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.

Covid-19 Immigration detention Crisis – an open letter to Priti Patel

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.


Freed Voices


[1] 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.


What does social distancing mean in immigration detention?

by Mr. Njoku, Freed Voices Campaigner

I would like to express my deepest sympathy and warmest solidarity to brothers and sisters locked up in the UK’s Immigration detention during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Indefinite immigration detention is inhumane and goes against basic human rights. I am one of you. I passed through those same gates and was locked in those same cells when I was detained. I can feel your pain and fear – they are all very real.

The Home Office has not learnt the lessons from the Windrush Scandal where all the warning signs were ignored and that lead to a human disaster.

I know from experience that access to basic healthcare in immigration detention is very hard, even during normal times. But these are not normal times. I wonder and worry what it might be like during this period of panic and great need.

I saw that the Home Office said that people in immigration detention will be shielded from Covid-19, but it is hard to see how this is realistic or practical – and now we are starting to see the first confirmed cases in detention centres, with many more showing symptoms.

What does social distancing mean in detention? You are forced to share a bathroom with hundreds of others and queue up for your food. You don’t even have a window to open and no ventilation in your room. You can’t go for a walk in the park. You are trapped.

During this time of crisis, we all need each other. Be rest assured that we will do everything we can to fight for you.

Stay safe. We, Freed Voices, Detention Action and thousands of others are on your side and campaigning for you.

With solidarity.

My message of solidarity

by Mishka, Freed Voices Campaigner

I am sending my solidarity to people locked up in immigration detention centres during these unprecedented times, as the Covid-19 crisis grips the country and the globe.

I have experienced immigration detention and I have spent years campaigning for change to our unjust and inhumane system of detention and deportation.

I can imagine the fear that people are experiencing because I have been there, but is is hard to fully appreciate when you are not there at this time. The fear of being trapped and powerless as this crisis unfolds, knowing that there is a grave threat life in detention centres.

I know from experience that immigration detention centres are places with unsanitary conditions, people piled up in cramped conditions, and limited access to Healthcare. What we hear from people in held in detention right now is that they are not even being provided with soap or hand sanitiser – or even running water at times.

The situation is dire – and that’s why we, Freed Voices, Detention Action and thousands of people around the country are campaigning together to force the Government to act now.

My message to people held in immigration detention right now – please stay strong and know that we are making sure the Government takes notice of what is happening to you.

My message to everyone else – I hope you are staying safe as best you can. Let’s fight together for those who are powerless. Let’s keep the pressure up on the Government.

These people do outstanding work on immigration detention

We, Freed Voices, go into 2020 determined to stand up for people in detention. We know we are not alone.

2019 has almost come to an end, and we’re looking ahead to the immense challenges of 2020.

Indefinite immigration detention still exists in the UK on a scale that is almost unfathomable – around 24,000 people locked up this year for the second year running.

We, Freed Voices, go into 2020 determined to stand up for people in detention, and ready, as always, to challenge the unjust and inhumane practices that put them there. We do this not as ‘former detainees’ or as ‘case studies’, but as experts-by-experience.

We know we are not alone. We would like to take this opportunity to recognise and thank those who have done, and continue to do, outstanding work on immigration detention.

In no particular order:

An open letter to General Election candidates about inhumane migrant detention

from Freed Voices

We are Freed Voices, a group of experts-by-experience committed to speaking out about the realities of immigration detention in the UK and calling for reform.

At a recent meeting of our group, we added up the number of years we spent between us in immigration detention in this country. With just a handful of us in the room, the total was more than 13 years. If all our members had been there, it would have been more than 25 years.

Many of us suffered greatly during our detention. We suffered serious mental health problems. We saw and experienced suicide attempts and self-harm. We felt the immensely detrimental impact of indefinite detention on our minds and bodies. Our members are still suffering from the trauma of detention, even many years later. One of our members said recently, “you leave detention, but detention does not leave you.”

I cannot understand why you are here

by Mr. Njoku, Freed Voices

I was held in immigration detention for 18 months before I was released.

During my time in detention, one of the detention officers told me, “Mr. Njoku, every officer here has good comments about you and I cannot understand why you are here in the first place. I can see that you have major health conditions. I just do not see any justification for why you are being locked up here indefinitely”.

Now, I am outside and I can bring my story to you – I want to make sure people know about the reality of immigration detention and inspire those who agree it is wrong to help end it.

Fireflies in pitch-black nights

By Mishka, Freed Voices

The sense of hopelessness, isolation, sadness and fear are just a few of the emotions that overshadow the minds of people in indefinite immigration detention. This is a place where you feel you are forgotten – that you are very much deliberately kept out of sight and out of mind. The injustice you face makes you feel like the whole world is against you.

I remember when I was held in Harmondsworth – next to Heathrow Airport, now part of the biggest immigration detention centre in Europe. I could give you a list of gloomy things about that experience, but there were a couple of good memories and reasons to be hopeful.