UPDATE ON THE SITUATION IN THE DETENTION CENTRES IN LIGHT OF COVID-19 – Published April 26th 2020
NUMBER IN CENTRES
- The Home Office has refused to publish exact figures on the amount of people who have remained in detention centres in light of COVID-19. The following numbers are all estimates taken from those held in detention, or organisations working with detainees and are estimates as of 21st April 2020.
- Dungavel – 22 (estimate). The Women’s wing at Dungavel has reportedly closed, but this has not been confirmed.
- Tinsley House – empty since late-March/early April. Everyone was released or moved to other centres.
- Brook House – 71 (estimate) but people are still being brought there from prison as of 15th April.
- Colnbrook – 70 (estimate)
- Harmondsworth – 100-150 (estimate)
- Morton Hall – 128 (estimate)
- Yarl’s Wood – 18 (estimate)
- Prisons – 137 (estimate) – note: some of these people will have been moved to detention centres but additional people will be coming to the end of their sentences.
- Estimate of numbers in detention centres: 461 – Estimate of numbers in prisons and detention centres: 598
- The number of people held in immigration detention as of 24 March was 736 people (down from 1,225 on 1st January). Normally, there are around 2,500 people in detention at any time.
- On 31st January 3 people were transferred into Yarl’s Wood, one of whom was thought to be transferred from prison.
- Detainees reported that around 40 men were transferred into Yarl’s Wood in early April. Not only do transfers directly contradict the government’s own requirement to reduce interaction between people, but the public health risks they pose in terms of transmission of COVID-19 are obvious. The Home Office is blatantly putting the lives of detainees at risk of severe disease or death.
- The risks are particularly great in the case of transfers from prisons to IRCs, given that COVID-19 cases have now been confirmed in over half (64 of 117) prisons in England and Wales. Indeed, the second confirmed case of COVID-19 in immigration detention – found at Brook House on 5 April 2020 – involved a detainee who had recently been transferred from prison. There have been at least 10 deaths from COVID-19 in UK prisons as of 7th April.
- There have been three confirmed cases in detention centres: 1 in Brook house from someone who had been transferred from prison (confirmed 5th April), 1 in Yarl’s Wood (confirmed on 22nd March) and 1 in the Heathrow Centres. Given the general lack of testing, the true numbers may be substantially higher.
- Someone with symptoms at Brook House was allowed to serve food to other detainees. He got taken by officers into quarantine whilst he was working in the servery. Other people held in detention reported that this made them feel incredibly unsafe.
- A healthcare worker who was treating people in Harmondsworth has also tested positive for COVID-19.
- The public health expert Professor Richard Coker, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned in his expert report on COVID-19 and immigration detention that prisons and detention centres provide ideal incubation conditions for the rapid spread of the coronavirus, and that about 60% of those in detention could be rapidly infected if the virus gets into these locked facilities.
- He also warned in his report that 19% of those contracting the disease are likely to suffer “severe” or critical levels of the disease. Those with pre-existing health conditions that put them at increased risk of severe illness are much more likely to die. Detention centres described as “epidemiological pumps”, i.e. places where rapid transmission of disease is far higher due to the staff working in these settings forming a conduit of infection between the community and the detained population.
- Visits to centres were not banned until 24th March. Individuals were put at risk until then by visitors coming in and out of the centre, potentially bringing in COVID-19.
- Since the ban on visits, there is severely reduced access for people in detention to have access to lawyers, doctors and other people who support them. Face-to-face legal advice surgeries can no longer operate in immigration detention and there are no legal visits in prisons. NGOs, inspectors and monitoring groups have severely reduced access or none at all.
- Harmondsworth detention centre had two nights where there were no healthcare staff on the medical wing. It is not clear the reasons for this and if it was related to lack of staff available.
- Number of medical professionals coming into the centre has hugely declined: one person at Harmondsworth had his dentist appointment done over the phone.
- Suspected COVID-19 cases were placed in isolation rooms but reportedly still were allowed to freely leave and re-enter the healthcare ward and walk around.
ISSUES & SAFETY CONCERNS IN THE DETENTION CENTRES
- Staff are still moving freely between quarantine and non-quarantine areas, increasing the risk of spreading disease. Not all officers on the wings are wearing face masks and gloves.
- There is reduced access to computers and fax machines – this means detainees often have to rely on guards sending their documents, which means guards are able to see personal and sensitive information they should not have access to.
- Detainees are still working as cleaners. Clearly, the detention centres are prioritising being able to profit from their super exploited workforce, who are only paid £1 per hour, instead of keeping people in detention safe.
LACK OF SOCIAL DISTANCING/SHIELDING
- According to the Home Office’s own guidance: staff should wear specified personal protective equipment (PPE) for activities requiring sustained close contact with possible cases and healthcare staff should minimise any non-essential contact with suspected COVID-19 cases. For activities requiring close contact with a possible COVID-19 case, Public Health England advises that the minimum level of PPE that custodial and escort staff should wear is:
- disposable gloves
- fluid repellent surgical face mask
- if available, a disposable plastic apron and disposable eye protection (such as face visor or goggles) should also be worn
However, staff are not being provided with adequate PPE. Detainees report that most staff are not wearing masks or gloves in the centres at all.
- People with illnesses that put them at increased risk of severe illness if they catch covid-19 (like asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, HIV, hepatitis etc.) should be shielding and completely self-isolating – this is completely impossible in immigration detention.
- Detainees who should have been shielding due to their underlying health conditions have not been provided with any PPE or antibacterial supplies to protect them.
- It is impossible to social distance in detention centres: Rooms are multiple occupancy with toilets in rooms and hundreds of individuals are mixing each day, including with staff and visitors coming in and out of the centre. Detainees share washing facilities, eating facilities and the exercise yard. Even some of the corridors in the centres are too narrow to allow a 2m gap when passing another person.
- In a leaked letter the Home Office sent to G4S, the Home Office were suggesting that vulnerable detainees at risk of severe illness or death from covid-19 could be placed in solitary confinement for 3 months. The letter gave no firm promise of access to fresh air or exercise, saying it would be arranged by officers “as the regime allows”. It was estimated that more than 10% of detainees in Brook House received these letters. The risks solitary confinement poses to the mental health and wellbeing of people is well documented, and it is completely unacceptable that the Home Office could suggest this cruel and inhumane treatment of people as an alternative to just releasing people from detention into safe and appropriate accommodation.
- It is not possible for all detainees who need to shield/self-isolate to have food brought to their rooms in order for them to social distance, and most of the time in order to get food they have to queue in close proximity to other detainees. There are reports that detainees who did have their food brought to them were also being locked in their rooms to impose self-distancing/shielding, which is a cruel and inhumane breach of their right to move around the centre. Being excessively locked in a small cell is incredibly damaging to wellbeing, especially for those with mental health issues.
- Neither the government nor the private companies contracted to run detention centres have properly bothered to communicate the implications of COVID-19 to the detainees who are at higher risk, including communicating how to keep people safe in a language they understand. People in detention have reported that they are having to do their own research to know how to keep themselves safe.
- Despite the outbreak of coronavirus, the staff at Harmondsworth IRC facilitated social gatherings such as a BBQ on Friday 19th March and Saturday 20th March opposite the Welfare Office and the Multi-Faith Room.
RELEASES FROM DETENTION
- Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group have heard from at least 5 people who have been released to be street homeless who had nowhere to go over the past weeks.
- The Home Office are still refusing to grant bail when applications are made ‘on the papers’ for many people’s cases, meaning the bail hearing have to go to court via video link. This causes unnecessary delays to people’s release. The charity Bail for Immigration Detainees said that as of 20th March, they have had 43 out of 45 grants of bail, meaning the courts are generally in favour of granting bail.
- The Home Office claim that people are only detained if they can be deported within a reasonable time – we know this is a lie in normal circumstances, as many people who are detained are released back to their communities. However, there are currently 49 countries where removals are not currently taking place because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, yet many people from these countries are still detained.