By Avital Carno
Oxford Street is empty, deer graze on the lawns of east London housing estates, and joggers aren’t just joggers any more, they’re lycra-clad biohazards. Outside your local supermarket, a queue stretches around the block, with the fidgeting line of masked and gloved would-be shoppers spaced at two metre intervals. In the midst of the waking-dream surreal reality of the coronavirus pandemic, it feels appropriate that the theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘Imagine’.
During this period of enormous human suffering and unprecedented socio-economic disruption, most of us are left wishing that the ‘new normal’ had stayed firmly in the realm of the imaginary. However, alongside the tragic loss of life, the pandemic has led to positive changes that, a mere six months ago, would never have been considered possible. The International Energy Agency has predicted that the world will use 6% less energy this year than last, which is the equivalent to losing the entire energy demand of India; in London alone, emissions of the harmful gas nitrogen dioxide have fallen by almost 50%. Meanwhile, the UK government’s emergency response to coronavirus involved housing all rough sleepers in hotels at the state’s expense; London mayor Sadiq Khan described the initiative as “the one silver lining from this awful virus”, which could mean that “we could be the generation that ends rough sleeping.”
Another silver lining is the release of over 700 men and women, between 16th March to 21st April, from immigration detention facilities in the UK. The UK’s system of immigration detention is so inhumane, and so outdated, that when I first learnt about the process as an intern at René Cassin, I struggled to believe the facts I was presented with. The UK is the only country in Europe to indefinitely detain people in detention centres. Every year, the UK locks up 25,000 people, including survivors of torture and asylum seekers, without a time limit. The impact of the indefinite deprivation of the liberty of those caught up in this system is horrific: the rate of incidents of self-harm amongst people in detention is recorded at more than one a day. To add to this, not only is the system harmful, it’s also expensive and ineffective. The total cost of immigration detention is £108 million per year. Research shows that £76 million per year is wasted on detaining people who are eventually released, while in 2018, it was revealed that the Home Office paid £21 million in five years for wrongfully detaining hundreds of people.
The current pandemic has caused the number of people imprisoned in immigration detention to fall dramatically: at the start of May 2020, 313 people were detained, compared to 1,278 at the end of December 2019. This drop is largely due to the new global travel restrictions, which prevent the removal of people and therefore makes their continued detention unlawful. However, a drop in the number of people detained is not a cause for complacency. Although hopeful, these numbers should serve as a rallying call for change; they should give us permission to imagine the end of the UK’s system of indefinite immigration detention. When travel restrictions start to lift, it is crucial that we demand an answer to the obvious question: ‘if it was possible to release migrants and asylum seekers from detention during the pandemic, why lock them back up indefinitely afterwards?’
The coronavirus outbreak has shown us that radical change is possible, by forcing it upon us. This bewildering, disorientating upending of our everyday lives can also be used as an enabler: we can allow ourselves to imagine change we previously perceived as too unrealistic, at a pace we once thought too fast. The tragedy of the pandemic might just allow us to imagine, and then to build, a fairer, kinder world – one in which there’s no system of indefinite immigration detention in the UK.
ACT NOW – write to your MP (suggested template) and support an amendment to the Immigration Bill in support of a 28 day limit for immigration detention.