that, because some people who are white are also locked up in immigration detention, detention cannot be racist. However, this ignores which groups of white people are mainly locked up. Home Office statistics show that, across 2020, just over 4,000 of the 14,773 people detained were originally from countries in Southern and Eastern Europe.

As the researcher Hindpal Singh Bhui has explained: ‘While they conform to racialized understandings of what it means to be European, Eastern Europeans are also subject to a racialized framing as “other”. Their whiteness is not seen as a motivation for inclusion, rather their cultural difference is seen as a criterion for exclusion.’

During Sarah Turnbull’s research on immigration detention in the UK, one of the men in detention to whom she spoke made the following observation:

‘One thing I know, this place is not a detention centre; it’s a discrimination centre. That’s what it is. A discrimination centre. When you single out a group of people or an individual for treatment and punishment, that’s the definition of discrimination. And when you look at the category of people who are in here, their ethnic origin, their background and their country of origin, you can see where we are being evicted and rendered, you understand.’

 

Immigration detention retraumatises women who have already survived trauma and violence

Women for Refugee Women has provided support to women locked up in immigration detention for many years. Our research has demonstrated that the majority of asylum-seeking women who are detained have survived rape and other forms of gender-based violence in their countries of origin.

Our 2014 report Detained found that 33 of the 43 (77%) women who spoke to us about their experiences of persecution said they had been raped. Our 2015 report I Am Human found that 28 of the 34 (82%) women to whom we spoke said they had experienced gender-based violence, such as rape, forced marriage, forced prostitution or FGM.

For our report We Are Still Here, published in 2017, we interviewed 26 women seeking asylum who had been detained. We found that 22 of the 26 (85%) women to whom we spoke were survivors of rape or other forms of gendered violence.

Locking up women who have already survived trauma and violence inflicts immense harm and retraumatises them. Moreover, there is no time limit on immigration detention in the UK, meaning that women are often locked up for weeks and months on end. Research has found that the longer someone is held in immigration detention, the greater the effect on their mental health.

Our research has shown the devastating effects of detention on women’s mental health. One in five of the women we spoke to for Detained said they had tried to kill themselves in detention. Forty per cent of the women interviewed for I Am Human said they had self-harmed in detention.

In our 2019 report From One Hell to Another we investigated the use of immigration detention for women from China who had been trafficked to the UK. Of 14 women’s cases we looked at, we found that half of the women had experienced suicidal thoughts in detention. Six women had self-harmed in detention, and one woman had developed psychotic symptoms.

 

Immigration detention doesn’t fulfil the purpose that the Home Office says it serves
The official name for detention centres that the Home Office uses is ‘immigration removal centres’. As this name suggests, such centres are supposed to be used to detain people for short periods of time, in order to remove them the UK.

Yet, the Home Office’s own statistics show that the vast majority of people who are released from detention are not removed from the UK. Instead, most people are released back into the community, to continue with their immigration cases.

In 2019, just 37% of people leaving detention were removed from the UK. In 2020, this figure was even lower, at 26%.

For women seeking asylum, the removal rate is lower still. Statistics obtained by Women for Refugee Women from the Home Office show that in 2018, just 14% of asylum-seeking women who were released from detention were removed from the UK. The vast majority, 86%, were released back into the community to continue with their asylum cases.

 

By opening a new detention centre, the Home Office will be going back on its commitment to reduce the number of women in immigration detention

In 2015, the Home Office commissioned a review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. Following the publication of this review, which was carried out by former Prisons Ombudsperson Stephen Shaw, in 2016 the Home Office committed to reducing the number of people in immigration detention.

In 2018, a follow-up review by Shaw found that, although the number of people in immigration detention had fallen, this reduction had taken place mainly among men: the number of women in detention had not fallen significantly. In response the Home Office promised to take action, including by introducing an alternative to detention pilot to help reduce the number of women in detention.

The ‘Action Access’ pilot began in early 2019, and across 2019 the Home Office’s commitment to reduce the number of women in detention started to translate into practical effects. At the end of September 2018 there were 216 women in immigration detention. By the end of December 2019, just before the pandemic started, this had fallen to 121 women.

As a result of the pandemic, the number of women participating in the Action Access pilot has been much lower than originally anticipated. Despite this, the Home Office has refused to extend the pilot. Action Access will be coming to an end in March 2021. Two further alternative to detention pilots that the Home Office had promised to implement have also recently been cancelled.

An evaluation of the Action Access pilot for women is currently being carried out by NatCen, and is due to be published in late May/early June 2021. This means that the Home Office appears to have taken the decision to build a new detention centre for women before the findings of the final evaluation are available, and so without consideration of learning from its own pilot.

 

People’s immigration cases can be resolved while they are living in the community

Justifying the new immigration detention centre for women, the Immigration Minister has recently said: ‘The public rightly expects us to maintain a robust immigration system, and immigration detention plays a crucial role in this’.

But immigration detention is not a necessary or inevitable part of the immigration system. Engagement-focused alternatives to detention, like the Action Access pilot, provide support to people to help them resolve their immigration cases while they are living in the community.

Run by the charity Action Foundation, Action Access has provided accommodation and casework support to women on the pilot. This support involves independent legal advice from qualified immigration advisers, to review women’s asylum cases. If it appears that a woman does not have a claim for protection, other avenues to regularise her status in the UK are explored.

Through the casework support provided by Action Foundation, women are helped to engage fully with their immigration case and to resolve their case in the community. Alongside the accommodation provided by Action Foundation, women on the pilot have been provided with financial support by the Home Office. Meeting women’s basic needs is essential to ensuring they are able to engage with their immigration case and make informed decisions about this.

There is a wealth of international evidence which demonstrates that engagement-focused alternatives to detention are more humane, as well as less costly, than immigration detention.

     

 

Who will be locked up in the new detention centre?

On his website the local Conservative MP, Richard Holden, states: ‘It has been confirmed that there will be c. 80 female foreign nationals awaiting deportation and repatriation to their home country at any point. This will consist of female offenders who have finished their prison sentences and need to be deported home and female foreign nationals who have broken their visa rules or are failed asylum seekers.’

Despite what the local MP says, many of the women locked up in immigration detention actually have clear claims to remain in the UK.  

‘Failed asylum seekers’
Many of the women whom Women for Refugee Women has met in detention have clear claims for refugee status in the UK. However, their asylum claims have been refused by the Home Office – and so they have been labelled as ‘failed asylum seekers’ – for a number of reasons.

  1. Many women who seek safety from persecution in the UK are survivors of rape and other forms of gender-based violence. Disclosing these experiences can be incredibly difficult, and so the true nature and/or full extent of women’s persecution is not always documented in their initial asylum claims.
  2. Some women have had poor quality legal advice and representation. It is our experience that solicitors do not always have the necessary expertise in women’s asylum cases, and so they do not ask the right questions and/or put forward the necessary evidence to establish a woman’s claim for protection.
  3. The forms of persecution that women often experience – such as rape and domestic violence – can be very difficult to evidence. The apparent lack of ‘objective’ evidence of persecution is then used by the Home Office to refuse a woman’s asylum claim.

 

’Foreign nationals who have broken their visa rules’

We have also met women in detention who did not know that their experiences of rape or other gender-based violence in their countries of origin meant that they could claim asylum in the UK.

Some of these women have come to the UK on tourist or work visas, because they needed to leave their country for their safety. When their visa expired however, they did not know that they were eligible for asylum. During research that we conducted in 2017, for instance, one of the women we spoke to explained that, following the expiry of her visa, she had not lodged an asylum claim because ‘I thought asylum was only for people from countries where there is war.’

Many women in this situation have told us that their immigration solicitors did not ask them anything about their experiences in their countries of origin, and why they had to come to the UK. Instead, their solicitors made applications for them to remain in the country on other grounds, which were refused by the Home Office – and following this they were detained.

Thus, many of the women whom the local Conservative MP refers to as ‘foreign nationals who have broken their visa rules’ are, in fact, women who are not aware that they have a valid claim for protection in the UK.

 

‘Female offenders who have finished their prison sentences’

We have also met many women in immigration detention who were previously in prison. Many of the women we have worked with who have been transferred to immigration detention from prison are survivors of trafficking, who have been wrongfully prosecuted and criminalised for offences related to their exploitation.

In fact, statistics that we recently obtained with After Exploitation via Freedom of Information requests show that over the past three years the detention of trafficking victims has tripled. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of people recognised as potential survivors of trafficking by the Home Office who were locked up in detention rose from 410 to 1,256.

It is also important to remember that – whatever the offence they have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to – women who were previously in prison have served the sentence handed down to them by the criminal courts.

By detaining and deporting them, therefore, the Home Office is adding to the punishment that has already been imposed on them. As researchers Ines Hasselberg and Sarah Turnbull have argued, the use of detention and deportation for non-British prisoners, on top of their prison sentence, constitutes ‘double punishment’.

So, despite what the local MP says, immigration detention is often used for people who have a valid claim to remain in the UK. But it is also important to remember that, whatever someone’s immigration status is, they should not be locked up in immigration detention.