24 April 2020 to Rt Hon Priti Patel MP, Home Secretary
Dear Home Secretary,
We, Freed Voices, are writing to express our concern regarding the serious risks posed by Covid-19 to those who continue to be held in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) across the UK.
The risk to life in IRCs has been made clear by independent experts. As you will know, the one and only purpose of immigration detention is to facilitate imminent removals from the UK. There is no need for anyone’s life to be risked while global travel restrictions prevent such removals. We therefore urge you to immediately release all those held under immigration powers in the UK and put on hold any further detentions.
We also seek urgent answers as to why, in contrast to the approach taken by the Ministry of Justice in prisons, there appears to be almost no testing for Covid-19 taking place in IRCs for staff or those detained.
Whatever your stance on immigration, I’m sure you will agree that this global pandemic has served as a reminder that we are all human. This an opportunity for you to take swift action, based on a sensible and humane approach, in order to avert a preventable tragedy.
We welcome the release of many people held in immigration detention during recent weeks. But, more than two weeks since you committed to reviewing all detentions, hundreds continue to be held despite the known risks. It is alarming that those still detained appear to include people with relevant underlying health conditions and survivors of human trafficking and torture.
No one needs to be held in immigration detention during a time like this. We know from bitter experience that the concept of ‘imminent removal’ is routinely stretched beyond any credible point. Members of Freed Voices have been held in IRCs for periods ranging from weeks to more than four and a half years.
The pandemic faced by the UK and the world is anything but routine, and the risk to people in detention is unacceptably high. The Home Office has now acknowledged that removals to more than 49 countries are not possible due to global travel restrictions. Even voluntary returns are currently suspended, meaning that even if someone wanted to return to another country, they would be unable to do so.
We must remind you that IRCs are Immigration Removal Centres, not human warehouses. The one and only purpose of these centres – to facilitate immediate removals from the UK – cannot be fulfilled at this time.
Consequently, there is no reason to expose a single person to the risks posed by Covid-19 in detention centres.
It is highly disappointing to see that ‘public protection’ is being used as a justification for the continued detention of so many people.
We urge you to come clean with the British public and acknowledge that no one is held in immigration detention for public protection reasons. Public protection is the job of the police and the criminal justice system. At a time when the very lives of people held in immigration detention are in danger, it is all the more important to be clear on why they are there in the first place.
There have now been two confirmed cases of Covid-19 in IRCs, with many more people showing symptoms and being held in isolation. We are very concerned at reports that the latest confirmed case of Covid-19 was of someone newly detained at Brook House IRC despite showing Covid-19 symptoms on arrival.
Given the highly contagious nature of Covid-19, the number of Covid-19 cases in IRCs is very likely to be higher than the two confirmed so far. We are deeply concerned that the lack of testing and transparency in IRCs is putting people at even greater risk. IRC staff going in and out of the centres also risk spreading Covid-19 either to those held or to the outside community.
We note that the Ministry of Justice has implemented testing measures for both prison staff and prisons and is publishing the results regularly, showing that over 100 prisoners and more than 20 staff have tested positive so far. It does not appear that similar testing measures have been implemented by the Home Office for IRCs.
As people who have been held in IRCs, we know from experience that the conditions of detention make it impossible to practice safe social distancing in order control the spread of Covid-19. IRCs are notorious for unhygienic conditions. People share toilets, shower units, cells and laundry rooms that are often unhygienic. Communal areas such as eating areas can be hotspots for Covid-19 to spread.
Immigration detention is a traumatic experience for anyone, even during ‘normal times’. Many people in detention have serious mental health conditions. People are cut off from their loved ones. Self-harm and suicide attempts are a daily occurrence.
In March, the Home Office suspended visits to IRCs from family, friends and support groups due to Covid-19. These are a lifeline for those detained, and not having contact with the outside world will only increase the pain and uncertainty felt by many. For the families of those detained, this is also an agonising time. They are unable to visit their loved ones in detention and will be worried for their safety.
It is impossible under the current circumstances to protect people in IRCs from Covid-19 or to continue the immigration detention system in anything resembling a humane way. Releasing all those detained under immigration powers is the only safe option.
While no deaths resulting from Covid-19 appear to have occurred in IRCs to date, we must acknowledge this as a sad possibility. We must reiterate in the strongest terms that further cases of Covid-19 in IRCs and any possible resulting deaths are entirely preventable tragedies, and that the responsibility for preventing them rests with you.
In these unprecedented times, when the world is facing a global health emergency, everyone becomes vulnerable and deserves protection. There should be no exception for people held in immigration detention.
Notes Evidence from Prof. Coker (Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) is available here and supplementary report available here. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-detention-immigration-removal-centre-brook-house-home-office-a9458206.html