Migrants and asylum seekers are being  forced to travel long journeys to attend Home Office appointments as cases of COVID-19 soar. Outbreaks have been confirmed at a third immigration removal centre amid accusations of Home Office’s “callousness” for blaming asylum seekers for the spread of coronavirus. Legal Action has been launched against plans to house asylum seekers in “prison style” pre-fab camp in Yarl’s Wood and there has been increased scrutiny of the conditions at third military accommodation site, RAF Coltishall.

Vulnerable asylum seekers are being forced to travel long distances as COVID-19 cases soar, to attend Home Office buildings for interviews, regardless of the fact that they are held via video link and often with the interviewer sitting at home. The Independent reported one such case of a vulnerable woman having to make a two-hour trip on public transport from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch urged the Home Office to rethink its approach, stating: “These journeys put public health at unnecessary risk when alternatives are available.” Immigration lawyer, Christopher Desira blamed the Home Office’s “inherent suspicion” that asylum applicants will receive help or prompting during their interviews, suggesting that the Home Office could give asylum seekers the option of joining the call from their government accommodation or from their solicitor’s office. Additionally, appointments to submit biometric data have been difficult to find locally, resulting in UK visa applicants travelling long distances to submit their fingerprints despite many applicants having already enrolled their prints in previous applications. The Home Office has been accused of prioritising “distrust of migrants over public health.”

A number of COVID-19 outbreaks have been confirmed in the Harmondsworth immigration removal centre (IRC), near Heathrow. Reportedly, at least two detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 along with a number of staff members. This latest confirmed outbreak in a detention centre comes after 73 organisations sent a letter to the Home Secretary calling for the release of all detainees from immigration removal centres to prevent a “full scale crisis”. Signatories include Amnesty International, Liberty and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, law firms and barristers chambers along with the detention charities Bail for Immigration Detainees, (BID) Detention Action and Medical Justice. The letter states: “It is now clearer than it has ever been that the continued use of immigration detention cannot be consistent with public health and undermines national efforts to bring coronavirus under control”.

This comes as residents have been banned from leaving the camp in Napier Barracks in Kent where a number of individuals have tested positive for the virus.  The former army base is thought to accommodate about 400 people, sleeping in 28 person dormitories with only sheets hanging between their beds. Residents received a letter on Saturday from the private firm managing the facility, Clearsprings, telling them that they would not be allowed to leave the premises, and that if they did, they could face arrest. The Home Office has pinned the blame for the spread of the coronavirus on asylum seekers and has been accused of “callousness” and “inhumanity” in their conduct. Immigration lawyer, Colin Yeo said: “I’m sorry to say this, but this government and these ministers are increasingly treating asylum seekers as if they were not full human beings.”

Legal action has been launched against the plans to house nearly 200 asylum seekers in “prison style” camp at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordhsire. The Home Office has invoked emergency powers under town and country planning legislation to construct prefab-style accommodation without seeking permission through traditional channels. Rosie Newbigging, a former Labour parliamentary candidate has crowdfunded more than £16,000 for the lawuit and has initiated the first step in judicial review proceedings. With development of the site already underway, Newbigging said “there has been no consultation, none of the usual scrutiny by responsible agencies, and in fact there has not even been publication of the plans in the public domain.” More than 50 organisations, including Stand Up to Racism, Refugee Council, Freedom From Torture, Unite and Doctors of the World have signed a petition to stop the plans.

Asylum seekers’ accommodation conditions have come under further scrutiny at RAF Coltishall in Norfolk, the third former military site being used as temporary housing. It has emerged that similar concerns to those surrounding Napier Barracks and Penally Barracks have arisen at RAF Coltishall such as a lack of information, food quality, access to medical care including dentistry, as well as suicide attempts and hunger strikes.

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 Photo: (CC) Jeff Djevdet, February 2016

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.