The first women have arrived at a hugely controversial female asylum seeker detention centre created in a former youth prison in County Durham.
The Home Office says 80 women are being transferred to the remote facility, named Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre, over the Christmas week.
Many of them are being moved from the Yarl’s Wood asylum complex in Bedford because their claims to stay in the UK have now been rejected.
They will effectively be locked up at the new site – based in the former Hassockfield Secure Training Centre near Consett – while they appeal.
But campaigners have called the facility barbaric, and say it is both cruel and unnecessary to cage the women up while their cases are processed.
They suggest that 85 per cent of the asylum seekers there are likely to have suffered sexual abuse or violence before arriving in the UK, and that being imprisoned now only compounds that trauma.
Groups including the No To Hassockfield campaign and Abolish Detention Hassockfield have repeatedly held protests while the facility was being developed over the last six months.
Dr Helen Groom, a retired GP in Gateshead and a member of No To Hassockfield, said home secretary Priti Patel and the area’s Conservative MP Richard Holden were wrong to “think they can move vulnerable women across the country without us noticing”.
She added: “They’re doing it just before Christmas, a time of year when we all want to celebrate with family and friends. The women arriving at Derwentside are all somebody’s mother, wife, daughter, sister. Many of them will have fled their homes after suffering sexual violence, persecution and abuse.
“To lock them up is cruel, inhumane, expensive and unnecessary. We call on Priti Patel to release all women in detention and to close Hassockfield now.”
Owen Temple, another member of the group, who lives nearby, said: “I am appalled that vulnerable women are to be locked up in our neighbourhood, without trial and without time limit, and without any consultation with the local community.
“Many local people are horrified when they hear the use to which this notorious site is being put.”
Before it was renamed Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, the site was known as Medomsley Detention Centre. It was a place where hundreds of boys endured horrific sexual and physical abuse while locked up. Five members of staff were later convicted for crimes against youngsters in the Seventies and Eighties.
As well as its history, campaigners are also aghast at the facility’s geography: it is sited in a relatively remote location, in a region that lacks immigration and asylum legal aid providers – effectively cutting off the women there from their legal support networks.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Derwentside IRC will accommodate those who have been to found to have no right to remain in the UK, and foreign national offenders, while we prepare to remove them. The public rightly expects us to remove those who have abused our hospitality and do not have the right to be here.”