A coronavirus outbreak was confirmed at the UK’s Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (close to Gatwick Airport) in early December. While the Home Office declined to clarify how many positive cases had been recorded or how many people were in isolation at that time, the Guardian reported that at least 17 detainees had tested positive and that three wings of the centre had been locked down as of 10 December. According to the newspaper, Serco–the private security company that took over from G4S in early 2020 in managing the facility–pushed a notice under detainees’ doors on 10 December, confirming the outbreak. Due to the lockdown, the deportation of several asylum seekers who recently arrived in the UK via small boats and who are confined in the facility was postponed.
The outbreak has led to renewed calls for all detainees to be immediately released. “The outbreak of COVID-19 at #BrookHouse detention centre was completely predictable – and utterly preventable. Nobody should be detained for immigration purposes during a global pandemic,” tweeted Freedom From Torture. Celia Clark, the director of Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), similarly argued: “The government should now recognise that the use of detention and deportation in the current climate helps to spread coronavirus and puts lives at risk.”
Since September, the Home Office has been using two former military barracks (Napier Barracks in Kent, and Penally Barracks in Pembrokeshire) to detain newly arrived asylum seekers. Although it has reported that these facilities are intended for temporary accommodation only–with asylum seekers due to be moved into housing while their applications are assessed–the Guardian reports that many people are instead being transferred directly from these facilities into immigration removal centres, from where they will be deported. Lawyers seeking to assist asylum seekers in the Kent barracks have been denied access. “It’s unusual because even in a detention centre they arrange legal advice, and this is not meant to be a detention centre,” said one solicitor. Some volunteers who have managed to enter the site have accused the Home Office of attempting to cover-up what they call “disturbing” conditions for their entry, including requiring them to sign confidentiality agreements. According to lawyers, up to 15 asylum seekers are forced to share rooms, with sheets hanging between them to create a sense of separation.
The government appears to have stepped up efforts to deport non-nationals–although several successful legal appeals have ensured that some deportation orders were postponed. Particularly controversial was a 2 December deportation flight to Jamaica, which rights advocates claim had close Windrush undertones. In a letter signed by several NGOs, as well as solicitors and barristers (including 11 QCs), the flight was branded as racist, unjust, and unlawful. Nevertheless, the flight went ahead with 13 of the 50 original intended deportees.
On 1 December, changes to the country’s immigration rules came into effect. These include a controversial amendment that allows authorities to deport non-nationals if they are found to be rough-sleeping–even if they have permission to stay, or have lodged an application to stay. (“9.21.1. Permission to stay may be refused where the decision maker is satisfied that a person has been rough sleeping in the UK.”) As migrant rights groups point out, the number of homeless persons has significantly increased during the pandemic, particularly amongst those with NRPF status (No Recourse to Public Funds, a condition that is frequently applied to persons with limited leave to enter or remain and which leaves them unable to obtain various forms of assistance, such as housing support). “It is shockingly cruel and inhumane to threaten someone with deportation simply because they have been driven into rough sleeping,” said Kate Allen, the Director of Amnesty UK. “It is especially appalling that this heartless policy is being introduced during a pandemic when life for those without a proper place to live is already incredibly difficult.”
- The Guardian, “Covid Outbreak Hits Gatwick Immigration Detention Centre,” 10 December 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/10/covid-outbreak-hits-gatwick-immigration-detention-centre
- Freedom From Torture, “Twitter – 11 December 2020,” https://twitter.com/FreefromTorture/status/1337349212984455170
- The Guardian, “Lawyers Denied Access to Asylum Seekers in Kent Barracks,” 7 December 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/07/lawyers-denied-access-to-asylum-seekers-in-kent-barracks
- M. Bulman, “Asylum Seeker ‘Tried to Take His Own Life’ in Ex-Military Base Where Hundreds Are Being Held,” The Independent, 19 November 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seeker-suicide-napier-barracks-home-office-b1751123.html
- The Guardian, “Home Office Proceeds With Disputed Jamaica Deportation Flight,” 2 December 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/02/home-office-proceeds-with-disputed-jamaica-deportation-flight
- UK Government, “Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules,” 22 October 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/928751/CCS001_CCS1020373376-001_Statement_of_changes_in_Immigration_Rules_-_HC_813__PRINT_.pdf
- Amnesty International UK, “UK: New Immigration Rules Targeting Rough Sleeps ‘Cruel and Inhumane,’” 1 December 2020, https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/uk-new-immigration-rules-targeting-rough-sleepers-cruel-and-inhumane
- Napier Barracks in Folkestone Kent (Dan Kitwood, Getty Images, “Lawyers Denied Access to Asylum Seekers in Kent Barracks,” The Guardian, 7 December 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/07/lawyers-denied-access-to-asylum-seekers-in-kent-barracks)