By Julie Ward
On Tuesday 23 November, the day before 27 people drowned in the English Channel trying to reach the UK, Priti Patel announced the official opening of Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in County Durham, a new women-only facility intended to replace the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford.
The new facility in Medomsley, near the town of Consett, was formerly Medomsley Detention Centre (for boys) and was the site of historic abuse carried out over decades before closing in 1988. Five former officers have already been jailed for their part in the abuse with many more thought to have been involved in what was probably an organised paedophile ring. The authorities have ruled that anyone incarcerated in the centre during the period in question is eligible for compensation without the need to go through a long, drawn out, painful legal process. This is a huge acknowledgement of institutional failure also replicated elsewhere in the system.
In 1999, the centre re-opened as Hassockfield Secure Training Centre but despite the name-change the facility failed to shake off its reputation as a place of inhumanity. Adam Rickwood, aged 14 from Burnley, took his own life there in 2004. The Training Centre, which was run by Serco, eventually closed in 2015.
In the intervening years the local council considered how best to use the site, mindful of the stigma associated with it. Plans for a housing development and a pocket park were progressing but in January 2021 the Home Office announced it would instead be repurposing the site as an IRC for women failed asylum seekers. This centre was to be called Hassockfield – hence the “No to Hassockfield” campaign – but was recently renamed “Derwentside IRC”.
This development was trumpeted by the local Tory MP Richard Holden as a great deal for the local economy bringing much-needed jobs to the area. Holden had won the NW Durham “Red Wall” seat in the 2019 General Election, depriving Laura Pidcock of her seat in the House of Commons.
Holden’s hardline anti-migrant rhetoric sees him continually misleading constituents, describing asylum seekers as illegals and foreign criminals. Whilst it is true that some asylum seekers do have previous convictions they are often for very minor transgressions and are already spent. In these cases locking people up whilst they are still in the process of seeking asylum is a double punishment and goes against human rights norms.
In fact, the UK is the only country in the 47 member state Council of Europe that practises indefinite detention whereby people seeking sanctuary are held for months if not years not knowing when their nightmare will end, if they will eventually be given leave to remain or whether they will taken in the middle of the night to be deported. Lord Alf Dubs, who was himself a child refugee brought to England on the Kindertransport, counters the rhetoric of Holden and others by reaffirming that “no one is illegal”.
The contract to run the Derwentside IRC has been given to Mitie whose appalling record on workers’ rights in places such as Heathrow and Sellafield has led to strong retaliatory actions by Unite the Union. Mitie job adverts for custodial posts at the IRC have been used as source material by the NE Feminist Theatre Lab in their ‘Newspaper Theatre’ work along with testimonies of former employees and those with lived experience of detention, to expose the culture of racism and bullying within the company.
Mitie is one of the companies to profit from the pandemic being given huge government contracts for covid testing sites and quarantine hotel security. However, one of its biggest contracts involves running immigration detention centres. In 2018, the firm won what was believed to be the biggest ever immigration detention contract in the UK after sealing a deal of more than £500m. This included the running of Colnbrook removal centre in Heathrow, where the most recent inspection reports said it ran dirty facilities with poor record-keeping.
Tory peer Philippa Roe, or Baroness Couttie, sits on Mitie’s board, and was given a seat in the House of Lords by David Cameron in 2017. A party whip in the upper chamber, she was Conservative leader of Westminster Council between 2012 and 2017. Conservative peer Baroness McGregor-Smith, who is currently president of the British Chamber of Commerce and a non-executive board member of the Department for Education, was CEO of Mitie for almost a decade. Accusations of cronyism abound and it is easy to see why.
Since learning of the government plans local people have mounted a vigorous campaign against the new IRC, working across political lines and with faith communities, trade unions, academics, students and the local arts community. We have worked closely with Durham People’s Assembly Against Austerity, Abolish Detention and Women For Refugee Women. Regular monthly demonstrations have been held at the site with a range of speakers including people with lived experience of detention along with local artists and performers.
On 4 December campaigners organised a National Demonstration in the Consett town centre, attracting several hundred people. Meanwhile there was a Solidarity Action in Hyde Park.
On Thursday 25 November I had addressed the crowds who had gathered for a vigil outside the Home Office for those who had perished trying to cross the Channel. I urged campaigners in the capital to join the protests against the facility, either in person or online, to join up the dots regarding the ongoing ‘hostile environment’ and to recognise the common struggle that we must all embrace in the face of a cruel Tory government who are complicit in the deaths of people seeking sanctuary, including women and children.
At the same time as Priti Patel was making her announcement in Westminster on 23 November Tom Pursglove MP, Minister for Justice and Tackling Illegal Migration, was being given a tour of the refurbished centre in Durham. It’s useful to note that prior to becoming a MP in 2015 Pursglove worked for hard Brexiteers Chris Heaton-Harris and Peter Bone. He was a founder of Grassroots Out which saw him working alongside Nigel Farage and other right wing populists to win the referendum campaign which has subsequently seen the country slide further into highly distasteful migrant bashing.
Mary Foy, Labour MP for Durham City, has commented, “The Home Office, and the Conservative Party, continue to use the plight of refugees for political point scoring – something to wheel out to show that they are ‘tough on immigration’. But what are they actually being tough on? Because the reality is the people who will be punished will be victims of torture, of rape, and of other gendered violence.”
The opening of Derwentside IRC is the epitome of an inhumane Tory government who have assumed Nigel Farage’s clothes and lost their moral compass. Women asylum seekers are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society and they deserve our attention.
• Julie is a No to Hassockfield campaigner and former Labour MEP for the North West of England.
• Find out more and support the campaign: notohassockfield.org.uk