PET Shop Boys frontman Neil Tennant has joined hundreds of public figures in an outcry over plans to use the site of a notorious former detention centre to house illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.
Over 200 people have written to the Home Secretary today to express concerns about the plans for the centre for women at the former Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, in Medomsley, County Durham – previously the Medomsley Detention Centre.
Among the signatories are City of Durham MP Mary Kelly Foy and several more MPs, along with playwright and scriptwriter of Our Friends in the North, Peter Flannery and Rabbi Sybil Sheridan of the Newcastle Reform Synagogue.
Professors Cheryl McEwan, John Nash and Catherine Donovan, heads of department at Durham University have also endorsed the letter, which says: “The re-opening of Medomsley as an immigration removal centre will mean that it continues to be a place of suffering.
“Research shows that the majority of women who are detained under immigration powers are survivors of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and trafficking.
“Locking these women up has a devastating effect on their mental health.”
The letter also draws attention to the “disturbing” history of abuse at what was the Medomsley Detention Centre, where hundreds of young men were physically and sexually abused by members of staff when they were held there during the 1970s and 80s.
The site had previously been earmarked for new homes, yet without any consultation, the plans had been cancelled, it adds.
The letter was coordinated by Women for Refugee Women, No To Hassockfield, the Durham People’s Assembly, Abolish Detention - Hassockfield and students from Durham University.
Agnes Tanoh, who was herself detained at Yarl’s Wood before being granted refugee status and who is now detention campaign spokesperson at Women for Refugee Women, said: “I claimed asylum here because I was being persecuted in my country and I thought I would be killed.
Instead of finding safety, I was locked up at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre for three months in 2012.
"Now, the Government has agreed that I should stay in this country, and I have refugee status, but I still struggle with the emotional impact of being locked up in the UK when I most needed protection. I know how detention destroys a woman."
Ms Kelly Foy said: “This detention centre will allow the Government to effectively imprison 80 vulnerable women at a site with an appalling history of abuse, despite genuine alternatives to detention existing.
“Rather than seeking to extend their hostile environment policy to a small community hundreds of miles away from Westminster, the Government should focus on creating an asylum system that treats people with the compassion and care that they both need and deserve. This starts with scrapping the plans for this abhorrent detention centre.”
Severin Baker, final year Geography student at Durham University who coordinated a separate letter in opposition to the new detention centre (with fellow-student Rachel Cope-Thompson) that was signed by over 1,600 students and staff.
She said:“The plans to open the Hassockfield Detention Centre have prompted a strong reaction across Durham University, with 1,600 students, over 100 members of staff, and the Vice Chancellor signalling their opposition. This university-wide mobilisation epitomises the local discontent for a regressive and egregious development designed to dehumanise and harm women who are seeking asylum in the UK”
Scriptwriter Peter Flannery added: “We should welcome, support and protect refugee women, not seek to detain them. So we do not need to build more detention centres. Let’s display, and be proud of, our common humanity.”
Owain Gardner, Organiser of The No To Hassockfield Campaign, said: “The human rights and mental health implications of the site being re-used for detention are enormous, not least because of its horrendous past."
A spokesperson for Abolish Detention - Hassockfield said: “We strongly oppose the plans to build a new detention centre, especially on a site with a horrific history of abuse. The detention centre entails renewed violence, abuse and mistreatment for migrant women. Its construction is yet another part of the government’s cruel immigration policy that continues to cause senseless and needless suffering. This must end.
"No one is illegal. Migration is not a crime.”
North West Durham MP Richard Holden has defended proposals saying it was a "sensible use of taxpayers money".
Minister for Immigration Compliance Chris Philp said: “The public rightly expects us to maintain a robust immigration system, and immigration detention plays a crucial role in this.
“Plans for the Immigration Removal Centre are undergoing finalisation and we will continue to engage over the coming months. We expect the centre will create approximately 200 local jobs.”