As Britain takes its first small steps out of lockdown, there is one group of people quietly wishing that it wouldn’t.
For many asylum seekers, the two-month hiatus has meant reprieve. Freed from detention centres, liberated from the threat of imminent deportation and no longer obliged to report to the Home Office, many have welcomed the relief. And all this at a time when the general population have learned something of what it is like to live with severe curbs on civil liberties.
“I know it sounds bad to say, but I felt like coronavirus should not go,” says Maimuna Jawo, a Gambian asylum seeker and female genital mutilation campaigner who had to report to the Home Office once a month before March. “My fear now is that normal life will resume and I’ll have to start reporting again.”
Before lockdown, Jawo was under orders to report to Eaton House immigration enforcement centre in Hounslow, west London, on the first Wednesday of every month. The preceding nights were always sleepless.
“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Maybe they might deport me. Maybe they might put me back in detention,” she says. “You’re going to face somebody who you know can harm you. It’s like there’s a rope around your neck; every time you go to sign the rope is pulled.”
On 17 March, Jawo was told that reporting requirements had been lifted because of the pandemic.
There has been a similar reprieve for hundreds of people held in detention pending deportation. Latest figures show that numbers have fallen from 1,225 in January to just 368 as of 29 April.
Melina* fled Malawi after she was raped by a police officer who had arrested her for being bisexual, she said. She was detained at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in March.
On 24 March her fellow inmates began to be released en masse following news reports of a case of coronavirus at the detention centre. Melina was ecstatic. “I just fell to the floor, putting my hands up, telling the officer, ‘thank you so much!’. They said: ‘do you want to stay? Quickly, go and get your things’. So I ran to my room, got my things and left as fast as I could.”
The pandemic has left Britain’s “hostile environment” policy, of zero-tolerance towards illegal immigration, in limbo. Covid-19 has made it impossible to deport asylum seekers and unsafe to keep them in close confines. NHS workers have received automatic visa extensions.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “All decisions to detain are made on a case-by-case basis, and in some cases, release on immigration bail may be the most appropriate option.”
For some campaigners the current circumstances represent an opportunity. “What has happened in a really short space of time with Covid-19 is the undoing of decades of rhetoric that said ‘we can’t possibly do that’ – the stopping of reporting, the hundreds of people being released, the extending of visas,” says Karen Doyle, from national organisation Movement for Justice.
Toufique Hossaini, director of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, agrees: “Well, now it has happened and maybe people can see that this isn’t just possible, it’s actually desirable.
“The Home Office, for a long time now, has pushed back on the idea of an alternative to detention. This is a turning point: they made their own decision to release people and actually the immigration system didn’t collapse,” he says.
Hossaini argues that it would not make sense to invest time and public expense in resurrecting a broken system: “It would just be a matter of not re-detaining. They’re already out here, they haven’t committed criminal offences, they haven’t disappeared.”
Some believe that, as the crisis has exposed flaws in the system, this could be a good opportunity to look at the Home Office rule barring those awaiting immigration decisions from working.
“Coronavirus has shown the whole system to be really irrational,” says Hossaini. “We had to fly in a whole group of Romanian nationals to pick our fruits and vegetables. And yet there are so many of our clients already in the UK eager to work, in both skilled and non-skilled jobs.”
Since 2012 Maimuna has lived in a 17-bedroom house with 17 adults and nine children provided by the Home Office. No one is permitted to work. Instead, they subsist on a government allowance of £35 each per week.
“I’m thinking, how many people did they put in limbo who could be working on the front line of the NHS right now?” she says. “Everybody here can work and wants to work but we’re not allowed to. We could be cleaners. We could be carers.”
“There’s a lot of talent in the asylum community,” says Frederick Kkonde, who fled torture in Uganda to come to the UK in March 2013. He was granted asylum in July 2015 and is now working in a rehabilitation facility while he pursues a masters in adult nursing.
He campaigns with Movement for Justice and believes it is both cruel and wasteful not to allow asylum seekers the dignity of contributing to the country they live in. “All of the asylum seekers I know have something in mind that they want to do. They’d rather make a positive impact.”
His goal is to become a consultant nurse; he believes that his life experiences only serve to make him better at his job: “I have what it takes to understand what an individual goes through,” he says.
Doyle explains that many people seeking asylum in the UK are victims of trafficking, torture and sexual violence. The pressures of lockdown can lead to heightened stress, and cause flashbacks.
Melina has been told that she must resume reporting at Eaton House on 4 June. “I don’t feel hopeful,” she says. “I know for sure that means that they’re going to take me again.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Face-to-face reporting requirements will return as soon as practicably possible.”
* Name changed to protect identity