It was reported on 14 March that the government has been issuing advice to prisons and drawing up plans on how to deal with a potential coronavirus outbreak amongst the inmate population. Releasing those with underlying health conditions, providing more materials for anyone in quarantine and temporarily relocating prisoners were among the steps being discussed. By contrast, very little has been said on any equivalent effort to protect those currently held in immigration detention centres.
In common with prisons, immigration centres hold large numbers of people in close proximity. Unlike prisoners, however, those held in immigration centres are held there for purely administrative reasons. The purpose of immigration centres is not to ensure the safety of the wider society or to punish those detained in them. The deprivation of liberty of those detained there is based on the Home Office's policies relating to immigration control.
Excluding immigration holding rooms based at ports, there are ten detention facilities around the UK. Between 2009 and 2018, their average population at any one time was between 1,800 and 3,500 – with one-third spending longer than 28 days in detention. A number of reports over the years, most notably the Shaw Review in 2016, have highlighted the ongoing lack of access to adequate health care within these centres, raising concerns as to the management of infection control. One detainee reported showing symptoms of coronavirus, but staff failed to isolate him and after being tested, he had to wait five days to receive the results. (The result was thankfully negative). There have also been reports that staff have moved freely between the quarantine and non-quarantine areas of centres, thereby rendering isolation ineffective. Given that much of the population is made up of some of the most vulnerable members of society, often with significant and complex underlying health conditions, they are likely to be at far greater risk should they contract the virus, making effective measures even more vital.
The Home Office has said they will continue to deport people during the Covid-19 emergency, despite the fact that many flights are being cancelled. Now that many airlines are reporting that they are at risk of collapsing, and that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is advising against non-essential travel, these cancellations are only predicted to increase. Those waiting to be deported are therefore likely to be held in immigration centres for far longer periods of time, increasing the population of the centres and subsequently the risk of any outbreak of the virus.
As a result, a number of organisations, headed by Bail for Immigration Detainees, have signed a letter calling on the government to release all detainees as a matter of public health. It is hoped that given the ongoing public health crisis, the Home Office will provide clarity over the measures they intend to take to protect those held in immigration centres across the UK, just as they have rightly done with regard to the prison population.
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.