The No To Hassockfield campaign group will be holding a joint fundraiser and social event at the Star and Shadow, Warwick Street, Newcastle, this Saturday evening 4 February. The campaign group has been in existence for two years following the government’s announcement that it was taking back the former Medomsley Detention Centre for the purpose of detaining women asylum seekers.
Former North West Labour MEP Julie Ward, now resident in County Durham, gives a personal account of the group’s activities working alongside other campaigners, MPs and lawyers in an effort to shut down the centre and end the cruel practice of detention in the UK.
From Julie Ward
It was in January 2021 when I and a few other County Durham activists first learned that the Home Office had decided to take back the site of the notorious former Medomsley Detention Centre (for boys) for the purpose of detaining women asylum seekers. This facility (which had been renamed Hassockfield Secure Training Centre in 1999) was largely seen to be a replacement for Yarl’s Wood which had attracted its own notoriety since first opening in 2001. The renamed Hassockfield centre finally closed in 2015 but not before 14 year old Adam Rickwood from Burnley had taken his own life during his brutal incarceration within its walls.
The site is associated with historic institutional violence going back decades with hundreds of former Medomsley victims coming forward as part of Operation Seabrook to give evidence of abuse by the staff. Despite several high profile court cases and convictions of former employees calls for a full public enquiry have recently been dismissed by the government.
Home Office plans to turn the site into a Category 3 prison for women asylum seekers is not only in direct contradiction to the government’s previous pronouncements which had suggested that fewer not more detention facilities would be needed, it is also a slap in the face for many local people who were hoping to lay to rest the memory of abuse on their doorstep through the construction of a new housing development on the site with a pocket park. Indeed Durham County Council had already granted planning permission to Homes England for 127 new dwellings when the Ministry of Justice announced it was taking the site back into the detention estate. The repurposing of the site also rides roughshod over local democracy with the County Council being sidelined and limited opportunities for scrutiny under cover of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A dedicated campaign group called ‘No To Hassockfield’ was quickly established, bringing together activists from a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions. Together with other organisations, including the Durham People’s Assembly Against Austerity and Abolish Detention, we formed a coalition with the specific purpose of holding regular demonstrations at the site, initially in the hope that we might prevent the centre from opening. However, in late December 2021 we learned that approximately a dozen women had been moved to the centre with plans for up to 84 women in total to be incarcerated, all of whom would be deemed by the Home Office as suitable for deportation due to their immigration status. We know that many of these women would be extremely vulnerable, victims of abuse, trafficking and various forms of gender-based violence. We also know that there are alternatives to detention which often serves to retraumatise victims of torture and abuse. Newcastle-based Action Foundation carried out a research project in 2021 (commissioned by the UNHCR) which found that, “it is more humane and significantly less expensive to support vulnerable asylum seekers in the community as an alternative to keeping them in detention centres.” The Home Office funded this pilot but so far appears reluctant to act on the recommendations – neither is it in a hurry to publish a report on the King’s Arms’ project which provided free legal advice to ‘vulnerable irregular migrants’ in Bedford.
So in 2022 we stepped up our campaigning determined to be loud and visible, demonstrating our care and concern for and solidarity with the women who have found themselves at the sharp end of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. In addition to our regular monthly demos we have staged other spontaneous actions such as placing flowers and candles on the access rod on International Women’s Day thereby stopping centre traffic, and reciting poems through a megaphone at the site entrance on Mother’s Day. When some of the women were due to be deported to Rwanda our campaigners bravely held up the prison van for several hours giving solicitors valuable time to mount legal challenges to prevent removal – with great success.
Support from Labour
We have received excellent support from a number of Labour politicians including Lord Alf Dubs who attended one of our first campaign meetings and reminded us that “no-one is illegal”. Mary Foy (MP for Durham City) was on the case months before the centre opened, tabling written questions in Parliament. In May 2022 she spoke at our national demo in front of Durham Cathedral along with veteran human rights lawyer Margaret Owen OBE. In December 2022 Kate Osborne (MP for Jarrow) called for the centre to be shut down after she made a visit with members of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. Her visit coincided with the publication of HMIP’s first inspection report which highlighted a number of worrying issues including a high level of women reporting feeling suicidal, male supervision of at-risk women and a concerning number of ‘use of force’ incidents.
Local Tory MP and Mitie
The local Tory MP, Richard Holden, describes the women as ‘criminals’ and ‘illegals’ whilst all the while promoting the IRC as a fantastic economic opportunity for the area. The centre is managed by Mitie whose former CEO (Ruby McGregor-Smith) is now a Tory Peer. The company (which won several government contracts during the Covid-19 pandemic) posted half year profits of £50 million for March to September 2022. A significant proportion of their turnover is now derived from ‘Care and Custody’. Mitie is one of the companies implicated in the recent Manston scandal which saw shocking levels of overcrowding and chaos at the Kent facility established to process newly arrived asylum seekers. Mitie also has a poor record of employee relations with several trade unions including the GMB, UNITE, Unison and PCS all engaged in campaigns to support workers in their fight for better pay and working conditions. Most worrying, especially in the context of ‘Care and Custody’, are recorded incidents of racism. According to a Sunday Mirror report published in February 2022 Mitie employees who escort migrants and run detention facilities traded “vile” WhatsApps including jokes about Syrian refugees and racist comments about Chinese people in an unofficial chat group.
In November 2022 a group of No To Hassockfield campaigners joined activists from the north west to mount a protest at Mitie’s office near Manchester Airport in solidarity with those protesting at Manston. We spent nearly four hours on site with banners, placards and the ubiquitous megaphone, speaking with staff and visitors entering and leaving the building, delivering a letter to the CEO, Phil Bentley, and giving interviews to the local media. Our presence severely disrupted business as usual which turned out to be a Mitie induction day for new recruits. We hope that these young people will now do some research into how their employer rakes in so much profit.
No to Hassockfield
In less than two years we have become an efficient, democratic and closely knit community of activists. We regularly work with organisations such as Medical Justice and Women For Refugee Women who themselves took the Home Office to court last year regarding inadequate access to justice for the women detained in the centre. Sadly the judge ruled in favour of the Home Office but an appeal is being mounted, and these setbacks will not stop the many organisations and individuals involved in our campaign from our avowed aim to force closure of the centre.
It is clear to us that one of the reasons the Home Office chose the site in County Durham is due to its remote location. We are a long way from London and from the local support networks that had been built up around Yarl’s Wood. Neither does the North East have sufficient numbers of immigration lawyers, interpreters or specialist medical experts that such a large centre requires. However, what we lack in campaign experience we make up for with our commitment to speak up for the women imprisoned in the centre and our passion for a fairer more just society where everyone seeking sanctuary will be welcomed in our communities.
For more information please check out our website, find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, join our regular demonstrations on the 3rd Saturday of every month, and come along to our joint social and fundraiser at Star and Shadow with pay what you can tickets on the door.