Scores of vulnerable asylum seekers, including suspected victims of trafficking, are scheduled to be deported this week as the home secretary Priti Patel ramps up removal operations ahead of Brexit.
Three flights this week, two to Germany and one to France, with possible transfers to Austria, Poland, Spain and Lithuania, are planned amid opposition from campaigners who say they have evidence that cases are being “rushed” through to avoid Patel’s own published policy on identifying trafficking victims.
The development comes days after Patel branded those calling for last week’s deportation flight to Jamaica to be stopped as “do-gooding celebrities”, a label that prompted victims of the Windrush scandal to describe the home secretary as “deeply insulting and patronising”.
Groups monitoring the impending round of flights to the EU say that the Home Office’s planned operation to remove potential trafficking and torture victims without proper screening is unlawful and breaches a recent interim high court order.
The flights are operating under the EU’s Dublin convention legislation that allows states to return people to an EU country where they have already made an asylum claim – a right the UK retains during the Brexit transition period.
Soon, unless another transfer arrangement is agreed with the EU, the UK will no longer be able to forcibly deport asylum seekers who have passed through other EU countries.
Lawyers acting for those scheduled to be deported on this week’s flights say they haven’t been properly screened to identify serious vulnerabilities or asked two key questions: “Why have you come to the UK’? and “Please outline your journey to the UK.”
An interim high court ruling last month said the Home Office’s failure to ask such questions was arguably “unlawful” and risked a “serious risk of injustice and irreversible harm.” The ruling ordered the Home Office to reinstate the two questions for arriving asylum seekers.
However the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, an international Catholic group that operates inside Heathrow immigration detention centres, Colnbrook and Harmondsworth, said it had evidence that the Home Office was planning to deport individuals this week who hadn’t been asked the questions.
Sarah Teather, director of JSR UK, said: “Under cover of Covid and the rush for Brexit, the government are subjecting survivors of trafficking and torture to brutal treatment.”
“Skipping sections of your own due process to avoid listening to details of trafficking that would require a more careful approach to the person in front of you is staggeringly cynical.”
Teather, whose group is representing eight asylum seekers due to be deported by charter flight this week, added: “They’ve been told this practice is unacceptable by the high court, yet they continue to rush people through the process regardless, perhaps safe in the knowledge that the most vulnerable and traumatised asylum seekers are struggling to access legal advice in detention right now. It demonstrates a complete disregard for human life and it is a shameful episode.”
The JRS is currently supporting 11 men who recently crossed the Channel in small boats and who have experienced trafficking, forced labour and torture on their journey to the UK.
One is from Syria and the rest from Sudan, a journey typically takes them through Libya, which is known to be rife with trafficking with numerous accounts of mistreatment and torture.
“Some have told us that they were sold between gangs, forced to work and never paid. Others were sold on repeatedly to other traffickers. Many bear the physical and mental scarring of this time,” added Teather.
One of the Sudanese men supported by JRS UK had spent four years in such conditions in Libya, but could not explain this at his “screening” interview as it was cut short.
Six others have shared records of their screening interviews with all six confirming that officials skipped the key questions: “Why have you come to the UK’? and “Please outline your journey to the UK.”
Four individuals whose screening interviews were cut short are scheduled to be removed on charter flights this week. A further four potential victims of trafficking have also removals scheduled for this week amid concerns from the organisation that they also have not been given full screening interviews.
All individuals held in immigration detention also have the right to legal advice, but Teather says legal access is currently erratic and she fears that some of those on this week’s flights will have been unable to challenge their removal.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We remain determined to fix the broken asylum system so that it is firm and fair and make no apology for removing those with no right to remain in the UK.
“All individuals due to be removed have or will have been through a screening interview, which includes updated questions on trafficking, prior to removal. To suggest otherwise is inaccurate.”