Human rights organisations and legal bodies have repeatedly called on the UK Home office to release immigration detainees. While some 300 individuals were released from removal centres by the end of March, a legal filing seeking the release of all immigration detainees was blocked by the High Court.
When the crisis first began to escalate in the UK, ten human rights and legal organisations wrote a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel demanding the release of all people from immigration detention, stating that “there is a very real risk of an uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 in immigration detention.” The Shadow Immigration Minister, Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, stated that she “fully supports calls from migration campaigners and lawyers to release immigration detainees on public health grounds amid the Coronavirus outbreak.” On 19 March, Detention Action issued a legal challenge, which sought to ensure that the government reviewed and released persons held under immigration powers, and to immediately halt all future deportations.
On 21 March, some 300 detainees were released from several immigration detention centres, raising hopes that more of the detainee population would soon be freed. These hopes, however, were quickly dashed when Detention Action’s legal challenge was rejected by the High Court. During the case, the Home Office highlighted that numbers in immigration detention had fallen substantially from 1,200 in January to 736 in March. At the same time, the BBC reported that women continued to be placed in detention at Yarl’s Wood, despite one confirmed case of Covid-19 in the facility, and in a leaked letter from G4S, plans to isolate individual vulnerable detainees for up to three months were revealed.
Thus, on 27 March, the call to release detainees was again repeated in an open-letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. More than 100 charities, grassroots organisations, academics, and legal professionals called on the government to reduce the number of persons in prisons, young offender institutions, secure training centres, and immigration detention facilities.
The Ministry of Justice announced on 4 April 2020 that low-risk prisoners who are within two months of their release date are to be temporarily permitted to leave on licence. This announcement coincided with news that 88 prisoners and 15 staff had tested positive (2 staff died at Pentonville Prison). No mention of immigration detainees, however, was made – prompting rights groups to once again urge the government to release immigration detainees. As Medical Justice UK stated, “Now release immigration detainees. None are serving a criminal sentence and few can be deported during the global lockdown, making their indefinite detention in such harmful conditions incomprehensible, indefensible and just plain cruel.”
- D. Taylor, “Coronavirus: Call to Release UK Immigration Centre Detainees,” The Guardian, 14 March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/coronavirus-call-to-release-uk-immigration-centre-detainees
- Inquest, “Powerful Coalition of Organisations Call on Government to Immediately Reduce Number of People in Detention Settings,” 27 March 2020, https://www.inquest.org.uk/covid-19-letter
- UK Government, “Coronavirus (Covid-19): Advice for UK Visa Applicants and Temporary UK Residents,” 25 March 2020, https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-advice-for-uk-visa-applicants-and-temporary-uk-residents#helpline
- E. Ailes, “Coronavirus: Yarl’s Wood Detainees ‘Terrified’ After Positive Test,” BBC, 1 April 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52121224
- D. Taylor, “Revealed: At-Risk Immigration Detainees ‘To Be Put in Solitary Confinement,’” The Guardian, 2 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/02/revealed-at-risk-immigration-detainees-to-be-put-in-solitary-confinement
- B. Rielly, “Migrant Groups Push For Detainee Release After 4,000 Prisoners Given Early Discharge,” Morning Star, 5 April 2020, https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/migrant-groups-push-for-detainee-release-after-4000-prisoners-given-early-discharge