It is impossible to socially distance in immigration detention centres – everyone inside them must be freed

by Mishka, Freed Voices Campaigner

On the same day that Boris Johnson took the unprecedented step of closing all pubs and restaurants in the country, everyone in the immigration detention centre where I was once held received a text asking them to gather for a ‘BBQ with free ice cream’.

It was a bizarre move, not only because of the prime minister’s announcement, but because the ‘social events’ that happen in detention centres are usually quite grim affairs. Fast-forward a few weeks. While strictly enforced social distancing and hand hygiene is saving lives across the country, Detention Action has heard that people who are crammed into detention centres are yet to be given soap, sanitiser or masks.

As Covid-19 leaves thousands dead in its wake, the virus has predictably made its way into our immigration detention centres. Two cases have been confirmed so far, with many more showing symptoms and being held in isolation. But the extent of the outbreak is unknown because almost no testing appears to be taking place, unlike in prisons where at least some staff and inmates have been checked for Covid-19.

Coronavirus news live Professor Richard Coker from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says that Covid-19 poses a serious threat to life in immigration detention centres. Lawyers and campaigners agree. The solution should be to release everyone. In the recent weeks, hundreds have been released, which according to people in the centres, is leaving more guards than people to guard. But hundreds continue to be held despite the known risks.

These are unprecedented times, but can everyone really be released from immigration detention? How will the immigration system operate without detention? And what about public protection? The answers to these questions have implications far beyond the current Covid crisis.

The UK’s immigration detention system is one that has a lot of problems. It is constantly criticised for being slow and inhumane, and notorious for its unhygienic conditions. Last year, in one of the most succinctly damning statements I have ever read, the Home Affairs Select Committee said that it ‘found problems with almost every element of the detention system.’

In response to frequent criticism, a sinister sleight of hand is all too often performed. The Home Office states that the welfare of detainees is of ‘paramount importance’ despite all evidence to the contrary.

They also say that ‘public protection is paramount,’ despite the fact that public protection is a job for the criminal justice system and no one is ever held in immigration detention for that reason. The image of the dangerous foreigner is conjured up to distract the public from what is going on behind the walls of our detention centres.

The one and only lawful purpose of immigration detention is to facilitate imminent removals from the UK. But I know from bitter experience that the concept of ‘imminent removal’ is routinely stretched beyond any credible point.

I am part of Freed Voices, a campaign group made up of people who have experienced immigration detention in the UK. Our members have been held for ‘imminent’ periods ranging from weeks to more than four and a half years.

IRCs are not supposed to be human warehouses, but that’s exactly what it felt like to me when I was detained for five months. I remember the unhygienic shower units that were shared sometimes by hundreds of people, the liquid soap dispensers that were always empty, the queues for food, the screams and the suicide attempts. Social distancing is now a matter of life and death, but in a detention centre you can’t stay two metres away from anyone. You can’t go for a walk. You can’t open up a window. The door to healthcare is always shut.

Measures so far implemented appear to amount to little more than a notice distributed to those held in one IRC asking them to stay in their cells for the next three months. Never before has an attempt at safeguarding sounded so much like a cruel punishment.

Detention’s one and only purpose cannot be carried out while global travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic prevent removals to at least 49 countries. 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.

Everyone should be released immediately because there is absolutely no reason to risk anyone’s life by keeping them in such a high-risk environment at this time. The immigration system will cope without detention. Almost all immigration cases are dealt with while people in the system live in the community anyway.

Something that many will not know about immigration detention is that even in ‘normal’ times the Home Office gets it wrong so frequently that the majority (more than 60 per cent according to the latest official figures) of people taken into detention are released again at some point. Any notion that our immigration system will struggle without detention in its arsenal should be considered in the context of this staggering statistic.

It is a distinct possibility that Priti Patel will continue to ignore the risks and resist calls for detention centres to be emptied with all her might. If so she must seriously engage with the question of how to do it safely. But what is considered safe in the outside world is an impossibility in a detention centre.

There is no good time to be held in one of these places. I am glad I’m not there during this life-threatening pandemic, and I fear for those who are. It is simply 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. Detention serves no purpose at all while global travel restrictions prevent removals from the UK. Releasing all those detained is the only humane option.

This article originally appeared in the Metro on Friday 8 May 2020. Click here to read.