Revealed: How Home Office Is Ignoring Covid By Locking People Up – Again

At least one immigration removal centre has already seen an outbreak of coronavirus, while detainees are left in limbo.

People who were released from detention centres at the start of the pandemic are being quietly locked up again, HuffPost UK can reveal – despite the health risks and uncertainty caused by the second wave.

Detainees are having to isolate in Morton Hall detention centre after cases of Covid-19 were identified there last week, while those awaiting deportation are in limbo with flights repeatedly cancelled at short notice.

“There is very little concern for the wellbeing of individuals and the spreading of the disease,” said Adam Spray, solicitor and legal manager for Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID).

“We’re in another lockdown, but we’re having people taken from their homes where they’re supposed to be staying as much as they can.

“Households are being mixed because they’re being taken into detention centres, they’re being put on planes as we’re being asked not to travel, and yet here we are moving people around just for the administrative convenience of the secretary of state.”

A Home Office spokesperson did not specify how many people had been affected by the disease outbreak at Morton Hall, saying only that it involved a “very small number” of cases in a “contained area”.

They added: “We are following Public Health England (PHE) guidance and we have a number of robust measures, supported by the High Court, in place to ensure the health and safety of both staff and residents on site.”

Hundreds of detainees were released at the start of the pandemic amid fears of outbreaks inside removal centres, as well as the cancellation of most flights and the rapid closure of borders worldwide.

Yet those people are now being re-detained – despite a fresh wave of flight cancellations throwing deportation dates into chaos, leaving them stranded indefinitely and seriously impacting their mental health.

Spray described the government’s “premature” approach as “wishful thinking”, adding: “What we’ve seen anecdotally, and what is certainly reflected in the contact we’ve been receiving from individuals in detention, is the numbers are going up again.

“The Home Office is deciding to detain people again, which seems like odd timing given that pretty much everything else in the sphere of public life has been asked to go back into lockdown.

“They seem to be arguing, perhaps a bit illogically, that in the first lockdown lockdown their removal wasn’t possible because of the flight restrictions and travel bans, but they think that situation is changing and they can remove people again. I’m not really sure if that’s supported by what’s happening in the real world.”

Under a set of EU laws known as the Dublin Regulation, some asylum seekers can currently be deported by the UK to the first “safe” EU country they entered, but Brexit could put an abrupt end to this on December 31.

Spray explained that he and other legal experts working in immigration were concerned that a potential looming deadline could be motivating the Home Office to enforce as many removals as possible, despite Covid concerns.

He said: “The number of charter flights we’ve seen over the past couple of months, even in spite of the pandemic, is much greater than you’d usually expect to see. We don’t have the actual figures at the moment, but anecdotally it really seems that way.

“I do think that’s a direct consequence of the Home Office being concerned that they’ll lose this route for removing people if we lose our participation in Dublin after December 31.”

Caseworkers have repeatedly seen flights cancelled in the past weeks and months, with people left “in limbo” in detention centres nervously awaiting a deportation that doesn’t come.

Detention centres are intended to facilitate the removal of individuals from the UK, and the Home Office has insisted that it does not detain people indefinitely. But Covid-19 is undeniably complicating removals, meaning some people are being held without knowing when they will be sent back to their country of origin.

Spray said one individual he’d been working on behalf of had been told five times within a matter of weeks that his deportation was imminent, only for the actual removal to fall through at the last moment due to coronavirus restrictions.

He said: “We represent clients who have served custodial prison sentences for committing crimes and have then been detained under immigration powers, and we hear all the time how serving a prison sentence is easier because you have an end date.

“That uncertainty takes a really large psychological toll on the people who are going through that. It must be borne in mind that the people who find themselves in immigration detention have often already experienced trauma or persecution.

“Then on top of that you’ve got Covid concerns – lots of people have health issues, they’re concerned about their wellbeing, they’re not able to properly self-isolate within the detention centre. It’s hugely stressful.”

HuffPost UK reported in 2019 that airline workers were on the verge of refusing to take part in the “abhorrent and dysfunctional” deportation process, citing safety risks and an enormous psychological toll not only on the individual being deported, but on staff and passengers – concerns that are amplified at a time when travel itself is so intensely restricted.

The Home Office has also been accused of hypocrisy after re-detaining people ahead of deportation whilst simultaneously failing to bring a single refugee to the UK through the government’s flagship resettlement scheme since the first lockdown in March.

HuffPost UK revealed in August that the Home Office had failed to reopen the resettlement scheme despite record numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Channel and a drastic loosening of lockdown restrictions.

On Wednesday a spokesperson for the department told HuffPost UK that the scheme had technically reopened, but admitted that no refugees had been resettled since it was originally paused and that there is still no date for the next arrivals into the UK.

Rudy Schulkind, research and policy coordinator at BID, said: “There’s nothing that can stop the deportation machine but they’re very very quick to close off refugee resettlement. It’s really a double standard.

“Refugee resettlement is operating in a completely different universe to deportations.”

Spray added: “On the face of it, it seems very contradictory to pause that scheme and at the same time be shifting people out as much as they can.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office defended the decision to detain people again, telling HuffPost UK that the “overwhelming majority of those detained are foreign national offenders, and we make no apology for trying to remove serious, violent and persistent criminals”.

They added: “Immigration enforcement is responding to the unique circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak and following the latest guidance from Public Health England.

“We are determined to fix the broken asylum system to make it firm and fair.”


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