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UK to open first detention centre in seven years

Following weeks of rumours, it was confirmed last week  that the Hassockfield site in Durham, a former young offenders institution (YOI), will open as a detention centre by the Autumn. AVID is extremely concerned by the proposal, with initial media reports suggesting that the centre will be used to detain women, and will have around 80 spaces.

This proposal represents a shocking U-turn on the government’s commitments to detention reform, and if it goes ahead, will reverse a trend which had seen several closures and a reduction in the number of people detained by around 60% between 2013 and 2019.

Hassockfield will be the first detention facility to open in the UK since the Verne in 2014, which only remained open for three years and was closed in 2017, one of several closures in these years. In 2019, then Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes announced that a reduction in the number of detention places was ‘a key aspect of the series of reforms the government is making across the detention system’. This commitment also included working with civil society organisations on a series of pilot ‘alternatives’ projects, to support people in the community instead of detention. This included the ‘Action Access’ pilot which supported women who would otherwise have been detained at Yarl’s Wood.

During the heights of the first wave of the pandemic, people were released from detention at an unprecedented rate; the number of people held in detention centres fell to 330 in June 2020. In August 2020, the notorious Yarl’s Wood was redesignated and instead of holding women, began holding people seeking asylum who had arrived via small boat crossings. At this time we were told the numbers of women in detention was around twelve. Occupancy had been extremely low for the two years before this. This extremely small number of women were held elsewhere around the detention estate: facilities for women exist at short term holding units as well as in Dungavel in Scotland. But with numbers this low, the burning question was why detain at all? The releases from detention in 2020 were a genuine opportunity for the government to consider what a migration system might look like without detention. Instead, learning and reflection gave way to a renewed energy for detention and deportation; in September, the Home Secretary even committed to deporting 1,000 people by the end of the year.

The reports that the facility will hold women are a particular cause for alarm. While it is widely understood that detention causes lasting harm, as our friends at Women for Refugee Women have highlighted, detention is hugely traumatic for women, many of whom are survivors of rape, torture and trafficking. Their research has shown continued failings in the screening for detention which means that the majority of asylum-seeking women in detention are survivors of rape, sexual violence or other torture. Their newest report written with After Exploitation found that the number of people in detention who have survived trafficking is actually increasing, with 658 women with trafficking indicators being detained between January 2019 and September 2020.

Against this backdrop, the Hassockfield proposal is a real cause for concern on so many different levels. Not only is it a step back from the downwards trends in the use of detention of recent years, it potentially also marks a shift away from the commitments to detention reform. And for women, it is a travesty.

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