PRESS RELEASE: Two tested for Coronavirus in immigration detention: Government must prepare to release all those detained on public health grounds

Saturday 7 March 2020
London – for immediate release

Two tested for Coronavirus in immigration detention: Government must prepare to release all those detained on public health grounds

At least two of Detention Action’s clients held in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) near Heathrow Airport have reported being isolated and tested for Coronavirus.

Both report being taken into isolation on Friday 28 February after presenting with flu-like symptoms, then being tested for Coronavirus on the same day. Both were held in isolation without being given their test results until Tuesday 3 March when they were told their tests were negative.

The two men, who are originally from Iraq and Nigeria but have both been in the UK for several years, were detained last May and January of this year respectively.

The two report that around seven others have also been quarantined and tested for Coronavirus in the last week, including one man who was deported to Brazil on a commercial flight on Sunday 1 March.

The men also report that while they were kept in one part of the detention centre, the officers on duty move freely between the quarantined area and other parts of the centre, and that the people they shared cells with were not quarantined.

The Government’s Coronavirus Action Plan published this week makes no mention of immigration detention centres or deportation procedures.

This is despite the spread of Coronavirus in the UK, and the fact that the Home Office detains people indefinitely, holding them in close proximity to hundreds of others. Public Health England’s Guidance recommends that those arriving from Category 1 countries or areas should self-isolate even if asymptomatic, yet Government detention policy is currently at odds with this Guidance.

The UK’s controversial immigration detention system faces ongoing criticism amid a series of high-profile scandals, including notoriously poor access to acceptable healthcare. This week a long-awaited inquest found that ‘gross failures’ contributed to the 2012 death Prince Fosu, who tragically died of hypothermia, dehydration and malnutrition in his immigration detention centre cell. Last week, Detention Action client, Lionel Shaw, a 33 year old partially blind and partially deaf man, was left in his immigration detention centre cell for four days with a broken ankle.

Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs located next to Heathrow Airport together form the largest immigration detention centre in Europe, with hundreds of people held at any one time for indefinite periods of time. In the last year the Home Office held a total of 24,000 people in immigration detention centres across the UK.

Bella Sankey, Director of Detention Action, said: “We know at least 2 people in detention have been tested for coronavirus and so we are gravely concerned that Government’s Coronavirus plan makes no mention of detention and deportation. It is hard to imagine a more high-risk environment than immigration detention; human warehouses that intern people – including recent arrivals from Category 1 countries – in close proximity for indefinite periods of time before releasing the majority back into the community.

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.”

Sanger, one of the men held in Colnbrook detention centre who has been isolated and tested for Coronavirus, said: “I was really scared and we were never told what was happening. They told me I might have Coronavirus and took me into isolation for five days before they told me my results. I was held in what they call the ‘care suite’ but I didn’t even get my medication for my mental health condition. This is how the Government treats people in immigration detention – like we don’t matter.”


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Notes to editors:

1. Detention Action is a national charity established in 1993 that seeks to defend the rights and improve the welfare of people in immigration detention by combining support for individuals with campaigning for policy change. Detention Action works in Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs near Heathrow Airport in London, Morton Hall IRC in Lincolnshire, and with people held under immigration powers in London prisons. We work with around 1000 individuals held in detention each year.