Detainees at Brook House removal centre, near Gatwick Airport, received written notice on Wednesday evening that the facility had been deemed an “outbreak centre of Covid-19”, and that they would not be allowed to leave their wing.
A Home Office spokesperson confirmed that they were “aware of a number of cases of coronavirus” in the facility.
At least 20 asylum seekers who had been due to be removed from the country on charter flights this week were informed that their deportations had been cancelled.
Three charter flights had been scheduled to EU countries for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week. The Home Office said one person who had been in Brook House was deported this week.
Lawyers and charities accused the Home Office of prioritising immigration control over public health, saying that ministers have been warned about the risks of detaining people in removal centres since March.
They said that despite the warnings, the Home Office had continued to “rush” to remove as many asylum seekers as possible before 31 December, when the Dublin regulations – under which they can be deported back to EU countries – will cease to exist.
Medical professionals working with detainees meanwhile warned that there were detainees with Covid co-morbidities who would be at risk of “severe illness” if infected with the virus.
Harjot Singh, solicitor at Twinwood Law Practice, who has a client in Brook House, said he believed that detaining people in removal centres during a pandemic constituted a breach of the detainees’ human rights.
He said: “How can social distancing be maintained? It seems there’s a conflict between health and need to maintain immigration control. We know we need to have a policy for immigration control, but is now the time for people to be detained like this?”
The notice distributed to detainees in Brook House on Wednesday stated that there would be no rule 35 appointments – which assess whether detainees are too vulnerable to be in detention – nor any visits or scheduled appointments in the wings.
It also stated that detainees would be encouraged to stay in their rooms and to eat their meals there to “minimise the risk”.
Errol Wright, 48, who had been due to board a charter flight to Jamaica last week but had his removal cancelled following legal intervention, told The Independent he had been due to attend a bail hearing on Thursday, but was now having to attend via phone call.
The Jamaican national, who has been in the UK for 22 years, said: “I need to be released and go to my family. In a pandemic like this it wasn’t right to bring us here. It’s a recipe for disaster. The government says we’re not meant to mix indoors, and yet they have around 60 people on a wing.
“We were only given masks in the last three days. There’s no hand sanitiser provided on my wing. We were going to the canteen to eat. It was unsafe; not everyone was wearing a mask. There’s no way they should keep us like this.”
Another detainee, who didn’t want to be named, said he and other detainees were being kept in the dark over the number of positive Covid tests, and deprived of access to their rights because of the measures.
The 34-year-old, who had also been due to be on the charter flight to Jamaica, said: “It’s ridiculous. They’re applying these restrictions but not telling us anything. And if you’ve got information from lawyers that means you can be released, it’s impossible now.
“We’re worried for our safety because you don’t know who’s got it. But it’s impossible to apply social distancing, with staff going back and forth from outside. We’re suffering additional punishment by being kept here.”
Last week, a man who was deported from the UK on a controversial flight to Jamaica reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus on his arrival in Jamaica.
Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice, which supports detainees in Brook House, told The Independent that the charity had never before seen such high numbers of “extremely vulnerable” detainees being rushed so quickly through the process, and warned that the current need and ongoing risks in removal centres were “unprecedented”.
“We fear this could be calamity starting to unfold – one which was entirely avoidable and which we warned of in March,” she said.
“The rush to detain and remove migrants who arrived on small boats across the Channel by 31 December may have exacerbated an already dire situation.
“Clearly, the Home Office’s measures up to now regarding Covid-19 have not worked – they now urgently need to do the right thing and release detainees to safe accommodation where they can isolate and access needed healthcare.”
Celia Clarke, dircetor of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said: "The Home Office has repeatedly assured everyone that they are doing everything possible to protect those in detention from Covid-19. Today’s confirmed outbreak demonstrates the opposite.
“We have consistently warned about the dangers of locking people up under these circumstances but the Home Office has chosen to ignore these warnings. It is abundantly clear that this reckless approach to detention and deportation has to stop before more people’s lives are put at risk.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The welfare of those detained in our care is of the utmost importance and we are working closely with our providers and Public Health England to stop the spread of the virus.
“This includes enhanced cleaning regimens across immigration centres and making sure anyone who may have been exposed self-isolates.”
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