Coronavirus: Immigration detainees must be released to stop spread of virus, Labour says

Several detainees have already been tested for virus amid warnings over potential spread

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 15 March 2020 20:22 GMT
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Labour has called for the government to release people held in immigration removal centres because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The shadow immigration minister backed an open letter by charities warning of the “risk of an uncontrolled outbreak of Covid-19 in immigration detention”.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy said detainees should be released and monitored using bail conditions and electronic tagging instead.

“We already know prisons of all kinds are a very high-risk area for transmission with people kept in close proximity,” she added.

“The Home Office has suggested that nobody in immigration detention centres has caught the disease yet, but how can they know that given the wider absence of community testing and the asymptomatic nature of the disease? We need urgent clarity on this.”

Ms Ribeiro-Addy said many of the people currently being held will only be detained for a short time and then freed when they prove their right to citizenship, adding: “It’s completely unfair to put them at heightened risk in this way.

“As the government draws up its emergency plans for prisons, they must do the right thing and put human life before their commitment to arbitrary net migration targets.”

Several inmates have died during prison riots linked to coronavirus quarantine measures in Italy, and Britain is among several countries attempting to guard against similar disorder.

Up to 2,000 people are held at any one time in seven immigration removal centres across Britain, which are mostly run by private outsourcing firms.

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A letter signed by 10 migrants’ rights organisations called for the government to act before coronavirus could spread through the population and potentially cause deaths.

At least two detainees have so far been tested for coronavirus at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, near Heathrow Airport.

The men, originally from Iraq and Nigeria, tested negative but said at least seven others had been quarantined and tested.

The men reported that officers moved freely between the quarantined area and other parts of the centre, and that their cellmates were not isolated.

Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, said: “We are gravely concerned that government’s coronavirus plan makes no mention of detention and deportation.

“The government must prepare to release everyone being detained. Mass detention without adequate healthcare is a risk to public health and detention is only lawful if there is a prospect of imminent removal.

“While detainees are being tested for a deadly virus of pandemic proportions, deportations should be suspended.”

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

“We remain committed to removing foreign national offenders or those who violate our immigration rules.”

On Sunday, the government announced 35 people with coronavirus had died in the UK and 1,372 cases had been confirmed.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said elderly people will be asked to self-isolate for up to four months as part of the plan to tackle the virus.

Ministers are also seeking to give police powers to arrest and forcibly quarantine people who are sick with the virus but are not self-isolating, and mass gatherings could be banned from next weekend.

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