Written by Gisele Bonnici
The risks immigration detention poses on the health and well-being of migrant and refugee populations is the most important reason why IDC strives to build movements to reduce immigration detention and implement non-custodial community-based alternatives. The potential impact of detention on the mental and physical health of those detained is so severe that its use as a message of deterrence, immigration control or as a blanket response to groups of migrants cannot be justified. The response of some of the world's principal detaining countries over the past few months has brought this reality into focus.
The United States and the United Kingdom are just two of these countries that have so far continued to detain migrants indefinitely in prison environments throughout the pandemic, responding woefully inadequately to issues of public health in immigration detention. With the US representing the oldest and largest detention system in the world and the UK maintaining one of the largest in Europe, this August IDC partners, Freedom for Immigrants and AVID -- Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (which convene networks of volunteer visitor groups across the US and the UK, respectively) sent an open letter on behalf of 40 visitation groups to both governments calling for the release of all people from immigration detention.
Representing 1,778 volunteers who regularly visit people in 47 immigration detention facilities in both countries, these community advocates joined together across two continents in moral outrage at the continued detention of migrants and refugees in the face of verified reports of substandard medical care by private contractors, poor emergency care, gross failures and medical neglect, failure to prevent communicable diseases, and severe restrictions in on-going detention, such as ad hoc quarantines and solitary confinement, leading to a devastating impact on mental health including hunger strikes and mass harm.
Our concern regarding the consequences that state policies have on the health and well-being of people impacted by and at-risk of immigration detention is exacerbated by the fact that both the US and UK governments have responded to Covid-19 by terminating all social visits and limiting communication with the outside world. This leaves migrants without independent medical support, face-to-face contact with family, community and lawyers in many cases.
According to Freedom for Immigrants, the right to receive visits in immigration detention is an emerging international norm and the European Union has begun to protect this right. However, most countries in the world do not recognize this right and the operation of visitation programs is almost always entirely in the discretion of an individual detention facility. The volunteer visitation groups convened by Freedom for Immigrants and AVID not only provide crucial interpersonal support to people isolated in detention centers, they also monitor for human and civil rights abuses and promote government accountability in many areas, including detainee health and well-being.
It is through these important and unique programs that organizations like Freedom for Immigrants and AVID receive reports of widespread instances which show it is impossible to comply with public health guidance inside detention. In this time of a global pandemic, the only way to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of people needlessly detained do not contract Covid-19 is to facilitate their release.