COVID-19 & Asylum – 16th February

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

Asylum accommodation 

Campaigners continue to work hard towards the closure of unsuitable sites to accommodate people seeking asylum.

The Home Office confirmed last Tuesday it was dropping plans to accommodate 200 people seeking asylum at a site next door to Yarl’s Wood IRC. This came following interventions by residents, faith leaders, local political representatives and campaigners. Rosie Newbigging, who crowdfunded for legal action against the proposed site, said ‘It just goes to show that if you fight back, you might just win’ whilst a local MP, Mohammed Yasin stated  ‘It was a terrible idea to house a vulnerable group of people in hostile, inappropriate and unsafe accommodation in the middle of a pandemic.’ Huge congratulations to all those who mobilised around this development and got it stopped.

In Parliament, the Home Affairs Select Committee heard from advocates Dr Jill O’Leary from the Helen Bamber Foundation, Theresa Schliecher from Medical Justice and Asylum Matters on institutional asylum accommodation. The Committee heard compelling evidence of the unacceptable conditions in the ex MoD sites, and of the pressing need for people to be supported in our communities in accommodation which promotes integration. You can watch the session here (from 11.17) and coverage is here.

Further in the House of Commons, Priti Patel MP and Chris Philp MP were questioned by MPs following revelations that the Government’s Equality Impact Assessment for the use of the sites stated that the provision of more ‘generous’ accommodation would ‘undermine public confidence in the asylum system’. In the House of Lords Lord Dubs asked an oral question, prompting a cross-party show of opposition to the barracks.

Meanwhile, thirty-five leading Bishops from across the UK wrote to the Home Secretary to protest the use of barracks. The Bishop of Durham, Rt Reverend Paul Butler, told the Independent ‘The breadth of support across the wider church in England and Wales demonstrates the strength of opinion on this pressing issue.’

In Wales, it was reported that the Home Office was pressing ahead with plans to continue the use of the Penally site, despite the fact that it does not yet have planning permission. A strong statement from the Welsh Government’s Deputy Minister and Chief Whip Jane Hutt stated Penally ‘is unsafe, and must close urgently’ and ‘the decision to use the Penally Camp has undermined our ability to implement an effective migrant integration policy, as set out in our Nation of Sanctuary Plan’.

As messages of support continued for the residents of Napier, a hearing in the administrative court of the High Court of Justice ordered that a man resident in the barracks be urgently rehoused, paving the way for a further hearing on the matter of Judicial Review. The court ruled that the claimant had made a strong prima facie case that the accommodation was ‘wholly inadequate’ for him and highlighted in particular the ‘prison-like’ conditions and risk of Coronavirus. In another development it has been reported that expert information submitted with a planning application for the Napier site seven years ago stated that the barracks were ‘never intended for long term use’ and did not ‘meet acceptable standards of accommodation’.

In a further development, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has announced plans to inspect both Penally and Napier, alongside HM Inspectorate of Prisons, this week.

Evidence on the unsuitability of the sites continues to pile up, including on the risk of Covid in the sites and a lack of access to healthcare. Now, more than ever, we must #CloseTheBarracks and house people seeking asylum safely within our communities:

#VaccinesForAll 

Following the Government’s announcement of 8 February that no immigration status checks will be carried out for people trying to register with a GP at this time, a coalition of 140 groups, including the Patients Not Passports Network, Medact, Migrants Organise and Doctors of the World wrote to the Government urging further action to ensure people feel safe coming forward to be vaccinated. The campaign is asking for:

  • a firewall to prevent any patient information gathered by the NHS or Test and Trace being used for the purposes of immigration enforcement;
  • an end to all Hostile Environment measures in the NHS, including charging for migrants, to combat the fear and mistrust these policies have created.
  • specific support to all GP surgeries to register everyone, including undocumented and underdocumented migrants and those without secure accommodation, and ensure that all other routes to vaccination are accessible to everyone.
  • a public information campaign to ensure that communities impacted by the Hostile Environment are aware of their right to access the vaccine and the steps taken above.

Read coverage of the campaign here and use/follow the hashtag #VaccinesForAll.

2. Research and reports

Reminder: Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) call for evidence on use of hotels and barracks: Deadline 19th February. 

This call for evidence on the Home Office’s use of hotels and barracks as contingency asylum accommodation remains open until 19th February. Details on how to submit are here. If you do not want to submit yourselves, but are interested in inputting into Asylum Matters’ submission on hotel use, you can also contact your regional representative or julia@asylummatters.org

IPPR report: ‘Beyond the Hostile Environment’

This Institute for Public Policy research report assesses six different policy options for addressing the adverse impacts of the hostile environment and for reforming the current system of immigration enforcement. Coverage is available here.

Migration Observatory – Where did all the migrants go?

A collapse in UK migration data collection as a result of Covid-19 will leave migration policy makers effectively ‘flying blind’ as the new post-Brexit immigration system comes into force, according to “Where did all the migrants go?” by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. The analysis shows that following disruption to migration-related data collection, the UK does not currently have reliable data on immigration, emigration or the characteristics of the population.

3. Home Office and Government developments

Asylum Support Regulations laid before Parliament

The Asylum Support (Amendment) Regulations 2021, which make provision for asylum support to be set at £39.63 a week have been laid before Parliament and are due to come into force on Monday 22 February.

Update on asylum support payments following positive decisions

The system of continuing asylum support payments until Universal Credit or other benefits have been paid was introduced as a temporary measure while the Home Office worked to clear the backlog of ‘positive cases’ (people who had their asylum claim accepted). This system is no longer in place and will be closely monitored and kept under review. Please find this information and other updates on Home Office policies and Covid on the Refugee Council website here.

4. Resources, events, jobs and training

Resources on vaccinations against Coronavirus: Doctors of the World continue to campaign for equal access to vaccinations against Covid, and to work with NHS colleagues to promote resources. Subscribe to their mailing list here to receive all latest resources and news. Digital copies of NHS England access cards re entitlement to GP registration can be downloaded here; a twitter graphic on access to registration can be found here, a leaflet explaining how to register with a GP is here.

‘Save the date’ – Celebrating Sanctuary – week of online events: City of Sanctuary are inviting groups to hold ‘Celebrating Sanctuary’ online events during the week 19 to 25 April and: make a public declaration of support for sanctuary; celebrate the welcome offered to people seeking sanctuary across communities in all parts of the UK; celebrate the positive contribution people seeking sanctuary have made and develop positive relationships with decision makers at all levels. More info here

STAR Equal Access Network: Activists from Student Action for Refugees have launched their Equal Access Network to promote an open, interactive and friendly forum where students from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds in the UK can connect and learn from each other’s experiences of higher education. For more info join the Equal Access facebook group or email equalaccess@star-network.org.uk

Job opportunity: STAR is recruiting a new Volunteering Project Coordinator, 3 days per week based in London. More information here.

Job opportunity: The RAMP project is recruiting a Policy Adviser to the latest MP to join the project, former Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes MP. You can read more information here.

Refugee Solidarity Summit Workshops: The Refugee Solidarity Summit and guests from the Refugee Solidarity and Support Network are hosting a series online sessions entitled ‘Towards Transformative Action – What could healthy organising look like?’, asking participants to consider “What does healthy and successful grassroots organising look and feel like now, in the midst of the pandemic, at a time when structural and violent racism and inequality have been laid bare?”. Full details of the workshops, which will be held three times over the coming weeks can be found here.

5. What we’ve been reading and watching

This long-read: no-one is safe until everyone is safe, on vaccine inequalities and barriers to universal access created by the immigration system; and David Adeyemi’s Metro piece on what it’s like to live 9 years undocumented in the UK.
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