Protect migrants, protect workers: close detention centres now.

Workers must demand nothing less than release of all immigration detainees and closure of immigration removal centres.

3 min read

With no return to normality in sight even as we enter the eighth week of lockdown, immigration detention continues, despite the risk of COVID-19 transmission for migrants, the staff enacting immigration policy, and the wider public. Continuing with ‘business as usual’ defies both logic and public health advice; the near total shutdown of international travel defeats the administrative purpose of detention, which is to facilitate removal of migrants; and social distancing requires that individuals not be held in close quarters. Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU) calls on all workers and trade unions to demand a shut-down of immigration detention centres and a release of detainees.

Those who act for migrants ordinarily have diametrically opposed interests to the Home Office employees tasked with removing migrants from the country. However all workers involved in the administration of immigration detention, be they claimant lawyers, Home Office staff, detention centre guards or migrants themselves, are now being put at mortal risk by the government’s continued use of detention, and all urgently need safe working conditions.

People are already dying due to the Home Office and Border Force’s failure to act to protect their workers. Trade unions representing civil service and agency staff in detention have begun to call for change: the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has called for the authorities to cease recalling staff to the passport office for routine work and to provide PPE for its members at the border; and Community (representing staff of the detention centre estate) has also begun a petition for PPE for its frontline workers.

While an important starting point, campaigns for PPE and remote working are insufficient and have not been backed by the threat of industrial action.

As legal sector workers organised in a trade union, we continue to approach the question of immigration detention from a workers’ rights perspective when demanding stronger action from the Government. LSWU has already published an urgent statement calling for, among other key demands, a prioritisation of the health of practitioners and detained migrants, with immediate release of all those detained under immigration powers.

Urgent action must be taken now to ensure the protection of the health of all people working at or confined within the detention estate.

While some detainees have been released following legal action and pressure from NGOs and practitioners, hundreds remain detained in close proximity with one another and with Home Office staff. Lack of access to cleaning supplies for detainees who are employed to clean personal and communal areas means that maintaining a hygienic environment is impossible. With healthcare in detention falling below basic standards, the risk of devastating and entirely preventable loss of life is only increased.

There have been multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the detention estate. Yet immigration enforcement has not only continued to detain hundreds of individuals, but even brought new individuals into immigration detention post-lockdown. Home Office staff are thereby required to continue with their jobs, in contravention of social distancing rules, at great risk to themselves and those in detention with whom they come into contact daily.

Unions such as PCS and Community are currently failing to call for the only thing that can adequately protect their members’ interests: the immediate closure of every detention centre. This demand needs to be backed by a ballot for industrial action. Nothing else will force the Government into an immediate response.

LSWU urges other unions to join us in demanding the immediate closure of immigration detention centres and the release of all detainees. It is only through such action that human contact, and the devastating spread of COVID-19, can be limited.


Legal Sector Workers United (@LSWUnited)

LSWU is a branch of the United Voices of the World (UVW) trade union which organises with legal sector workers