Derwentside in north-east England is the first new detention centre to open in almost eight years, and it replaces Yarl’s Wood as the main site where women are detained for immigration purposes.
Women for Refugee Women claims the Home Office has previously acknowledged that detention is harmful, and said it was committed to locking up fewer people, so the opening of Derwentside signals a betrayal of trust.
It has the capacity to hold up to 84 women, with 30 women currently detained there.
The majority of women in detention are survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence, who often have particular difficulties in disclosing what has happened to them, because they can feel ashamed.
Specifically, Women for Refugee Women – which supports women who seek safety in the UK – objects to the government detaining women at this centre without provision for them to access in-person legal advice, which men have access to at other detention centres.
It means that women will be expected to reveal their traumatic experiences to someone they have never met over the phone, whilst the area experiences poor mobile phone reception.
For women in detention, any difficulty in communicating previous experiences is likely to have a knock-on negative impact, and could result in their release being delayed, inaccurate legal advice being given or their credibility questioned.
The charity has been in touch with detainees who have had difficulty accessing face-to-face legal advice, and a response to this written parliamentary question shows there was just one in-person legal visit at the centre between January 13 and March 9.
One woman who was previously detained at Derwentside, and who struggled to access legal advice while there, has also issued a legal challenge, based on her personal experience.
It’s thought that this is due to a shortage of legal aid providers operating in the north-east of England.
Dr Jo Wilding, author of Droughts and Deserts: A report on the immigration legal aid market and The Legal Aid Market, who has provided a witness statement in support of the legal challenge, said: “Derwentside is in County Durham, which has no legal aid providers. My research shows that there is already not enough legal aid provision in the surrounding area, with over 5000 asylum applicants accommodated in the North East as of March 2021, and fewer than 2000 legal aid cases opened by all of the legal aid providers in the region in 2020-21.
“There is clearly no surplus capacity to expand into face-to-face legal advice in the detention centre. That information is available to the Home Secretary as well. There was never any real prospect of getting face to face legal advice if she opened a detention centre for women at Derwentside.”
Agnes Tanoh, detention campaign spokesperson at Women for Refugee Women, who was herself detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre for over three months in 2012, added: “From my own experience I know how important it is to meet your solicitor and build trust so that you can tell them your story. Body language is so important. To see a warm and kind face is like a hug when you need it most. Imagine having to tell a stranger about the most horrific intimate violence you have suffered. It’s not right. Women seeking safety should be able to live freely in their communities and have access to justice.”
The charity also fears women are at risk of being offshored to Rwanda, under the government’s new immigration policy.
In a press statement, Women for Refugee Women said: “It is now clear that women have not been excluded from the government’s offshoring plans, and that anyone in detention facing removal to Rwanda will only have seven days to challenge this decision. Similarly, the case could have implications for the Home Office’s obligations to ensure access to justice in its new asylum reception centres, including in the new site in Linton, where upwards of 500 people will be accommodated.”
Women arrive in the UK seeking protection from war, persecution and violence, but are being locked up with no access to justice.
Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women, added: “For eight years we’ve stood alongside women seeking asylum who have been locked up in detention to call on the Home Office to end this harmful practice. We’ve worked with hundreds of survivors of rape, torture and trafficking to document how detention has retraumatised them.
“The Home Office hasn’t listened. Instead, they’ve opened a new detention centre for women in an even more remote location and without adequate legal advice provision in place. We can’t stand by and let this harm go on so we are taking the Home Office to court. Women seeking safety in the UK should be supported to rebuild their lives in the community.”
A two-day hearing will take place at the end of June, providing Women for Refugee Women raise the £25,000 required for court costs and legal fees, with £15,000 having been raised at the time of writing.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre opened during a global pandemic and our priority throughout has been to take proportionate steps to ensure the safety of residents and staff.
“Individuals have always been able to contact their legal representatives easily by telephone, email and video call – and also receive 30 minutes free advice through the legal aid scheme.
“Meetings in-person are also now able to take place on request.”
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