The Home Office is facing two separate legal challenges over Derwentside Removal Centre, the newly-opened replacement for the notorious Yarl’s Wood immigration detention facility.
Derwentside (or Hassockfield, as it was formerly known), near Consett in County Durham, officially opened in November 2021 and became operational the following month. Set to become the main detention site in the UK for women, it is thought to have the capacity to hold up to around 80 detainees – about 18 women have been transferred to the facility since the end of December.
The centre’s alleged failure to provide in-person legal advice to those being held at the site led to two judicial review applications being filed last Friday – one by a charity that supports women asylum seekers, and the other by a current detainee.
The first legal challenge will consider the access-to-justice implications of relocating the UK’s main immigration removal centre for women. Asylum seekers held at the facility are able to receive up to 30 minutes of free legal advice, regardless of their circumstances. However, the Home Office cancelled the procurement of legal aid services, including onsite advice, towards the end of last year due to a lack of suitable tenders – the bulk of providers are based in and around London.
In the absence of onsite advice, poor phone reception and wider connectivity problems are leading to breaches of detainees’ legal rights, Samantha Hudson, a legal representative for the Women for Refugee Women – the charity that has launched legal action against Derwentside – told Novara Media.
With Derwentside further away from the majority of legal aid providers in England than any other detention centre, the Home Office is increasingly seeking to create distance between those detained at its immigration centres and support services, according to Shalini Patel from Duncan Lewis Public Law – the firm is representing both claimants in the two court challenges. “It’s no secret that the Home Office is looking to offshore detention plans and infrastructure for asylum seekers,” she says, “maybe this is a way of testing how [it] would work […] The simple answer is it wouldn’t.”
Despite the Home Office knowing in November 2021 that in-person legal advice would not be available for detainees at Derwentside, it pressed ahead with the opening just weeks afterwards, says Patel.
“Our main concern is that the secretary of state’s own policy recognises how important face-to-face advice is for victims of gender-based violence, exploitation and trafficking,” she continues. “Yet she has decided to open this detention centre so far away from legal advice. That is the biggest issue here – that her own guidance recognises this, yet she’s chosen to ignore it.”
The other legal challenge against Derwentside will challenge the lawfulness of the detention of a claimant with hearing aids and other trauma-induced disabilities. In addition to the language barrier she faces, the difficulty of taking over-the-phone advice has been clear to see for her legal representatives over recent weeks.
It has been “almost impossible” to take clear instructions from their client, says lawyer Patel, with some women forced to compromise the privacy of these conversations by “having to go outside, into public areas, to find signal” in order to discuss extremely sensitive and traumatic experiences, extending to suspected trafficking and modern slavery.
Body language and other non-verbal forms of communication are impossible to read over the phone, legal aid providers have also pointed out.
Another case highlighted by Hudson involved a detainee at Derwentside whose mother tongue is not widely spoken and who therefore struggled to access an interpreter, preventing her from being able to access meaningful legal advice.
Hudson says that had one of her colleagues not managed to reach out to the imprisoned woman – thus enabling her referral to a specialist firm – it is possible she would still be without comprehensible advice today.
‘A complete reversal in policy direction.’
In the wake of a damning review into the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, the Home Office committed in 2016 to reducing the detention of vulnerable people, including survivors of sexual and gender-based abuse.
Yet, the decision to open Derwentside – the first new detention centre to open in eight years – represents “a complete reversal in policy direction”, argues Hudson.
Agnes Tanoh, who was held for a number of months at Yarl’s Wood in 2012, stressed the importance of face-to-face contact for those currently being detained. “You don’t have a phone and can not get in touch with anyone,” she says.
“I am still living with the trauma of detention and I don’t want other women to go through this pain. That’s why I’ve been campaigning to stop the Home Office from opening Derwentside. That’s why I’m asking them now to shut it down.”
A history of abuse.
Campaigners also stress that the Home Office pressed ahead with the opening of Derwentside before the results of a pilot scheme exploring alternatives to asylum-seeker detention in the region were published.
Under its previous name of Medomsley, the Derwentside facility was formerly a prison centre for young men from the early 1960s to 1980s, and has since been the subject of thousands of historical abuse claims. The site was earmarked for housing development after Medomsley’s closure in 2014, before the Home Office’s decision to repurpose it as an immigration removal centre.
Owen Temple, who was a Durham county councillor when the Home Office decided to unilaterally repurpose the facility as part of its so-called detention estate, has insisted that for many people in Consett the choice of site “is reopening an old wound”.
“Local representatives like myself knew nothing about it, local people knew nothing about it, and as far as I was concerned, it was all being done under the cover of Covid-19,” he says.
Meanwhile, former Labour MP for Durham North West, Laura Pidcock, has also contrasted social housing need in the area with the private profiteering she says the Derwentside project represents; security firm Mitie was awarded a £166m contract to run the facility last year.
With immigration detention numbers falling to a historic low during the pandemic, and a growing body of evidence that imprisonment is less effective and more costly than claim resolution within the community, Hudson condemns Derwentside’s opening as not only inhumane but “illogical”.
92% of asylum-seeking women leaving detention were released back into the community in 2019, according to Home Office statistics, meaning their imprisonment served no purpose, she says. Through its newly-launched legal effort, Women for Refugee Women hopes to remove incarceration from the UK asylum process altogether.
When approached for comment, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Derwentside […] 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.”