Stand with Agnes against Hassockfield

Hi, I’m Agnes Tanoh. I’m 65 years old. I’m a grandmother to four children, a mother to four children, I am a sister to my eight siblings and a friend to my husband.

I have been here in the UK for nearly 11 years. Before I came here, I was the personal assistant to Simone Gbagbo, an MP and the First Lady of my country, Côte d'Ivoire. I was a high-ranking member of my political party. This work required discipline, diligence, availability and discretion. When you had to do something, you did it properly.

These days I live in Coventry. Here I started a group for women who are seeking asylum called Women with Hope. Our group is a friendly place for women who are otherwise alone to come together, chat and learn. The other women in my group see me as a mum, they call me Mama Agnes. I also work with Women for Refugee Women as the Detention Campaign Spokesperson, calling on the Home Office to stop locking up women in immigration detention.

I don’t have a lot of spare time but I love dancing at home with my friends. I like sharing food with people, there is always food at home that I can share with anyone who pops in.

I love icecream so much that it is a joke in my family - my favourite flavour is vanilla! My brother once got me an icecream so huge he thought eating all that would put me off for life… but nope, I still love it!


The reality of immigration detention

I fled political persecution myself because of the civil war in my country. My life was in danger, there was no way I could stay at home because of my political position. My colleagues and friends were being arrested and killed. I had no choice but to flee.

When I came to the UK I was hoping to be safe and to be able to start a new life. I claimed asylum. When you claim asylum you have to report to the Home Office regularly, for me it was every week. They give you a letter that says you can be arrested any time, so every week you are afraid.  

One day when I went to report, I was arrested. I was taken to Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre in Bedfordshire. The journey took hours and was terrifying. In detention, you are isolated. You are cut off from the world. You are locked in. You are trapped in a shared room. From the window, all I could see was a wall. 

You have to wake up at a certain time. To eat at a certain time. You have the guards coming to your room whenever they want. At 9 o’clock they turn off the lights but you cannot sleep. In my case, it was the fear that I could be taken back to a country where I would be killed that stopped me sleeping. I felt sick, because of the insomnia and stress.

While I was at Yarl’s Wood one of the other women tried to kill herself. This is what detention does to a woman. This is what happens when you take a woman who has survived abuse and exploitation and lock her up. We need protection, not to be locked up.

There is no time limit on detention so you have no idea how long you will be kept there. It can be days, weeks, months, even years. I was detained at Yarl’s Wood for more than 3 months because the Home Office refused to believe what had happened to me, despite all of the evidence. 

For many years after that I was homeless and had to get food from the foodbank. Eventually though the Home Office accepted that my story, the same story I had been saying all along, is true. I was granted refugee status after waiting for 7 years. So why was I put through all that suffering?


Say No to Hassockfield 

Hassockfield (or Derwentside as the Home Office are now calling it) is a new detention centre for women that the Home Office plans to open in the north of England, in County Durham. They say that 84 women will be locked up there. 

This is a problem for at least three reasons:

  • The Home Office is breaking their promises. They said they would detain fewer people, particularly vulnerable people. For the last 8 years, no new detention centres have opened. Instead they have been shutting down. So why are they now going back on this promise?
  • People living in the area around Hassockfield don’t want this detention centre to open. Hassockfield has a troubling history. It used to be a prison for young men and thousands were abused there. Local people don’t want to see more cruelty and harm in their area. Instead they want this site to be used for something positive for the community.
  • Most importantly, if Hassockfield opens as a detention centre for women it will cause irreversible harm to those women who are locked up. Detention is a trauma that is difficult to heal from. Like me, after 10 years I am still emotional when I talk about Yarl’s Wood. I don’t want any of my sisters to be locked up like I was.

Now is a crucial moment to campaign against Hassockfield because we have heard that the Home Office plans to start locking up women there from early December. It breaks my heart to think that the Home Office is going to open this cruel, harmful and isolating place right before Christmas. The first women to be locked up there will face a terrifying Christmas far from their families and loved ones. I wish women had freedom this Christmas, and always.

On top of this, the Home Office is trying to push through a new Bill that will make it much harder for women to access refugee protection. This new legislation will put more women at risk of detention. 


Join me in taking action! 

We need to act now. Together, I believe we can stop Hassockfield. There is plenty we can do.

  • Please sign my petition to stop Hassockfield from opening.
  • If you live in the north east of England, there is a demonstration happening on Saturday 4 December. I will be speaking, please come along and join me to shout loud to end detention.
  • A brave local resident is taking the Home Office and the local Council to court because they don’t have planning permission to open Hassockfield as a detention centre. This legal challenge is the best chance of stopping the Home Office, but the local person doing it needs financial support. If you can help, please donate here.
  • Tell your friends and share on social media. Lots of people don’t know what immigration detention is. You can help make this injustice visible and known by talking about it. 

Thank you for your support,


This blog post was written by campaigner Agnes Tanoh for Ben & Jerry’s UK.