Sunday, 19 April 2020


Akil is one of more than 400 immigration centre detainees to be released as part of the United Kingdom government's plans to contain the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as of last week, 153 staff and prisoners had tested positive for coronavirus and 12 had died. Temporarily releasing detainees is seen as a way to prevent a further rise in the number of cases under the care of the state.

But charities are concerned that the Home Office has not fulfilled its obligation to accommodate all those released. They say without the necessary checks, many may become destitute upon release, or return to the crimes they were convicted of before incarceration.

"Releasing people to homelessness and destitution is wrong and unlawful," says Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action. "The Home Office has had months to consider its strategy. It was completely foreseeable that removals would not be possible and that people needed to be safely housed instead."

Emma Ginn, director of charity Medical Justice, agrees: "It is crucial the Home Office provides any detainee who is released with accommodation and support, so that they can comply with the requirements for social distancing and self-isolation."

The UK government has said it will review each individual's circumstances on a "case-by-case basis". Charities argue that, where reviews have been conducted, many detainees have not been informed of the outcome. They say some, like Akil, are being released by the tribunal following bail applications, or as a result of other legal action brought by lawyers, typically with medical evidence of vulnerability to contracting COVID-19.

Sidahmed, another detainee granted bail in late March, says the release process has been confused and arbitrary.

"I don't know why I was released and other people weren't," he says. "It's difficult to get bail for high-risk people usually, but maybe, because I know how the immigration services work I was allowed out."

He says communication with the Home Office during the release process and since he was freed has been limited. He is expected to return to London on July 1, but has had no information about what is required of him until then.

"All they said was 'If you change your address, you have to let us know'. That was it. No conversation or discussion about anything. I'll just have to wait to hear from them."

I didn't really know where to go. No one asked me if I had anywhere to stay … I just got my stuff and walked out.


Both Akil and Sidahmed believe their liberty has been granted in part to protect the government's reputation at a time of national crisis.

"The only reason they released me is because of this virus," says Akil. "It doesn't feel like I'm free for the right reasons. It's all just a way to make the Home Office look good."

Sidahmed adds: "It's just because it looks bad when people die, that's why they're letting us all free ... That's not normal for immigration services - I know them. They have no mercy, they let people suffer."

A spokesman for the UK Home Office told Al Jazeera: "The overwhelming majority of those detained are foreign national offenders, and we make no apology for trying to remove serious, violent and persistent criminals.

"Immigration Enforcement is responding to the unique circumstances of the coronavirus outbreak and following the latest guidance from Public Health England. The High Court recently ruled that the Home Office's approach to detention and the outbreak was sensible."

Detention is used only when absolutely necessary, with 95 percent of those liable to be detained already managed in the community, the Home Office further maintained, adding that all immigration removal centres have dedicated health facilities run by doctors and nurses which are managed by the National Health Service or appropriate providers.

But for those who remain in detention facilities, the lack of information is compounded by seeing other prisoners released.

Ebo, a detainee held at Harmondsworth immigration facility in southern England, has been assured of bail but has yet to secure a date for his hearing. He says the lack of information regarding the review process and the likelihood of coronavirus spreading has led to a rapid deterioration of his mental health:

"I'm very confused, stressed out and scared. Sometimes I feel so low I want to go to the office and smash everything up, but I know that would be a bad thing to do. I don't know what's going on … it gets to me."


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