The Chairwoman of UK Home Affairs Committee (“the Committee”), Yvette Cooper, wrote a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel on Wednesday raising “serious concerns about the shocking conditions the Committee observed” during its visit to an immigration detention facility in Kent the previous day.
The letter was made public on Friday and noted cramped and overcrowded conditions with people lying on a thin mattress on the floor in a small waiting room due to lack of available seats. According to the Committee’s observations, as many as 56 people were packed into the waiting room that included “many women with babies and very young children alongside significant numbers of teenage and young adult men.” Cooper also noted that individuals are being held in the room for 12-24 hours longer than the maximum permissible duration.
Describing the conditions at the Kent facility as shocking and dangerous, Cooper stated:
In addition to overcrowding and the length of stays, the Committee was very concerned about the clear risk of a Covid-19 outbreak. The holding room, in which some people are waiting for up to 48 hours, has no ventilation, no social distancing and face masks are not worn. We assume that most people are not vaccinated. Given how closely people are packed together we have grave concerns about how easy it would be if only one staff member or asylum seeker had Covid-19 to spread rapidly to everyone in the room. The Committee did not observe any Covid-19 mitigation measures and, with the current levels of overcrowding, could not see how the facility could be Covid safe.
Cooper also reported the Committee’s observations of the Atrium–described as “essentially an office space with a large central room and several adjoining offices.” Pointing to the Permanent Secretary’s confirmation to the Committee that one of the individuals held in the office space for over 10 days was an unaccompanied child who was “sleeping on a sofa in an office, as the only available separate sleeping accommodation,” Cooper stated that “this kind of accommodation for days on end is completely inappropriate” for children.
In her letter, Cooper further noted that the Home Office had been informed of these concerns previously in September 2020 when the Chief Inspector of Prisons (“the Inspector”) found the conditions at the Kent Intake Unit (KIU), Frontier House, and Tug Haven unacceptable “and very similar to those which we encountered [at KIU] yesterday.” According to Cooper, the Inspector made a series of recommendations that included contingency planning for accommodating varying number of migrant arrivals.
Stating that the Committee “saw no sign that any of these recommendations had been taken up at the KIU nearly a year after they were made,” Cooper requested the Home Office and Secretary to confirm whether any risk assessment protocols were completed on the holding facilities, any public health advice was sought on keeping people in crowded rooms without ventilation for several days, and whether any contingency planning has taken place since September 2020 to ensure “appropriate safe capacity” consistent with the Inspectorate Report.
Additionally, Cooper requested clarification on the Home Office’s expectation regarding availability of appropriate and safe accommodation for unaccompanied minors in the next 14 days “following the ‘soft launch’ of the new National Transfer Scheme on 26 July,” and confirmation on whether Public Health England has made any assessment of the Covid-19 risk of holding a large number of individuals for up to 48 hours in KIU and Frontier House facilities and whether the Home Office will now limit the number of occupants and length of stay for service users in KIU and Frontier House.
Cooper requested a response by Tuesday August 3, but a Home Office Spokesperson responded Friday stating that while it takes the welfare of migrants seriously, it is under pressure from “unacceptable numbers of people” entering the country illegally. The Home Office further assured that it will take steps to tackle the problem through enforcement of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which “will protect lives and break this cycle of illegal crossings.”