So far in 2020, more than 7,400 people have arrived in the UK via small boats, nearly four times as many as in 2019. Seven migrants have died trying to cross the Channel this year, three more than last year. Part of this increase may be due to COVID-19 restrictions and the suspension of resettlement schemes such as in the UK, which is supposed to resettle about 5,000 refugees a year. UNHCR’s UK representative said: “UNHCR hopes that resettlement to the UK will restart very soon, once reception capacity is concerned and any remaining logistical issues related to COVID-19 are overcome by the authorities. The pandemic has presented new, acute hardships and uncertainties for refugees.” The statement comes after two young children and their parents died while trying to cross the Channel during the week of 26 October 2020.
Following the unsuccessful legal challenge presented by Detention Action in March (see 5 April and 11 May UK updates on this platform), which aimed to force the Home Office to release all immigration detainees, a number of claims for judicial review have been instigated on behalf of individuals detained at immigration removal centres. In one case, R (on the application of Zalys) v. Secretary of State for the Home Department  4 WLUK 86, the claimant argued that in addition to waiting for the outcome of his appeal against a deportation order requiring his removal, travel restrictions resulting from the pandemic rendered it impossible for the Home Office to remove him to Lithuania within a reasonable timeframe. The claimant also argued that his continued detention in a “congregate setting” was directly contrary to government guidance, particularly so in light of his serious underlying medical conditions. In consequence, the claimant was granted permission to apply for judicial review, with the judge stating that the claimant had established a strong prima facie case for his release. The claimant was then placed on immigration bail by the Home Office.
On 30 October, the Guardian reported that the government had increased cash support payments for asylum seekers by 3 pence (£0.03) per week, increasing the current weekly rate of £39.60 to £39.63 following a review by the Home Office. This now equates to around £5.66 a day. Several charities, who have been pushing the UK government to increase support rates, have criticised the measure. The group Asylum Matters said that “this review was an opportunity for the Home Office to put this right, and ensure people seeking refugee status in the UK are safe and supported, during the pandemic and beyond. Instead, they’ve blown it — 3p a week is an insult, not an increase.” In the UK, people seeking asylum are barred from working while they wait for a decision on their claims. Yet, immigration figures released in August revealed that more than 70 percent of people seeking asylum in the UK wait more than six months for a decision on their claim.
COVID-19 has put the country’s prison system and prisoners under considerable pressure and psychological stress. On 4 October 2020, campaigners at the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) found that coronavirus measures in English and Welsh prisons have delayed the release of potentially thousands of prisoners by blocking chances for inmates to take part in rehabilitation activities, required to progress in their sentences. In addition, PRT said that the uncertainty caused by the virus is leading to increasing despair and hopelessness as well as putting a significant strain on prisoners’ mental health and wellbeing.
- J. Grierson, “UN Urges UK to Restart Resettlement of Refugees after Family Drowns in Channel,” The Guardian, 30 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/30/un-urges-uk-to-restart-resettlement-of-refugees-after-family-drowns-in-channel
- J. Grierson, “COVID Rules in Prisons Blocking Rehabilitation, say UK Campaigners,” The Guardian, 4 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/04/covid-rules-in-prisons-blocking-rehabilitation-say-uk-campaigners
- UNHCR, “IOM, UNHCH Announce Temporary Suspension of Resettlement Travel for Refugees,” 17 March 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2020/3/5e7103034/iom-unhcr-announce-temporary-suspension-resettlement-travel-refugees.html
- R. Harger, “Immigration Detention and the Politics of COVID-19,” Red Pepper, 2 June 2020, https://www.redpepper.org.uk/immigration-detention-and-the-politics-of-covid-19/
- J. Grierson, “Asylum-Seekers’ 3p-a-Week Increase is an Insult, Say Campaigners,” The Guardian, 30 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/oct/30/asylum-seekers-3p-a-week-increase-insult-say-campaigners
- The Walls Outside Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, Taken on 8 August 2015, (EYE DJ, “Immigration Detention and the Politics of COVID-19,” Red Pepper, 2 June 2020, https://www.redpepper.org.uk/immigration-detention-and-the-politics-of-covid-19/)