During the first two weeks of August, more than 650 migrants and asylum seekers crossed the Channel from France. With fewer lorries able to cross during the pandemic, migrants and asylum seekers have increasingly sought to attempt the journey in dinghies, often with the aid of smugglers. The country’s Home Office has been advancing alarmist narratives surrounding the arrivals—even after the drowning of a Sudanese refugee during an attempt to cross the waterway—presenting it as a “crisis” which will only be solved by the UK’s exit from the EU. As well as tasking the Royal Air Force to patrol the route using a surveillance plane in order to “make the crossing unviable for small boats” (AP 13 August), authorities have also announced plans to repurpose Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre (formely restricted to detaining women) to hold people interdicted while attempting to cross. Some observers, however, have argued that the government’s recent focus on migration is an attempt to divert attention away from its handling of the pandemic.
On 29 July, the Home Office announced that individuals whose departure orders were set to expire before 31 August would be allowed to temporarily remain, work, and study in the country. However, as of this update, it was unclear what would happen once the new deadline passed. The Home Office indicated that “exceptional indemnity” would apply to individuals who could not leave the country in time but intended to do so.
On 7 July 2020, the Home Office released the second version of the “Guidance for Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), Residential Short-Term Holding Facilities (RSTHFs) and escorts during the Covid-19 pandemic.” The guidance is intended to inform Home Office staff operating in IRCs and RSTHFs about Covid-19 measures in places of detention and covers the strategy for shielding those particularly vulnerable to the virus. Among the measures: detainees, staff, and visitors should frequently wash their hands using soap for at least 20 seconds; IRC suppliers should produce specific guidance for individuals to explain how to reduce the risks of a Covid-19 outbreak; detainees should be provided on request with appropriate disinfectant cleaning materials to clean their bedrooms; and detainees should be accommodated in single occupancy rooms with en-suite toilets.
According to a blog post by Gherson, a UK-based law firm specialising in immigration law, reported that ongoing pleas to the Home Office to release all immigration detainees have been unsuccessful. A legal challenge by Detention Action, which aimed to force the Home Office to do that, was rejected by the High Court in late March (see 11 May United Kingdom update on this platform). Nevertheless, the number of people detained for immigration-related reasons more than halved between January and April, from over 1,500 to around 700 (see 5 April United Kingdom update on this platform). Gherson indicated that the most common reason behind the reduction in the number of people in immigration detention appears to be the significant increase in grants of immigration bail applications since lockdown. The legal charity, Bail for Immigration Detainees, reported a 95 percent success rate in their applications for bail since 23 March.
Gherson adds that the arguments made by the Home Office to justify detention are less applicable in the wake of Covid-19 as long-term detention is severely restricted where there is no realistic prospect of removal. Unlike other European countries, the UK has not suspended removals in response to the pandemic and Home Office has even utilised indirect flights to countries of origin in an attempt to continue removals. Also, arguing that an individual is unlikely to comply with immigration bail conditions has also become more difficult to justify, according to Gherson.
In related developments, prison restrictions in place in the UK since March have allowed youth detention facilities to keep children in their cells for up to 22 hours a day (see 15 July United Kingdom update on this platform). On 21 July, the Ministry of Justice announced that this measure could remain in place for two years. The Howard League for Penal Reform, a UK based charity, has been receiving reports from children in prisons about the severe impact of solitary confinement on their mental health.
In mid-June, UK’s Labour MP released data showing that amongst the prisoners released since the beginning of the pandemic, approximately a 1,000 were homeless or without housing. After a drop of 5.4 percent in the prisoner population between March and June, numbers started rising again following the reopening of courts. On 31 July, Prison Insider reported that UK’s authorities were working on a plan to implement telemedicine in all the country’s prison system. This would allow prisoners to use a 4G tablet for medical consultations.
- Prison Insider, “Europe : coronavirus, la fièvre des prisons, “ 31 July 2020, https://www.prison-insider.com/articles/europe-coronavirus-la-fievre-des-prisons#angleterre-et-pays-de-galles
- Inside Time Reports, “Prison Population Starts Rising Again,” 13 July 2020, https://insidetime.org/prison-population-starts-rising-again/
- J. Ironmonger, “Yarl’s Wood: Women no longer held as centre repurposed for Channel migrants,” BBC News, 18 august 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-53810521
- Global Detention Project, “Immigration Detention in the United Kingdom,” October 2016, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/europe/united-kingdom
- L. Silkin, “Home Office Confirms COVID-19 Immigration Arrangements Beyond 31 July 2020,” 12 August 2020, https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=e4fc0275-8827-46b8-b276-73602ece0ae9.
- S. Hui, “Migrants Cross English Channel to UK for 10th Day In A Row,” SC Now, 13 August 2020, https://scnow.com/news/world/migrants-cross-english-channel-to-uk-for-10th-day-in-a-row/article_b1fdf98d-0ace-573d-bfa2-c4625bc3e6ee.html
- H. Grant, “‘It’s Just Too Long’: Children In Detention May Face Covid-19 Restrictions Until 2022,” The Guardian, 21 July 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/jul/21/its-just-too-long-children-in-detention-may-face-covid-19-restrictions-until-2022
- Home Office, “Guidance for Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), Residential Short-Term Holding Facilities (RSTHFs) and escorts during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” Version 2.0, 7 July 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/899371/Detention_and_Escorting_Services_-_Guidance_during_Covid-19.pdf
- Gherson, “How Has Coronavirus Affected the Immigration Enforcement System in the UK?” 10 August 2020, https://www.gherson.com/blog/how-has-coronavirus-affected-immigration-enforcement-system-uk
- A Group of Migrants Are Escorted by Border Force Officers Following a Number of Small Boat Incidents in the Channel, Dover, 13 August 2020, (Steve Parsons, “Migrants Cross English Channel to UK for 10th Day in a Row,” SC Now, 13 August 2020, https://scnow.com/news/world/migrants-cross-english-channel-to-uk-for-10th-day-in-a-row/article_b1fdf98d-0ace-573d-bfa2-c4625bc3e6ee.html)
- C. Duncan, “Syrian Refugee Calls for Compassion Towards Migrants in Emotional Plea Projected OPnto White Cliffs of Dover,” The Independent, 22 August 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/syrian-refugee-dover-cliffs-video-migrant-crossings-led-by-donkeys-hassan-akkad-a9682591.html