COVID-19 & Asylum – 19th January

Our fortnightly summary of ongoing advocacy initiatives, interesting surveys and research, government developments and useful resources. Contact us if you’d like to get this update directly into your inbox!

1. Ongoing advocacy

Political language and rhetoric

On 7 January, as the world reacted to events in the US as insurgents stormed the US Capitol building, Home Secretary Priti Patel drew connection between President Trump’s words and his supporters’ actions, condemning his comments that she said had “directly led” to violence.

In response, Freedom from Torture, Hope not Hate, Detention Action and JCWI wrote to the Home Secretary seeking urgent measures to counter the escalation in far-right hate against asylum seekers, drawing attention to the harmful consequences of language and rhetoric employed by politicians in the UK, which has left asylum seekers and those who support them vulnerable to attacks by the far right, a vulnerabilty which has been compounded by the government’s decision to house asylum seekers in barracks-style accommodation.

In their letter the organisations asked that the Government provide a clear message that is is against the hate directed at people seeking asylum by ending use of misleading and inflammatory rhetoric; developing and sharing a strategy for combating violent extremism and far right activity directed at asylum seekers in the UK; tasking the Commission for Countering Extremism to examine the growth of far right hate against asylum seekers in the UK; and ending the use of barracks as contingency accommodation for asylum seekers immediately, making a return to community-based accommodation.

Destitution and asylum evictions

With the whole of the UK once again in lockdown, the Home Office has yet to publicly confirm its policy on asylum evictions. While the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, announced on twitter that support would be available again to local authorities through the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, uncertainty remains about this provision and whether it will apply to people with NRPF.MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling on the Government to immediately fund a renewed and unconditional Everyone In programme, as a first step of a comprehensive strategy to support people off the streets for good. You can email your MP to ask them to add their name to the EDM.

The Dying Homeless coalition has also called for unconditional, safe shelter to people experiencing homelessness until at least the end of this lockdown, with funding for local authorities to ensure provision for everyone who needs it.

With Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations at their highest ever levels, it is crucial that everyone, in all parts of the UK, is protected from homelessness and Covid-19. You can still email your local authority and MP asking them to back these calls to the Home Office and MHCLG using the resources on our website.

Asylum accommodationConcerns remain high about the alarming rise of the use of manifestly unsuitable facilities to accommodate people seeking asylum, with ongoing severe detriment to those having to stay there.

In Folkestone, reports are emerging of a Covid-19 outbreak at Napier Barracks, with residents speaking to the Independent to share their fear for their lives.  This follows months of protests at the site, with volunteers attempting to give assistance reporting hunger strikes by residents, with a volunteer stating “It has been too long being in a prison-like environment … they are starting to lose all hope.”  In Penally residents have held protests to raise concerns about conditions, after saying their complaints had been “repeatedly ignored”.  The Welsh Government has said it is “still unclear” about the legal basis under which the development was initiated. The Guardian reported that the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has said he hopes to be able to inspect the former MoD sites ‘within a few weeks’.

Plans to progress the use of portacabin facilities on the site of Yarl’s Wood detention centre continue, with local and national campaigners mobilising to prevent the development. A petition has been launched by a local resident backed by over 50 refugee supporting organisations and a crowdfunder to fund legal action to challenge the development has raised over £20,000 since its launch.

In Hampshire, Conservative MP and former Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes is campaigning against the development of land in her constituency at Barton Stacey  to accommodate people seeking asylum; and has further described the wider direction of travel at the Home Office as “profoundly depressing” and at times “hideously wrong” stating “it appears we don’t care that putting asylum seekers in a camp with no water regarded as a shameful stain on the Home Office”.

Concerns have also come to the fore about the ongoing use of RAF Coltishall, north of Norwich, where people are being housed in a former officers’ mess, with the local Conservative MP reported as saying the rural location is “widely recognised as being unsuitable for anything other than a short-term emergency stopgap.”
The Home Office maintains its line that its sites are “safe, fit for purpose and equipped in line with existing contractual requirements, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. It is clear that the only safe place for people seeking asylum to be accommodated is as an integral part of our communities. You can still email your MP  using this tool by Refugee Action to ask for their help to #CloseTheBarracks.

In another worrying development, reports have emerged of plans by the Ministry of Justice to repurpose the former Medomsley Detention Centre into an immigration detention facility. Durham County Council had previously approved a planning application for the use of the land to build 127 new homes on the site.

Meanwhile Brook House detention centre had to be temporarily closed  following an outbreak of Covid-19 at the facility. Bail for Immigration Detainees wrote an open letter to the Government signed by 73 other organisations calling for the release of everybody held in immigration detention, asking that no removals take place until coronavirus has been brought under control and that regular data on coronavirus in immigration detention be released. You can read the letter here and coverage here.

Lift the Ban
As the NHS struggles to cope with a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases and acute staff shortages, news stories have drawn attention to the ban on working for many people seeking asylum who would otherwise be able to help at this time of national crisis.
BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight programme (20 mins in) told the story of two Syrian doctors who are banned from working, or even volunteering, to help the NHS at this time of crisis. Sara and Ayman spoke of their frustration at this unjustifiable waste of their skills, while the British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing went on record to show their support for lifting the ban, with the BMA declaring “no one claiming asylum should be stopped from working by rigid immigration rules”.
The Independent also shared stories of qualified health workers prevented from joining the NHS frontline due to Home Office restrictions and delays. Those profiled include a surgeon with 10 years’ experience, a nurse with 6 years’ experience in Intensive Care Units and a doctor with experience in war-time Aleppo.

In December, the High Court ruled that Home Office policy on permission to work for asylum seekers is unlawful to the extent that it doesn’t make allowances for potential victims of human trafficking or allow for discretion. This week, a further ruling was announced declaring the same Home Office policy unlawful when applied to asylum seekers specifically. The Lift The Ban secretariat will seek clarity on the implications of both these rulings and will share information in due course as more becomes clear.

We will be consulting with Lift the Ban coalition members on the direction and strategy of the campaign in 2021 in due course. Please do get in touch at [email protected] if you are interested in joining us to campaign for the right to work.

Travel to Home Office appointments

Back in November, during the second lockdown in England, campaigners fiercely opposed Home Office immigration bail requirements forcing people to travel to report in-person in the midst of the pandemic, with Olivia Blake MP submitting an Early Day Motion to Parliament on the issue with the support of Voices of the Voiceless Immigration Detainees campaign group and 20 other MPs.

More recently, the Independent has shone a light on the long, dangerous journeys the Home Office is currently leaving people no choice but to take to travel to biometric appointments and substantive asylum interviews, regardless of lockdown measures and the risks to health. Shadow Immigration Minister, Holly Lynch, urged the Home Office “not to put public health at unnecessary risk when alternatives are available”. Campaigners ask that other options are considered, such as the creation of local appointments or the choice to video-conference from their home.

2. Research and reports

HASC supplementary call for evidence – Home Office preparedness for Covid-19

The Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) has issued a supplementary call for evidence  to its enquiry on Home Office preparedness for Covid-19 – with a deadline of 12 noon on Thursday 4 February for submissions of evidence. This enquiry has already produced a useful report and recommendations on Home Office preparedness re asylum accommodation and immigration removal centres during the pandemic. Details on how to submit evidence to the supplementary call are here.

JCWI survey on migrants’ experiences of the pandemicJCWI are conducting a survey to learn about the experiences of migrants during the Covid-19 pandemic to understand how the government has made it more difficult for people who are subject to immigration control to keep themselves and their families safe. If you are a migrant, you can complete the survey here. All responses will be kept confidential and anonymous.

ICIBI reports

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) has released two reports following their inspections into the Home Office’s presenting officer function and use of sanctions and penalties.

In their investigation into the use of sanctions and penalties, the ICIBI found the Home Office had failed to implement a series of recommendations made by the inspectorate since 2016 calling for a better monitoring of the impact of the hostile environment, going against the current Home Secretary’s commitments in July 2020 to undertake a “full review and evaluation” of the hostile environment policy as recommended by the Windrush Lessons Learned review published earlier that year. The Home Office has accepted the recommendation in the ICIBI report that the department must “improve record-keeping and data collection and analysis” of its hostile environment measures.

Mental health and wellbeing measure for women

The University of Liverpool has expanded its research working to develop a mental health and wellbeing measure for refugee women to also encompass the needs of women seeking asylum and women migrants to the UK. To help them in this work, they are currently inviting women from these groups in the UK who speak English to fill in an online survey about their wellbeing. Participants should be over 18. The survey takes about 30 minutes to complete. Contact Carine for more info.

3. Home Office and Government developments

Public Health England guidance on asylum accommodation and Covid-19
Public Health England has published guidance for providers of asylum accommodation on making their accommodation Covid secure. The guidance includes expectations for providers around enabling social distancing; self-isolation procedures; ensuring residents are aware of the latest Government rules; cleaning and provision of hygiene products.
Guidance on increased data allowances

The Department for Education has published guidance for families on accessing increased mobile data allowances to support home learning.

4. Resources, events, jobs and training

City of Sanctuary are coordinating home learning support across their network to help sanctuary seeking families with home learning for their children during the pandemic. Find out more and get involved here.

UKLGIG are recruiting a Senior Campaigns Officer to work on improving the asylum and immigration system for LGBTQI+ people. Deadline 21 January.

Doctors of the World UK are recruiting a new COVID-19 advocacy project lead to coordinate a fast-paced project fighting for equal access to covid-19 vaccinations, information, testing and treatment for migrant, BAME and other marginalised communities in the UK. Deadline 25 January.

IMIX are seeking a passionate storyteller with good communication skills as a media and digital intern, a paid role with an initial six month contract. IMIX are particularly keen to hear from people with lived experience of migration. For more information please contact Katharine Maxwell-Rose.

The Families Together campaign are recruiting a new Campaign Coordinator, to be hosted by Refugee Council. More information can be found here and the closing date for applications is 1 February 2021.

TACTIC are running training on the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ conditions on Saturday 23 January at 11am, looking at the history of how the condition has been used to exclude and undermine the stability of people in the UK, its current application and impact, and the challenges being made to it. Booking fees apply (free for people seeking asylum or who are undocumented). Booking is by email to [email protected]. 

5. What we’ve been reading and watching

  • Free Movement’s 2020 review of the year in immigration and asylum policy and legal developments, and also their brilliant podcast which digests the events of the last few weeks.
  • The man who fell from the sky documentary film following the journey of the two men who hid in the landing gear of a flight from Johannesburg to London in 2015, one of whom tragically fell to his death.
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