Asylum seekers and other migrants are being told to report to the Home Office in person again following a suspension of the measures during lockdown, prompting fears that vulnerable people are being placed at risk as coronavirus cases rise across the country.
People who are awaiting a decision on their application to remain in the UK – including modern slavery victims and torture survivors – are required to regularly sign on at their local reporting location.
This requirement was temporarily suspended in March because of the pandemic, but over the last two months the Home Office has been sending texts to people stating that they must start reporting in person again “due to the easing of Covid lockdown measures”.
Campaigners said the decision was placing some vulnerable and disabled people at risk, and that doing so at a time when coronavirus infections were rising suggested that the government was placing “more importance on looking tough on immigration than keeping people safe”.
A Home Office spokesperson said those who had been told they must start reporting again mainly comprised a “small number of vulnerable people for whom reporting is beneficial”, as well as foreign national offenders and recent small-boat arrivals.
However, lawyers said people who had been formally identified as modern slavery victims were among those being asked to report in person, as well as asylum seekers who were not receiving any financial support to enable them to pay to get to the reporting centres.
In one case, an asylum seeker currently placed in a hotel in Epping received notice from the Home Office two weeks ago that he must sign on at a reporting centre in Hounslow – a journey of one hour and 45 minutes on Tube and train.
As the man is being accommodated in a hotel where meals are provided, he is not in receipt of the weekly allowance usually granted to asylum seekers – meaning he had no money to travel to the reporting centre. In the end, a charity provided him with the funds to make the journey.
In another immigrant’s case, Farhad Rony, 32, has had to sign on with the Home Office three times since he was told on 10 August that he must start reporting in person again – requiring him to take a 45-minute train ride into central London each time.
The Bangladeshi national, who has lived in the UK for more than 16 years but had immigration status withdrawn in 2015 after he was accused of cheating in an English test – an allegation he vehemently denies along with thousands of others who were caught up in the Toeic scandal – said he felt that he was being put at risk.
“The government is asking people to stay at home. There is a rule of six. They’re trying to protect the country to save people’s lives. Yet I am being asked to go there,” he said.
“They stopped it for a couple of months and made phone calls to me instead. I haven’t gone anywhere because of that. I don’t understand why it is necessary to start again. Everybody says if you don’t have to go out, you shouldn’t go out, but it’s a different situation for us.
“The place I go to report is next to one of the major hospitals and one of the major stations in London. I’m having to go through very busy places. It is very stressful going to sign on, on top of this pandemic. It’s another thing to worry about, especially when there are fears of a second wave.”
Victoria Marks, director of the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), which provides legal advice to trafficking survivors, said a number of the charity’s clients had been told they must go back to signing on with the Home Office in person, and that imposing immigration reporting at this time was “pointless and dangerous”.
She continued: “Forcing victims to travel long distances unaccompanied, in fear that they will be detained, worsens their already fragile mental health, places them at increased risk of harm and creates significant mistrust in the system.
“Potential survivors have taken an important step in coming forward to be identified by the Home Office. They should be provided with the time and space to recover in safety. If the government are serious about tackling slavery, they should not treat survivors like criminals.”
Jennifer Blair, co-head of legal protection at the Helen Bamber Foundation, said it was "not appropriate” to make the “most frail and vulnerable” travel long distances to reporting centres during a public health crisis.
She said the charity had recorded a downturn in the mental health and wellbeing of the survivors of torture and human trafficking during the pandemic, and that the “anxiety and burden” caused by reporting was “unnecessarily” adding to that.
“We remain concerned that reporting conditions are applied in a blanket way to many people who pose no risk to the public or of absconding, placing some very vulnerable and disabled people at risk," Ms Blair added.
Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said: “The last few months have given people a welcome respite from the terror of being detained and deported – and that the Home Office are now restarting this, despite rising Covid infections, suggests that looking tough on immigration is more important to them than keeping people safe.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “In accordance with the latest government guidance on coronavirus, we safely reopened our reporting centres in July and August 2020 following the temporary suspension due to the pandemic.
“Those currently reporting mainly include a small number of vulnerable people for whom reporting is beneficial, as well as foreign national offenders and recent small boat arrivals.
“Safety is of the upmost importance and we continue to monitor the impact of any potential Covid restrictions on physical reporting.”
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