For Priti Patel, the findings of the report on her desk were no doubt unpalatable. Fixated on creating a system that detained and quickly removed asylum seekers, the home secretary would have been shocked to discover that some officials in her department were now enthusing about a “humane” alternative.
At precisely the same time as the Home Office was secretly drawing up options for new immigration removal centres, civil servants elsewhere in the department were championing an option that may have rendered such plans redundant.
The results of a Home Office scheme in Newcastle, the first government-funded alternative to detention, had been unequivocally successful. Supporting women asylum seekers in the community was found to improve their wellbeing at half the cost of detaining them. Vulnerable women who otherwise would have been incarcerated experienced greater stability and better health.
Staff involved in the programme were convinced of its merits. “The Home Office officials who set up the project were really invested in it and felt it worked extremely well as a detention alternative. Sadly, their political masters had less interest,” a source said.
Despite approving all the recommendations of the pilot’s evaluation, Patel’s department buried it. When asked why, the Home Office declined to comment.
Another trial funded by the Home Office in Bedford, which helps improve the prospects of undocumented migrants while protecting them from detention, is also said to show extremely positive results. Yet it is due to end in June and the concern is that it too will be ignored. Another three government schemes for alternatives to detention have been cancelled.
Duncan McAuley, chief executive of charity Action Foundation, which ran the Newcastle trial, said he was “really disappointed” that alternatives were not being pursued despite evidence they were a viable solution.
Last week his outlook darkened further. The passing of the contentious Nationality and Borders Act on Wednesday night, critics warn, raises the prospect of more asylum seekers being detained along with more immigration removal centres to house them.
Already some believe Patel’s headline-grabbing plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda may prove to be a distraction designed to deflect scrutiny from the rolling out of facilities like that envisaged for a former RAF base at Linton-on-Ouse.
And an Observer investigation into the proposed immigration facility in north Yorkshire has uncovered disturbing elements that the government seems to have wanted kept secret.
Billed as a reception area, it appears that the Home Office is actually planning to detain an undisclosed number of the approximately 1,500 asylum seekers it intends to house there.
An official government fact sheet dated 14 April offers no mention of the potential for individuals to be detained, saying only that asylum seekers will receive a safeguarding call if they are not back by 10pm.
But at a community meeting, caught on a video obtained by Liberty Investigates, the local Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake told residents: “There are some people on the site where there will be a detention centre element of it and those people won’t be allowed to leave the detention centre.”
Later, when approached by the Observer, Hollinrake confirmed that “they [the Home Office] did mention a detention element to me but didn’t say how many would be in it”. The Home Office responded by saying that “service users” at the facility “will not be detained, however they are expected to be on site overnight”.
Another unreported element is the potential involvement of Serco, the outsourcing firm whose staff have been accused of sexual abuse of detainees. Figures from North Yorkshire police and Linton’s parish council have cited the possibility that the site might be run by Serco, a detail also omitted from the government fact sheet.
Serco is already contracted to run some of the most controversial immigration removal centres like Brook House outside Gatwick airport where independent observers have recorded a surge in incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts. Serco and the Home Office chose not to comment.
The possibility of a detention facility run by a firm with such a controversial record is already causing concern. Lottie Hume, a solicitor at Duncan Lewis, said: “The only reason to have a hybrid detention-accommodation facility is for the Home Office to effect removal at a rate which will erode due process and restrict ability to seek help from others.”
Agnes Tonah knows only too well the impact of detention. Ten years after being held in Serco’s notorious Yarl’s Wood immigration centre in Bedford, the experience continues to haunt her. During Tonah’s 90-day incarceration after fleeing war in west Africa, she says her mental health suffered profoundly. She knew another young woman who tried to kill herself because they “couldn’t understand” why they were effectively jailed.
“Detention is a prison. It is a traumatising place where people seeking sanctuary find themselves locked up.”
Tonah finds it bewildering that the UK government has opted for what she describes as a policy of cruelty. “Why imprison me when I was just asking for safety? Detention harms people.”
The passing of the Borders Act promises fresh harm. It is understood the government has an undisclosed list of other potential sites for immigration centres, while a new facility just for women recently opened.
Critics of the new facility at Derwentside in County Durham say information from inside is difficult to obtain. What is known is that some women allege they have been denied vital in-person legal advice that campaigners say could impair the chance of a successful case, claims that have resulted in a legal challenge. The Home Office responded saying that face-to-face legal visits “can be facilitated”.
The opening of Derwentside remains a blow to advocates of a progressive asylum system. When it opened its doors after Christmas, the number of women in UK immigration detention stood at a historic low of 24. Within weeks the results of the Newcastle alternative to detention scheme were discussed in the Home Office, then put aside.
It marks a long fall from 2015 when the then home secretary, Theresa May, urged a review that concluded ministers should reduce “boldly and without delay” detention numbers along with a “presumption against detention” of victims of rape and sexual violence and those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
A close working relationship was fostered with the United Nations to find a solution to detention, resulting in a Home Office and UNHCR working group on the issue, which first met in October 2017.
Such enlightened ambitions have been flattened by Patel. Celebrating the passing of its divisive bill on Thursday, the Home Office confirmed a key focus was “the removal of those with no right to be in the UK”.
McAuley said: “As the passing of the bill clearly indicates, this government is clearly committed to a more costly, less effective and inhumane approach to immigration management.”
In Linton-on-Ouse, locals fear life may never be the same. There is talk of resorting to extreme tactics like those used by Extinction Rebellion activists, such as gluing themselves to fences and roads.
“Right now, nothing’s off the table. People are becoming quite desperate,” said Marc Goddard, a parish councillor. He likens the plans to the flooding of another north Yorkshire village, West End, which was submerged in the 1960s to make way for a reservoir supplying Leeds with drinking water.
“It feels like that’s what’s happening to this village. We’re collateral damage, sacrificed, to simply quench the inadequacies of a truly incompetent Home Office,” said Goddard.