[COR0116]

 

 

Written evidence submitted by Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID) (COR0116)

 

About AVID and this submission:

 

AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees, is the national membership network of voluntary organisations providing support to people in immigration detention. A registered charity, we have 13 members providing support in every single immigration removal centre, residential short term holding facility, and some prisons. With around 550 active volunteers, our network supports around 2,000 people every year. Our network is in day to day contact with people held under immigration act powers and we are continuing this support throughout the current pandemic.

 

Our evidence is based on this remit and experience, and our submission focuses on the particular failings of the Home Office – and its contractors - in preparing for and responding to the coronavirus pandemic in relation to people in detention. We are addressing the following in relation to the terms of reference of this inquiry:

 

  1. How the Home Office and its major contractors are working together to ensure the safe and effective operation of contracted services is maintained, particularly where these services affect vulnerable people.
  2. The effectiveness of Home Office communications to its partners, responders and the wider public about its preparations.

 

AVID members are: Asylum Welcome, Detention Action, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, Jesuit Refugee Service UK, Larne House Visitors Group, Lewes Prison Visitors Group, Manchester Immigration Detainee Support Team (MIDST), Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group, Rene Cassin Jewish Visitors Group, Scottish Detainee Visitors Group, SOAS Detainee Support Group, Sudanese Visitors Group, and Yarl’s Wood Befrienders.

 

Recommendations:

For as long as the Home Office continues to maintain detention despite the public health risk, we recommend the following:

 

AVID members have provided charitable services inside immigration detention since 1994. Our members provide a wide range of support including emotional support through ‘befriending’ visits, as well as practical advice, signposting and referral, and casework support. In line with Government guidance, our members stopped providing face to face visits inside detention and we quickly moved to provision of phone support and where possible video (skype) visits. Our volunteers are trained and supported to provide tailored, bespoke support at an individual level for people in detention. Several of our members also provide group support in the form of workshops or drop in sessions, for example at Harmondsworth and Colnbrook IRCs, at Yarl’s Wood IRC, and at Dungavel IRC. These workshops also take place in some London prisons. In light of the current crisis, and the isolation and anxiety it causes, this support is needed more than ever. However, we wish to draw to the Committee’s attention that communication from the Home Office and its contractors to AVID and its members has been at an unprecedented low since the COVID 19 outbreak began. This is our experience at both national and local level, and impacts upon the degree to which our members are able to respond to the individual needs of vulnerable detainees at this time.  We illustrate this further below, and provide additional evidence in the form of a joint letter (Annex One).

 

1. How the Home Office and its major contractors are working together to ensure the safe and effective operation of contracted services is maintained, particularly where these services affect vulnerable people:

 

 

We are hearing from people in detention that it is almost impossible to implement public health guidance on protection from COVID 19 inside detention.:

 

 

Changes to the regime, limited communications and access to external supports:

 

 

 

Unnecessary movement around detention estate:

 

 

Lack of information on support provided on release:

2.The effectiveness of Home Office communications to its partners, responders and the wider public about its preparations:

 

AVID and its members have been providing support to people in detention for over 25 years. In line with Government guidance, our members stopped providing face to face visits inside detention and we quickly moved to provision of phone support and where possible video (skype) visits. This is a significantly reduced service, but in keeping with our charitable objectives, we will continue to provide emotional and practical support to people who remain in detention at this time.

 

In order for our members to deliver this support to those who need it most and to be able to respond to the additional needs of this current crisis, it is vital that we have accurate information from the Home Office and its contractors about their response to the crisis and the situation as it develops, so that we can tailor and target our support appropriately. However, we wish to highlight that the communication from the Home Office and its contractors has been slow, unresponsive, and largely ineffective: 

 

National communications between the Home Office and AVID:

 

 

Lack of information to stakeholders about testing and confirmed cases inside detention:

 

Lack of information and response to AVID members, by IRC and RSTHF staff:

Given the severity of the current crisis and the potential impact on those held in detention, it appears that the Home Office and its contractors are trying to avoid communication, rather than proactively providing information to alleviate concerns. This is at a time when information is absolutely vital to AVID and its members, to ensure that people in detention get the support and care they need. It has never been more important for the Home Office to be transparent about the steps it is taking to protect people in its care.

 

 

May 2020

 

Appendix One: Letter from AVID to Tyson Hepple, 30th March 2020

Appendix Two: Response from Tyson Hepple to AVID, on 9th April 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix One – Letter to the Director General of Immigration Enforcement, dated 30 March 2020

 

We write in our capacity as members of AVID – the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees - a network of organisations providing support to people in immigration detention. Together, we support people detained in every single immigration removal centre, residential short-term holding facility and in some prisons in the UK. As such, we are in day to day contact with people held under immigration act powers around the UK and are writing to express our grave concerns about the Home Office’s response on immigration detention in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

 

AVID wrote to Immigration Enforcement contacts by email on the 12th March to ask a series of questions on behalf of our members about the centralised response to the COVID-19 crisis. Despite several follow up emails since then, we are still waiting for a response to our substantive questions. Instead, we have been sent a link to the guidance on ‘Coronavirus and immigration removal centres’ which was published on the gov.uk website on 24th March. We note that other guidance ‘COVID 19 and other prescribed places of detention guidance’ was updated on the 26th March.

 

The measures outlined in these documents are woefully inadequate. By the time of publication, there was already a confirmed case in Yarl’s Wood and reports of people displaying symptoms of the virus in other centres.  We believe that the Home Office response to date has not been clear enough, has not been thorough enough, and was published far too late. As such, people in detention have been put at unnecessary additional risk.

 

In light of the urgency of the situation facing the people we support we are calling for the immediate release of all those who remain in immigration detention.  This release should be effectively managed to ensure that no one is released into destitution or poverty, and so that everyone is given appropriate access to accommodation and basic services, including healthcare, in line with the recommendations made by the Commissioner on Human Rights (26th March).

 

Until releases are facilitated and while the Home Office continues to hold people under immigration act powers during this crisis, we are asking for further information in relation to the following concerns:

 

 

We are already hearing alarming reports of high levels of anxiety and stress, and even self-harm, from inside detention. We are concerned that if the situation is not addressed with some urgency, alongside the public health crisis we are facing, there will also be a very real crisis of mental health inside the UK’s detention facilities.

 

We have waited over two weeks for a response to our original questions, and we therefore hope that you can respond with some urgency. It is vital that this information is provided so that we can relay appropriate advice to those in detention.

 

We look forward to receiving a response at your earliest opportunity.

 

Yours Sincerely,

 

Ali McGinley, Director, AVID (Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees)

Bella Sankey, Director, Detention Action

Anna Pincus, Director, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

Sarah Teather, Director, Jesuit Refugee Service UK

Teresa Degenhardt, Coordinator, Larne House Visitors Group

Jean Gould, Coordinator, HMP Lewes Foreign National Prisoners Visitors Project (LOSRAS)

Chris Lukey, Coordinator, Manchester Immigration Detainee Support Team

Camille Herreman, Director/Coordinator, Morton Hall Detainee Visitors Group

Kate Alexander, Director, Scottish Detainee Visitors

Michelle, Coordinator, SOAS Detainee Support Group

Maddy Crowther, Co-Executive Director, Sudanese Visitors Group

Nicky Woods, CEO, Yarl’s Wood Befrienders

 

cc. Hindpal Singh Bhui, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons

Dame Anne Owers, Independent Monitoring Boards

David Bolt, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration

 

 

 

Appendix Two – Response from the Director General of Immigration Enforcement, dated 9 April 2020

 

Thank you for your letter of 30 March on behalf of a number of NGOs, in which you set out your concerns about immigration detention and COVID-19.  

 

The Home Office is, as always, mindful of our legal obligations in respect of immigration detention, ensuring that there is a realistic prospect of removal in a reasonable timescale. 

 

As you will be aware, the High Court ruled that the Home Office are taking sensible, precautionary measures in relation to COVID-19 and immigration detention. This is in line with the Public Health England (PHE) guidance and these measures are in place to protect staff and detainees during these unprecedented times. We consider the outcome to be a strong endorsement of the steps we have taken so far and which we will continue to take. 

 

We take the welfare of the detainees in our care very seriously. In line with Public Health England guidance, measures such as protective isolation are considered on a case by case basis to minimise the risk of COVID-19 spreading to vulnerable groups in the immigration detention estate. Detainees are only being transferred in exceptional circumstances for the safety and security of the detention estate. Care pathways follow published Government guidance on COVID-19 and more detailed PHE and NHS E guidance on the management of COVID-19 in places of detention.

 

Further measures including single occupancy rooms and cessation of social visits have been introduced in line with the Government direction on social distancing. Each IRC has produced detainee-specific guidance to explain in clear terms how to reduce the risk of an outbreak of COVID-19. Detainees are frequently reminded of the requirements to ensure thorough hand washing and hygiene. Appropriate guidance is prominently displayed, including details of the PHE risk factors, and detainees reminded to immediately report any health or symptom concerns. 

 

As you are aware legal contact can take place in a number of ways, including face-to-face visits, telephone calls, legal surgeries and email. As well as being provided with a mobile phone and alternative SIM if necessary, detainees also have access to landlines, the internet and skype. To minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19 and in line with the policy of social distancing, face to face legal visits should only be held in exceptional circumstances and will be held behind glass in the ‘Closed Visits’ centre available at each immigration removal centre. We are also working closely with the Legal Aid Agency to ensure legal surgeries take place via other means. In addition, detainees have been provided with additional mobile phone credit to ensure that they are able to contact friends and families while social visits have been stopped. 

 

I hope this reassures you that we are doing all we can to provide detainees and staff with a safe and secure environment.

 

Tyson Hepple CB

Director General

Immigration Enforcement 

 

 


[1] For example, the Ministry of Justice is providing regular stakeholder updates on the situation in prisons.

[2] https://detentionaction.org.uk/2020/03/26/press-release-over-350-released-from-immigration-detention-and-all-cases-to-be-urgently-reviewed/

[3] https://detentionaction.org.uk/2020/03/26/press-release-over-350-released-from-immigration-detention-and-all-cases-to-be-urgently-reviewed/