Asylum applications dropped in 2020 by 18 per cent, whilst the number of people awaiting a decision reached a new high. More than 50 per cent of the asylum seekers at the Napier Barracks were COVID positive, asylum seekers housed in hotels have been threatened and exposed to sexual harassment, the city council is conducting an urgent inspection of ‘squalid’ conditions in asylum seeker housing in Derby. The Court of Appeal rules Home Office fees to register a child as British citizen unlawful. Lack of access to legal aid for immigration detainees is unlawful, states High Court ruling. 190 raids on care homes has resulted in the deportation of 37 care workers.

According to statistics released by the UK government the number of asylum applications in 2020 dropped 18 per cent to 29,456 compared to 35,737 in 2019, and the number of people granted protection dropped 52 per cent to 9,381 compared with 19,408. However, in the same period the number of individuals in the asylum support system increased by 28 per cent from 50,091 to 64,041, this partly due to the COVID pandemic further slowing the asylum decision process already beset with delays. According to ECRE member the Refugee Council: “the number of people waiting for an initial decision on their asylum claim continued to rise, reaching a record high of 64,895. Of these, 46,796 (72%) have been waiting for more than 6 months, up from 29,233 the previous year. Director of advocacy for the organisation, Lisa Doyle, states: “Whilst the pressure on the asylum support system is understandable, many people have been forced to live in sub-standard accommodation, isolated from communities and specialist services who can provide much needed help”.

197 out of 380 asylum seekers housed in former military site, Napier barracks near Folkestone, Kent have tested positive for COVID-19 in January and February of this year alone. Chair of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper stated in response to the numbers: “On what planet did you think in the middle of a Covid crisis it was safe or sensible to put over 20 people in a dorm so they are sleeping together in the same room with the same air overnight each night?” Public Health England (PHE) advised the Home Office in September 2020 that dormitories were not suitable accommodation during a pandemic, an advice that according to Judge Martin Chamberlain of the High Court: “was apparently not followed”. A full judicial review of the use of the sites is expected in April. At least nine people have died last year in hotels contracted by the Home Office to house thousands of asylum seekers, with others forced to sleep rough following evictions. Further, Chair of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper urges the Home Office to investigate the private contractors after allegations of sexual harassment, threats and intimidation, and exposure to COVID-19 of asylum seekers, and the employment of untrained staff paid significantly below the minimum wage. The high court has given the Home Office until 4pm on Friday to file a response to judicial review proceedings launched by an asylum seeker over “false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty in breach of the European convention on human rights”. The base of the claim is a 23-hour a day curfew imposed by a hotel contracted by the Home Office. According to solicitors from Matthew Gold, who are bringing the legal challenge, at least 11 hotels are imposing this type of restriction. In a letter sent to NGOs, the Home Office states it plans to “accelerate” the transfer of asylum seekers out of hotels and into long-term housing. While welcoming the potential initiative, NGOs underline that future accommodation must be “humane and habitable” and that asylum seekers must be given adequate notice before they are moved. Based on photos revealing “part of the kitchen ceiling missing, rubble in the base of a shower, cracked and missing tiles, rusted pipes and plaster missing from walls where wallpaper has peeled off” and a garden “strewn with litter and discarded furniture”, the Derby city council is conducting an urgent investigation into a house used to accommodate asylum seekers by a company contracted by the Home Office. Around 64,000 people are currently in Home Office accommodation. The majority are in shared housing, and about 10,000 are in hotel accommodation.

The £1,000 fee charged by the Home Office for a child to register as a British citizen is unlawful, the Court of Appeal has upheld in a landmark case. The ruling followed an appeal by the Home Office of a High Court ruling from December 2019, and found failure by responsible ministers to assess and consider the impact of this fee on children and their rights noting that for some families it is:“difficult to see how the fee could be afforded at all”.

The High Court has ruled that lack of access to legal aid for immigration detainees held in prisons and often facing deportation is unlawful. Detainees in immigration removal centres (RIC) can access free legal advice in 30-minute appointments with a lawyer under the Detention Duty Advice Scheme, however no equivalent arrangements are in place for the more than 500 (end of 2020) immigration detainees in prisons, some transferred from RICs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The court held that to be unjustifiable discriminatory  treatment in breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice stated: “We have started a review of legal aid provision for immigration detainees, and will carefully consider the High Court’s judgment.” A new network of immigration detention units for women is being quietly planned by the Home Office. The initiative stands in contrast to former immigration minister Caroline Nokes’ promises to reform the system and reduce the use of detention for vulnerable women and find alternatives. Director of the charity Women for Refugee Women, Alphonsine Kabagabo, defined the initiative as a “betrayal of previous commitments made by ministers”.

44,000 “intelligence-led” Home Office immigration enforcement raids on people’s homes under the so-called hostile environment policy between 2015 and 2019 have resulted in just a little more than 7,500 deportations. 190 raids carried out on care homes resulted in 37 care workers being deported from the UK. Campaigns officer at Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said: “These figures show just how out of control the hostile environment has become. Carers are being arrested in the middle of their shifts, often as they look after elderly and vulnerable people – it is difficult to see who could possibly benefit from that. Ours is a government relentlessly pursuing an anti-immigration agenda, regardless of the harm it causes – in this case, to some of the very same carers whose hard work and sacrifice has been rightly applauded throughout this pandemic”.

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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.