While the government has urged people to stay at home in order to save lives during the greatest public health crisis in living memory, it has continued to lock people up in immigration detention centres.
Like all enclosed settings (the example of cruise ships is illustrative), immigration detention centres provide fertile conditions for the rapid spread of COVID-19. Hygiene and ventilation is poor, cleaning products are scarce, and detainees report that staff do not wear protective equipment. People are frequently required to congregate in large groups and cannot follow the government’s strict social distancing advice. So far, there have been confirmed cases in two centres.
Bail for Immigration Detainees provides legal advice and representation to people in detention to secure their release on bail. We have heard first-hand about conditions inside detention and about the escalating crisis.
Our client, Steven,* has been in the UK for over 20 years and is separated from his four British children by detention. We asked him if he and others felt like they were protected: ‘Not in here because, my thinking is, if there’s an outbreak in here we’ll be like sitting ducks,’ he said. ‘Eighty or ninety per cent of us will pick it up because we are all here together. If someone sneezes, we’ll get it, the air is recycled, there's no windows or fresh air, sometimes I struggle to breathe just because of the air being so dry and cold.’
The government has put significant resources into communicating information and advice to the general population in the UK. This has not been extended to immigration detainees. ‘We don’t find out nothing from them [staff], we have to ask each other,’ said our client, David,* detained in Brook House. ‘We don’t have rights. Britain isn’t civilised, look what it is doing to people. I would never have thought this would happen in Britain ... They don’t value people here.’ This is entirely consistent with a system in which immigration detainees are not provided with reasons for their detention (the form they are given is merely a tick-box exercise).
Many of our clients are held in prisons under immigration powers where the situation is bleaker still. As of 22 April, 300 UK prisoners and 237 prison staff had tested positive for coronavirus. Three of our clients have reported enhanced lock-in regimes meaning that all those not in quarantine are held in their cells for roughly 23.5 hours per day and are required to eat their meals in their cells. The Prison Service and Public Health England warn
that 15,000 prisoners will have to be released to prevent an epidemic within jails.
Although a considerable number of detainees have been released, we are not sure of the exact number of people who remain in detention. Continuing to hold people in detention is not only reckless, but pointless and potentially unlawful. Immigration detention exists for the convenience of the home secretary, to facilitate enforced removal – where an individual cannot be removed, there is no lawful basis for detention. The disorder caused by COVID-19 largely makes removal impossible.
There has been very little transparency about who remains in detention and why. In an article about the release of detainees in the Guardian
, a Home Office spokesperson said: ‘[O]ur priority is to maintain the lawful detention of the most high-harm individuals, including foreign national offenders.’ However, any ‘foreign national offender’ held in immigration detention will have served the duration of their custodial sentences and would have been released if they were British nationals. There is no reason to suggest that their release carries a higher risk of public harm than that of a British national who has completed a custodial sentence. It is equally true that in a crisis such as this, where our clients’ lives are placed in danger by the very fact of their detention, we should not be required to discern Home Office policy from the scraps its press office feeds to journalists.
Immigration judges clearly do not think that people should be in detention. Since the measures announced by the government on 20 March, we have represented 34 immigration detainees in bail hearings, and 33 have been granted bail. In every single case, the Home Office opposed bail and argued that detention should be maintained. In one case, the Home Office even argued (against common sense and Public Health England guidance) that ‘the applicant has cited COVID-19 in grounds for bail … these risks exist outside of a prison environment as much as inside one’.
It has never been more important for our clients to be able to have their detention reviewed by an independent judge. However, access to justice has been severely impeded as a result of COVID-19. We have faced significant delays lodging bail hearings as the tribunals struggle to cope with the problems posed by the virus. Face-to-face legal advice surgeries can no longer operate in immigration detention and there are no legal visits in prisons. NGOs, inspectors and monitoring groups have severely reduced access or none at all.
Immigration detention is already an inhumane system where people can be locked up indefinitely without trial. Its use during COVID-19 places detainees, staff, and indeed the country, at risk. It must be ended as a matter of urgency.
* Names have been changed.