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COVID-19 Presses Need to Close UK Detention Centres for Good

By Lynsey Burrows

June 18 2020 - Long before COVID-19, the conditions in detention centres have been repeatedly called into question, under what many have called the detention crisis. From the lack of basic physical necessities to negligence and abuse, there have been reports that would indicate environments unfit for habitation under the most normal of circumstances.

But these are not normal circumstances. With a deadly pandemic spreading throughout the world, the Government has struggled to contain the contamination as the public takes shelter in their homes.

Of course, the people who are 'housed' in detention centres are not at home, bored of Netflix and fed up with their families. Instead, they are in the limbo of the immigration process, perhaps claiming asylum after having fled war-torn countries and unimaginable tortures and persecutions.

The Home Office has a duty of care to those it holds under immigration powers. Yet this duty is being flouted amid the prevalence of COVID-19. Multiple people held in these prison-like conditions and one whistle-blower, a member of staff, have reported shocking substandard levels of care and a lack of protective equipment. In Brook House removal centre, one detainee was reportedly carried by staff into isolation while exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms after he served food in the canteen the day before. In Colnbrook, another reported that detainees are unable to wash their hands; the sink is blocked and antibacterial gel and soap are in short supply.

In a time when hygiene is more important than ever, such reports are particularly alarming considering detainees are packed into single wings and social distancing is almost impossible. To exacerbate the crisis, the Home Office had been filling detention centre spaces with more people up until March, with detainees originating from all over the world and being thrown together without any quarantine period or isolation process.

Professor of Public Health, Richard Coker, said that it was "credible and plausible that 60% of immigration detainees will soon become infected with COVID-19".

As a result of the widespread fear that erupted across the UK's removal centres, the charity Detention Action pursued legal action against the Home Office in March, arguing that there is no legal basis to detain people when there is no imminent possibility of removal due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Originally, the courts declined the request to release the detainees, however, over 700 people have since been released. Detention Action is now turning its efforts to see the remaining 368 temporarily freed, and have highlighted anecdotal stories of other migrants who have fallen into homelessness and destitution having been released with no home or anywhere to go.

Although this is a victory for campaigners, inadequate healthcare and substandard medical treatment of those incarcerated in detention centres has been an on-going concern, even without the threat of coronavirus. The 2018/19 annual inspection by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, found that there was a "mixed picture of [detainees] experiences of healthcare provision" and that "many claimed that their health issues were not taken seriously, that the healthcare team was slow to respond and that they had had difficulty accessing services."

Claimants are further shuttled through these administrative holding pens and are starved from proper legal representation. One research paper by Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) in February highlighted a system pent up by negligence and indifference. The report highlighted:

  • Only 59% of respondents have access to an immigration solicitor.
  • Of those who had access to a solicitor, 52.8% say that bail was never even a consideration in their case - a figure that to BID suggests "some DDA (Detention Duty Advice) lawyers do not understand the bail process"
  • 74% reported that their meeting with an immigration lawyer lasted less than 20 minutes and just under half of all surveyed expressed that the advice they got was unhelpful or bad.

To make matters worse, detainees reported falling victim to unscrupulous lawyers who attempted to make a profit out of their precarious situation. According to the BID report, detainees who have been in receipt of Legal Aid were prompted by lawyers to pay cash sums "under the table" to their lawyer in exchange for a decent service. Anyone who has worked with or come into contact with a Legal Aid claimant knows just how outlandish, if not unlawful, such a suggestion is.

Time and time again, reports and allegations that come out of the backdoor of the UK's removal centres points to suggest that there is no need for them in the first place. Indeed, they are supposed to be a 'last resort' for offenders who face imminent removal from the country, yet thousands of innocent people become ensnared in the net and are met with abysmal legal support and healthcare in the process. Consider that the UK has a shockingly low rate of deportation with just 44% of all detainees being removed from the country last year, showing just how frequently the Home Office makes its initial decision to detain somebody wrong. Yet to add insult to injury for those unlawfully detained, the UK remains the only country in Europe that upholds 'indefinite' detention, that is, to detain people without a given time frame on their release or deportation.

The prospect of detention remains surreal. In the event that the Home Office does overturn its decision and allows an individual to return to UK life after months - if not years - inside a detention centre, the individual is made to start their new life on the backfoot. Instead, the Home Office should pursue claimants' cases on the outside, where migrants and asylum seekers can attempt to build and integrate into UK life while their case is reviewed.

The current method is a costly business, even without errors. It costs on average £95 per person to detention someone every day, and the Government has been forced to pay £21m in compensation to over 800 people that it had unlawfully detained between 2012-17. Last year alone, the Home Office coughed up £8.2m for the grievances caused to 312 detainees. Now and in the foreseeable future when we look back to review people's cases in 2020, the cost may be a lot more than just money.

Wrenching detention centre gates shut for good isn't political; it's the right and common decent thing to do. If there is anything positive to come of coronavirus, perhaps it will serve to shed a light on the ill-treatment migrants receive while in the UK's care, whether they are detainees or migrant NHS staff. The tide may be turning, but we need to keep the waves coming if the UK is serious about remaining a fair and civil society.

About the author

Lynsey Burrows is a digital content writer for Printed Tape and features writer for the Immigration Advice Service.



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