In a March blog post, Gherson looked at calls on the Home Office to release all immigration detainees in order to prevent an outbreak of Coronavirus within detention centres. Over four months on, how has the UK immigration detention system fared in the COVID-19 crisis?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pleas to the Home Office did not lead to the release of all detainees. Neither did a legal challenge by Detention Action, which aimed to force the Home Office to do just that. The challenge was rejected by the High Court in late March. However, the number of people detained using immigration powers more than halved between January and April, from over 1,500 to around 700.
The most significant reason behind both the reduction in the number of people in detention and the lack of infection amongst them appears to be the significant increase in grants of immigration bail applications since lockdown. The charity Bail for Immigration Detainees reported a 95% success rate in their applications for immigration bail since 23 March. This has even led to the Home Office attempting to interfere with the independence of the judiciary, with a senior Home Office civil servant writing to First-tier Tribunal President Michael Clements to say that the Home Office were “somewhat surprised” by the number of immigration bail grants during the crisis.
Arguments made by the Home Office to justify detention are also arguably less applicable in the wake of COVID-19. Whilst the Home Office has the power to detain almost anyone without a right to remain in the UK, long-term detention is severely restricted where there is no realistic prospect of removal. Unlike other European countries, the UK has not suspended removals in response to the pandemic. The Home Office have even been utilising indirect flights to countries of origin in an attempt to continue doing so.
Nevertheless, the general reduction in flights and the unpredictable implementation of travel bans across different countries has made removals more difficult and stunted the Home Office’s ability to enforce deportations. Assisted returns, also known as voluntary returns, have also been unavailable since 20 March.
Arguing that an individual is unlikely to comply with immigration bail conditions has also become more difficult as a justification for detaining someone. It has been argued that the risk of offenders subject to immigration control reoffending is reduced, particularly during the most restrictive time of lockdown, as a result of the risk of COVID-19 to the individual themselves as well as the increased police presence. Bail reporting was also temporarily paused on 17 March, with the centres still only operating with limited opening hours, another reason that failure to comply with bail conditions is somewhat less likely.
It therefore appears that regardless of the Home Office’s attempts to continue their detention and deportation regime in spite of a global pandemic, the UK has avoided a public health catastrophe amongst the population in detention. Given the ongoing risk of COVID-19, it is hoped that the judiciary will continue to look favourably upon immigration bail applications, ensuring that infection amongst detainees can continue to be prevented.
The information in this blog is for general information purposes only and does not purport to be comprehensive or to provide legal advice. Whilst every effort is made to ensure the information and law is current as of the date of publication it should be stressed that, due to the passage of time, this does not necessarily reflect the present legal position. Gherson accepts no responsibility for loss which may arise from accessing or reliance on information contained in this blog. For formal advice on the current law please don’t hesitate to contact Gherson. Legal advice is only provided pursuant to a written agreement, identified as such, and signed by the client and by or on behalf of Gherson.