‘Everyone in here is panicking’: Immigration detainees say they feel unprotected from coronavirus

Home Office facing legal challenge over claims it is unlawfully maintaining detention of unwell people at risk from Covid-19

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 18 March 2020 12:58 GMT
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Detainees in UK immigration centres say they feel unable to protect themselves from contracting coronavirus due to poor hygiene, inadequate healthcare and a lack of information on what precautions are being taken in the facilities.

The Home Office is facing a legal challenge over claims it is unlawfully maintaining the detention of people who have underlying health issues – making them more susceptible to the virus – and people for whom there is no realistic prospect of deportation due to widespread travel bans.

A pre-action letter to the department from lawyers, seen by The Independent, warns unless steps are taken to release a “significant” number of people for whom there is no longer a legal basis to detain, they will proceed to take the case to court.

A number of detainees have been tested for coronavirus, all of whom are believed to have tested negative. They said that they were kept in one part of the detention centre, the officers on duty moved freely between the quarantined area and other parts of the centre, and the people they shared cells with were not quarantined.

One of the claimants in the legal case, a 60-year-old Russian man who has been detained since last June and is currently in Morton Hall, near Lincoln, suffers from high blood pressure and is concerned that because of his health conditions, he is at increased risk from Covid-19.

The man said no healthcare professionals had spoken to him about the risk the virus could pose to him. He said the only information he had received about it was from the television in the centre and he was not aware of any increased provision of hand sanitiser or encouragement to wash hands regularly and maintain hygiene standards.

A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent handwashing facilities were available in all immigration removal centres and said they were working closely with suppliers to ensure adequate supply of soap and cleaning materials.

They said all removal centres had dedicated health facilities managed by the NHS or appropriate providers, that all detainees received a medical screening by a nurse within two hours, and that measures such as protective isolation would be considered to minimise the risk of the virus spreading to vulnerable groups.

Another detainee, Reshawn Davis, who has been in Colnbrook removal centre in Harmondsworth, west London, for nearly six weeks, told The Independent he felt not enough had been done to protect people – including those who are older and have underlying conditions – from contracting the disease.

The 30-year-old was further angered by the fact he remains in detention despite the fact Jamaica – the country the Home Office wishes to remove him to – has imposed a travel ban on people from the UK.

“It is really frustrating. I wrote to the Home Office yesterday to ask why I can’t be released to see my family because my flight isn’t imminent, there’s no way it can be,” he said.

According to Mr Davis, the centre had stopped admitting new people, but has now started again, without testing them before entry. He said last month five people were put into self-isolation, whom he hadn’t seen since.

“A lot of people are worried. An officer said to me last week: ‘If you knew what I know, you would wear a mask constantly’. A lot of them have gloves on. If they know someone new is coming in, they all have their masks. This is not right. Why are they protected and we are not?” he said.

“They don’t have masks for us. I asked about the hand sanitiser and there is none. Apparently they had some and they’ve all gone and haven’t been replaced.

“I’ve bought myself three bars of soap and wash my hands every time I go in or out of my cell. But you still have people walk around spitting on the floor, coughing, sneezing everywhere. Some of them don’t care.

“We’re like tunas in a can. People get regular visits here and the visitors don’t get hand sanitiser. If one person comes in with it, everyone is going to get it. Every single person, including the older men.”

Mr Davis said this had led to some detainees fearful of contracting the virus to stop seeing their relatives: “One man in his fifties has had to sacrifice his family come to visit because he doesn’t want to risk his children or partner passing it onto him. It’s difficult for him because he’s a family-oriented person.”

Another detainee, a 38-year-old Albanian man who has been in Harmondsworth removal centre for nearly four weeks, said he recently had flu symptoms, but had to wait for two weeks before he could see a health professional.

“I got a cold. Every morning I made a requests to see a nurse or doctor. I had fever and I was sneezing a lot, my nose and eyes were all red. I couldn’t sleep all night. And they said I had to wait on the list. I waited for two weeks. What if I had coronavirus?” he said.

“They don’t give information. Everyone here is in panic. There are some very old people here and a lot of people are smokers, but no one seems to care about what would happen to them.”

The man, who did not want to be named, said he was also concerned about the lack of hygiene facilities, including non-functioning plumbing, saying: “Even the sink is blocked. You cannot wash your hands. You have to buy your own soap.”

He added: “Even the guards are panicked, but they can’t show it because they’re afraid they will lose their jobs. One of them told me I should raise my voice, because there was nothing more he could do about it.”

It comes following reports that the Spanish government has decided to release people from immigration detention due to the inability to return them as a result of travel bans across the globe. Eight detainees have so far been released from removal centres in the country and the entire removal centre population is expected to be released in the coming days, according to Spanish newspaper Levante.

Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, which is pushing the legal case for immigration detainees to be released in the UK, said: “Covid-19 poses a grave threat to life in detention, where many people have underlying health conditions and where hundreds are warehoused in unsanitary conditions.

“Now that borders are shutting and flights are being suspended there is no prospect of people being removed from the UK and so no justification for detention anyway. The government should act now but if they don’t we will see them in court.”

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Toufique Hossain, director of public law at Duncan Lewis Solicitor’s, who is representing Detention Action in the legal challenge, said: “The government cannot mete out compassion selectively if it is to be considered humane. No one should be left behind.

“This virus does not discriminate as to who it infects and takes from loved ones, and neither should the state. There are many in detention who are vulnerable and where removal is no longer imminent.

“We hope a decision on suspending further detentions, and expediting the release of such people at risk of serious illness and death, is made soon by the home secretary without the need for litigation.”

Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice, which supports medically vulnerable people in immigration detention, said the Home Office had ”ignored” the charity’s request to know what measures it was taking to address the outbreak

She said she was “extremely concerned” for its vulnerable clients and described it as “unconscionable” that the Home Office was continuing to hold them in detention “for its own administrative convenience”.

“Immigration detention can exacerbate existing medical conditions and our volunteer doctors see concerning levels of medical mistreatment in immigration removal centres,” she added.

“This is particularly germane as immigration detention is not part of any criminal sentence; immigration detainees are held purely for the administrative convenience of the Home Office who have the power to release all detainees immediately to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 inside detention.”

The Home Office denied all the claims. A spokesperson said: “The health of people in these centres is of the utmost importance. We have robust contingency plans and are following all Public Health England guidance.”

Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Angela Perfect, COVID-19 Incident Gold Commander in UK Border Force, said the legality point was something the force would “take due accord” of.

She added: “The Home Secretary is looking at how we might prioritise and what decisions might follow about our capabilities. There is no plan to have a wholesale systematic release from our removal centres.”

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