The UK is one of many countries that has implemented lockdown measures to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. These measures include strict travel restrictions, and in over 50 countries around the world, they go as far as a complete aerial lockdown.
Immigration detention is only lawful if there is a prospect of imminent removal. With borders closing worldwide and flights suspended, that prospect is non-existent. That is why Detention Action, an NGO which fights for immigration detainees’ rights in the UK, issued judicial review proceedings on 18 March 2020. The proceedings challenged the lawfulness of continued detention, in particular of persons with medical conditions placing them at increased risk from COVID-19.
In response, the Home Office has committed to reviewing all detainees’ case files to release as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, unless they pose a grave danger to the public. When the government began their case-by-case review, one case of COVID-19 had already been confirmed in Yarl’s Wood IRC, two cases had been reported in Brook House, and symptoms were recorded in most other removal centres.
Under the current circumstances, detention centres are at risk of becoming hotbeds of coronavirus spreading, as both detainees and staff are constantly in close contact with each other and amongst themselves. In efforts to prevent the virus from spreading within the centres, some facilities have isolated detainees and barred them from leaving their rooms, effectively turning their bedroom into a prison cell.
Nevertheless, Detention Action lost their case in the High Court, and the Home Office still refuses to systematically release all individuals currently held in detention, putting all individuals involved in this system at continued risk of ill health.
Government action, however, shows awareness that keeping detainees locked up could come back to bite them. Since Detention Action launched their claim, the Home Office released over 350 people held under immigration powers. The courts are also playing their part, as a solicitor from Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD), a London-based charity, reported that ever since the travel restrictions and lockdown were enforced, 13 of his clients were granted bail and no applications were refused.
This is good news, but it is not enough. People currently held under immigration powers still need to go through the process of applying for bail if they are to be released, a process which has been made significantly more complicated by the pandemic itself.
On 20 March 2020, visits to immigration detention centres were indefinitely suspended as part of measures to contain the virus. This does not only have devastating implications for detainees on a personal level, as they can no longer see their loved ones. It also means that lawyers can no longer visit their clients in immigration removal centres.
Meanwhile, the Tribunal has started holding hearings remotely, but it seems that the courts do not lean itself to the online sphere easily, and their infrastructure is not ready to make the transition. This failure of court proceedings weakens detainees’ access to justice even further, as bail hearings are frustrated by the practicalities of online hearings.
This situation is not sustainable. After calls from Strasbourg and the Council of Europe to release immigration detainees in the face of this crisis, it is time to release everyone currently held under immigration powers, close detention centres and ensure that every individual receives the necessary care and support they need and deserve during these unprecedented times.
A year has gone by since the Stansted 15 were convicted of terrorism offences for blocking the take-off of an immigration removal charter flight at Stansted airport. Where are they now, what has happened since, and how has the law changed?
On 28 March 2017, a group of nine men and six women cut a hole in the perimeter fence of Stansted Airport, and used lock-on devices to secure themselves around a Titan Airways Boeing 767 chartered by the Home Office to remove 60 undocumented immigrants to Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.
Initially, the Stansted 15 were charged with aggravated trespass, but four months later these charges were upped to “endangering safety at aerodromes”, a serious terrorism-related charge which can lead to a life sentence. As a consequence, on 10 December 2018, the 15 were convicted under this rarely used anti-terrorism legislation and faced a potential sentence of life in prison.
The verdict was criticized by many human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, as it was seen as a blow to non-violent human rights activism. It was said that by charging peaceful public dissenters with such heavy crimes, the prosecution effectively threatened the future of peaceful protests as well as the legitimacy of public dissent in the UK.
The 15 were protesting Theresa May’s hostile environment policy, introduced in 2013. The idea behind that policy is that by making life for undocumented individuals difficult in the UK, they will leave the country or report to the relevant authorities, allowing the Home Office to curb and control immigration more effectively. Amongst other things, the hostile environment policy requires immigration checks to be carried out before anyone can open a new bank account, be issued with a driving licence, rent a flat, or access routine health treatment. The judgment against the 15 seemed to reflect the government’s hostile approach to immigration generally
One of the people who had a seat booked on the mass deportation flight which the Stansted 15 managed to stop, said:
“Migration and deportation targets suck humanity from a system whose currency is the lives of people who happen to be born outside the UK. Such is the determination to look “tough” on the issue that people are rounded up in the night and put on to brutal, secretive and barely legal charter flights. Most take off away from the public eye – 60 human beings shackled and violently restrained on each flight, with barely a thought about the life they are dragged away from, nor the one they face upon arrival.”
After months in detention and years facing the hostile environment, he won his appeal, which he was only able to attend thanks to his flight being cancelled. He has now regularised his status in the UK, enabling him to live with his partner and three young children.
The Stansted 15 were sentenced in February 2019. The sentencing judge accepted they were motivated by “genuine reasons,” and as a consequence, all 15 avoided immediate prison sentences, with three set to be given suspended sentences and 12 set to be given community service. A year after their conviction, it is worth reflecting upon the state of the laws they were protesting against, and the cause for which they were willing to take such serious risks.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have vouched to end the hostile environment, stating that making landlords and banks perform immigration checks instead of investing in the immigration system is an inhumane and ineffective way of policing migration. Dianne Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, has argued that mass deportation on chartered planes is a brutal way of responding to the current immigration panic, as it allows people to be bundled out of the country when they have not yet exhausted all their avenues of appeal and without due process. This was no different on the aircraft which the Stansted 15 managed to stop: today, at least two of the 60 passengers who were to be forcibly deported that day live legally in the UK. At least nine other claims remain outstanding.
The Stansted 15 stated that although they consider saving these 11 people’s lives a partial victory, there is still a long way to go. In the meantime, they have appealed their conviction, and are waiting for it to be listed in the coming months, as they refuse to accept their guilty verdict. One of 15, Benjamin Stoke, states,
“We were charged with endangering life, but we took the actions at Stansted to try to protect life.”