Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Immigration Detention and COVID-19: Why releasing those in detention keeps us all safer



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Post by Executive Board, Border Criminologies

As we await the outcome of today’s High Court Case arguing for urgent release of people held in detention, especially those with underlying conditions, Border Criminologies reiterates our call to prioritise the health and wellbeing and rights of migrant groups, including those in detention.  It is important that the government acts now, before health services fall under increased pressure.

Evidence from multiple sources around the world, including, in the UK, shows that, as a whole, those in detention are a vulnerable population and that healthcare provision within detention centres is not as good as it is outside.  In the UK specifically,  initial results from the detainee Measure of the Quality of Life in Detention (MQLD) questionnaire, which was distributed, consecutively, across all seven Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in operation in the UK, between July 4 and September 20, 2019 to women and in men confined within them found high levels of concern among the detained population about their health well before the virus. This same survey identified high levels of distress across all IRCs, even those which scored better on some of the service provision parameters than others.

Put simply, even though we hope that staff are doing their best in these difficult times, IRCs are not equipped to manage a public health crisis.  As Bella Sankey from Detention Action, and others have observed, the health risk to the public of the virus in these institutions is considerable, as IRCs (like all custodial institutions) are part of society.  Most obviously staff, but also others (including detainees) circulate back and forth to the community.

However the danger is not just one of contagion, but also of law and of morality.  Detention is not an end in itself. It is a legal tool that is justified primarily by its role in enforcing border control. With the borders closed and deportations thus all but impossible, the legal justification for detention is unclear.  Morally, holding people whose mental health and wellbeing is already fragile, under further conditions of uncertainty, for no clearly defined legal purpose, seems obviously wrong.

It may be that there are people in detention who would have nowhere else to go; for them, an IRC maybe safer than the streets, although it would be better to find them alternative housing options in hostels. But, again, according to the recent detainee survey, the majority of those in detention reported family and friends in the UK, who, presumably, could offer housing and support.

The government has an opportunity here, to keep workers, and those in detention safe and by so doing, in keeping society safer too.  The alternative, locking people in their rooms with nothing to do, is unnecessary and indefensible; and an approach which under the current uncertain time frame, is likely to be impossible to maintain.   

Over the next weeks and months, as we all grapple with this medical crisis, it will be important to maintain our focus on sites of detention. Our colleagues at the Global Detention Project are currently seeking international data about differential state responses. As ever, crises offer an opportunity to reassess and do things differently. Let’s hope our governments respond to those without their citizenship as they would wish others to deal with their own nationals. Releasing people from immigration detention and allowing them to access medical services would constitute a clear statement of our shared endeavour in beating this crisis.

Signed, Executive Board of Border Criminologies

Dr. Ana Aliverti; Prof. Mary Bosworth, Dr. Victoria Canning, Dr. Andriani Fili, Prof. Katja Franko, Dr Peter Mancina, Dr. Rimple Mehta, Dr. Sanja Milivojevic, Dr. Alpa Parmar, Dr Gabriella Sanchez, Prof. Juliet Stumpf and Prof. Maartje van der Woude



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