The end of immigration detention?

Could we be seeing the end of immigration detention? Will the UK follow other countries and close its detention centres in response to Covid-19? Lois JC argues that we must campaign now to make that happen – and to ensure that they never reopen.

Banner at Notting Hill Carnival, 2015. Photo: Steve Eason

Covid-19 raises two key issues for the continuing detention of migrants in detention centres. Firstly, the risk that Covid-19 will spread quickly through immigration detention centres is incredibly high. Men and women live in very close quarters, without access to proper healthcare or the ability to socially distance. It’s hard to know how many cases of Covid-19 there are in detention; although there have been confirmed cases in Yarl’s Wood, Morton Hall, and suspected cases in Harmondsworth, the Home Office has not been publishing figures and have confirmed that they are not mass testing as not enough equipment is available. It is clear that there is an urgent and dire threat to the lives of detained migrants.

Secondly, flights to other countries are very limited and some countries have formally closed their borders or ports of entry. This makes the prospect of the Home Office being able to deport or remove anyone from Britain in the short to medium term extremely difficult (although, incredibly, a small number of flights have still gone ahead). This has serious implications for the legality of continuing detention. The Home Office is supposed to abide by certain principles of detention for it to be considered lawful. One principle is that if a person cannot be removed or deported within a reasonable period, then that person should not be detained. Whether or not any migrant can be lawfully detained is perhaps the first significant area of law the courts are being asked to consider since the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis.

In the current political climate, immigration detention is unlikely to end through the lobbying of parliamentary and legal institutions alone but the pandemic has certainly increased pressure on the Home Office. As a result, hundreds of people have been released from immigration detention. The situation is changing quickly, but it is currently understood that the population of detention centres has been reduced by up to 80% since July 2019. However, 368 people are still detained, with reports that the Home Office has brought new people into detention centres since the outbreak of the pandemic.

These contradictions need to be exploited by those on the left to bring an end to immigration detention for good.  Pressure has come from various organisations to release detainees. Detention Action launched a legal challenge, demanding the release of hundreds of detainees particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and those who cannot immediately be deported. Ten detainee rights organisations have written to the Home Office, demanding the end of detention. My union, United Voices of the World (UVW), representing workers across the legal sector has demanded that detention centres are immediately closed, calling on PCS and Community (the main unions for detention centre staff) to join the call to shut down detention centres. In an unprecedented turn of events, the immediate interests of Home Office staff and detained migrants have temporarily aligned. Home Office staff have died due to their employer’s failures to provide PPE. It’s in their interest to shut detention centres.

The Home Office is deeply committed to maintaining a system of immigration detention. However, we are now faced with a health crisis on a scale not seen in our lifetime, and this is rendering detention difficult to administer. At the moment, it is entirely conceivable that detention centres in Britain could be temporarily emptied as a result of this crisis, as they have been in Spain. If so, sustained pressure would be required to prevent detention centres from being reopened after the crisis and to end immigration detention for good. This will mean resistance from unions, solidarity from the left and, ultimately, winning the argument with the wider working class that it is the Conservative party who are putting lives at risk, and not migrants.

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