Agnes Tonah

Julie Ward on the scandal of a new Immigration Removal Centre

In early 2021, news broke that the Government was planning to create a new Category C Immigration Removal Centre to house women asylum seekers on the site of the notorious Medomsley Detention Centre near Consett in County Durham. After years of controversy following the suicide of a 14-year-old inmate and a string of convictions of former staff for sexual and violent abuse, the site had been earmarked for a much-needed housing and leisure development and there was hope that the local community could look forward to a brighter, more positive future.

The announcement of the development of a new IRC took the local authority by surprise as no planning application for the repurposing of the Home Office ‘detention estate’ is required and therefore no consultation had taken place with Durham County Council. The original detention centre was renamed Hassockfield Secure Training Centre in 1999 and run by Serco, who continued to receive ¬£1.1 million of public money for the empty facility even after it closed following the tragic death of Adam Rickwood in 2004.

The local Tory MP, Richard Holden, is championing the new Hassockfield facility, saying it will bring jobs and investment to the area. He maintains that people voted for a “strong immigration system” and that “immigration detention and removal¬†plays a key role” in this. Holden not only ignores the toxic legacy of the facility at Medomsley but fails to recognise the particular vulnerability of women asylum seekers who are known to face violence at every stage of their journey, from the moment they feel compelled to leave their homes, en route, and when they reach their destination. Holden describes future inmates as criminals and illegals, stirring up racism and outright hostility which goes unchallenged on his Facebook page.

Speaking to the newly formed No To Hassockfield campaign group in February, Lord Alf Dubs expressed his support for the campaign, reminding us that “no-one is illegal”.

The UK is the only European country that uses the cruel practice of indefinite detention. A 2018 report by the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Sub-Committee on “effective alternatives to detention in the context of migration” suggests that “the wide use of immigration detention as a response to the arrivals of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants raises serious issues of compliance with human rights standards”, and lays out a raft of alternatives that take into account the specificities of ‘extreme vulnerability’ (including gender-based factors) and cost effectiveness.

The UK’s record is equally besmirched at international level. In 2014, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, was barred from the notorious Yarls Wood by the Home Office when she tried to investigate complaints about the centre as part of her fact-finding mission in the UK.

Recent reports on conditions at Penally Camp and Napier Barracks have been equally damning, whilst Home Office suggestions to offshore asylum seekers has been met with horror by many.

Holden likes to suggest that the ‘hard left’ of the Labour Party are the main instigators of the No To Hassockfield campaign – a tactic clearly designed to try and inflict damage on former MP Laura Pidcock, who consistently called for a fitting memorial for the Medomsley victims. The truth is we are a human rights organisation, not a political campaign. Labour & the Lib Dems are working with other campaigns such as Freedom From Torture and Yarls Wood Befrienders, along with academics, medical doctors, legal experts, faith leaders and people with lived experience of seeking asylum. At an early campaign meeting, Agnes Tonah, from the charity Women For Refugee Women, gave a distressing personal testimony. She was previously detained at Yarls Wood and still suffers psychological trauma as a result. Agnes started a petition to gather support to stop the new IRC at Medomsley. You can find it on the campaign website where you can also keep up to date with developments.

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