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Over the last few months, the Home Office has made a series of increasingly ad hoc changes to detention and asylum accommodation that have had a serious impact on visitors groups trying to deliver services on the ground.

Sudden changes in the status of detention facilities overnight have posed a huge challenge for visitors, who require up-to-date information in order to assist people they visit to know and exercise their rights. These shifts have coincided with the Home Office’s equally rushed introduction of now-infamous new forms of ‘contingency accommodation’ at ex-military sites Penally and Napier barracks. Formal scrutiny of both barracks sites began with an inspection by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICBI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) which detailed the shockingly inadequate conditions in and management of the barracks this week.

So, what is the result of the Home Office co-opting detention facilities to ‘accommodate’ people, even temporarily?

Detention centres are not suitable for anyone, which is why (very basic) safeguards have been developed to reduce the inevitable harm caused when someone is detained. But evidence on the ground suggests that people held in detention centres, like the barracks, as ‘contingency accommodation’ have not had access to even the most basic supports usually afforded to people in detention such as legal advice and healthcare.

We spoke to one of the grassroots organisations in our network, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) about the effects of recent last-minute status changes at Tinsley House, which has recently been described by the Home Office as ‘contingency accommodation’.

Pandemic quarantine facility

Tinsley House Immigration Removal Centre is a detention centre located close to Gatwick airport with 150 bed spaces and a family unit for one family at a time. Early last year, the centre held very few people and the Home Office began using it as a quarantine facility for people from another detention centre; Brook House. Visitors groups were concerned that people quarantined there were alone and isolated. Karris Hamilton, Senior Advocacy Coordinator at GDWG recalls,‘they didn’t know which legal aid rota to use as they were in between two facilities, it was so confusing. We spoke to some people who were really anxious.’

'They didn’t know which legal aid rota to use as they were in between two facilities’ - Karris Hamilton, GDWG

Short-Term Holding Facility

In Autumn 2020, Tinsley House was redesignated without prior warning as a Short-Term Holding Facility (STHF) mostly for people who had just arrived in the UK after crossing the channel in small boats. The number of people detained varied considerably, from none to twenty at a time. During this period, the Home Office also began ‘accommodating’ people who had just arrived in the UK to seek asylum in ex-military sites including Napier barracks in Kent, and Penally barracks in Wales. Community groups and medical professionals expressed concern that the site was not suitable for people fleeing war and torture, especially during a pandemic.

In January, there was an outbreak of Covid-19 in Napier barracks, where up to 28 people had been sharing one dormitory. It has now been confirmed that 178 people tested positive for Covid-19 in Napier barracks in January. Numerous episodes of self-harm and suicide attempts were reported by people in the barracks, reflecting a growing mental health crisis. Meanwhile, people held there faced severe enforcement of lockdown measures by the police if they tried to leave.

Tinsley House as Bail ‘accommodation’

In February, after a fire broke out at Napier barracks, police arrested 14 people on suspicion of being involved. One man was taken to prison, and the 13 other people were brought to Tinsley House on criminal bail, and were told to quarantine for ten days. This meant Tinsley House was effectively being used as bail accommodation, which usually takes the form of housing in the community.

Karris and her colleagues at GDWG made contact with the men over the phone: ‘There was a lot of confusion around whether people in Tinsley at the time were detained or not. Staff at the detention centre said they were civilians not detainees. Either way, people experienced being in Tinsley as if they had been taken there for punishment.’

During the first ten days quarantine, the 13 individuals were told by management that they could not leave the centre, and the police would be called if they tried to. After ten days, they were allowed to leave but under strict curfew. Karris explained, ‘staff in the detention centre said they were not responsible for people who were being held in this way. We heard that someone had been showing signs of suicidal ideation. Healthcare said they were not their patients, and that we should call their GP or the police.’

However, none of the men had any of their documents. They had been arrested without their belongings and taken directly from the police station to Tinsley House. The closest GP is two miles away and they would have struggled to navigate the way without access to internet and a mobile phone, or to register without identification. Eventually, Doctors of The World were able to step in, conduct phone consultations and prescribe medication. Karris explains, 'The group of people in Tinsley were basically detained for a month without any healthcare; bearing in mind that many people in this situation are likely to suffer from very severe mental and physical health problems.’

'The group of people in Tinsley were basically detained for a month without any healthcare' - Karris Hamilton, GDWG

Detained without safeguards

Though authorities insisted the 13 individuals were not detained and were free to leave during the day, the isolated location of the centre near a dual carriageway meant there was no easy way to engage with meaningful outside activities. Additionally, inside Tinsley House, they were not given access to the centre’s WiFi, making it even harder to contact lawyers or other outside support. As a result, they were held in a detention setting, without receiving even the basic supports offered to people officially in detention.

Karris said ‘These men were essentially detained but without any of the safeguards that come with detention like having access to healthcare, welfare support, or the IMB [Independent Monitoring Board] oversight. Those safeguards have been created for a reason, because of the known distress and mental health issues caused by detention.’

Civil society organisations Care4Calais and Jesuit Refugee Service UK (JRSUK) helped to put the individuals at Tinsley House in contact with lawyers, and all 13 men have now been released to community-based accommodation. The criminal charges against them were dropped.

Karris added, 'People felt they had been left there and abandoned with no one to turn to. If charities hadn’t been involved to refer them to public law solicitors, how long would they have remained there?’

'People felt they had been left there and abandoned with no one to turn to.' - Karris Hamilton, GDWG

Tinsley House is currently empty and it remains unclear how the Home Office intends to use the facility going forward.

Thumbnail image: Google Maps data 2021

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