According to campaigners EU citizens are being sent to immigration removal centres and held in airport detention rooms as the UK’s government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy takes effect after Brexit.
Europeans who have job interviews are among those being denied entry and locked up. They have spoken of being subjected to the traumatic and humiliating experience of expulsion, despite Home Office rules that explicitly allow non-visa holders to attend interviews.
Confusion regarding whether EU citizens can explore the UK job market and then go home with an offer in order to apply for a work visa has added to the growing numbers of detentions. In other cases, visitors are clearly breaking rules, such as those now barring EU citizens from taking up unpaid internships.
Approximately a dozen European citizens – mostly women – were detained and expelled at Gatwick airport alone over 48 hours last week. Some were sent two hours drive away to Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedforshire, where a Covid scare meant they were confined to their rooms.
Other countries whose citizens have been held at a UK airport or detention centre, include Italy, France, Bulgaria and Greece. It is understood one French man was held at Edinburgh airport for 48 hours recently, while the Bulgarian ambassador to the UK confirmed a number of his nationals had been held at immigration removal centres.
Two Spanish women were detained at Gatwick on 2nd and 3rd May after arriving on separate flights from Valencia and Bilbao. Maria 25 from Valencia, said like many of those detained, she thought she was free to explore the job market until October, especially since she had lived and worked in the UK before. Maria said that when Border Force officials at Gatwick said they would expel her, she offered to pay for a flight home the same day. Instead she was sent to Yarl’s Wood, where she spent three anxious days. She said: “I am still in shock”,
While she was at Yarl’s Wood, scared that she had been exposed to Covid, she was released and ordered to quarantine at her sister’s home in Bexleyheath, in south-east London, until May 17th. Border Force officials kept her passport.
She said: “So much time is being wasted”. The worst thing was that no one at Yarl’s Wood could tell me what was going to happen. My freedom had been taken away and I couldn’t get any legal advice”.
A 24 year old woman from the Basque region of northern Spain, Eugenia, reached Gatwick on Sunday 2nd May on a flight from Bilbao. She had planned to look for a job offer, go home to apply for a visa and then return to live with her Spanish boyfriend, and NHS worker who has been in the UK for four years. She said: “I had a return ticket and filled out an online travel form in which I explained all that”.
At Gatwick, Eugenia had her mobile phone taken away and was locked in a holding room for 24 hours, sleeping on a fold-out bed with half a dozen others. Then she was put on a flight to Barcelona along with another Spanish woman who had also arrived for a job interview.
Maria and Eugenia (not their real names) said they met a dozen other European citizens detained for similar reasons, accounting for half of the people in Gatwick’s detention rooms. They included two Spaniards with job interviews, a French woman with an internship and a Czech woman who had flown in from Mexico and was being sent back there.
“The Czech girl was desperate, and knew that she couldn’t start work immediately, but understood that you could look for jobs and come back to the UK later after obtaining a visa. When she offered to pay for a flight back to Prague, they said no – they were expelling her to Mexico”.
Other travellers with Italian, Portuguese and eastern European passports were also being expelled.
A former immigration solicitor, Luke Piper, who works for the 3million campaign group that monitors the post-Brexit treatment of EU citizens in the UK, said rules were confusing and accused he Border Force of being overly aggressive. “There is absolutely no need to send someone to Yarl’s Wood if they can stay with family until the expulsion”.
Eugenia said she was told her airline, Vueling was to blame. “We had all read the website and filled out the forms. Then they tell you that it is all the fault of the airline, which shouldn’t have let us board”.
Vueling denied airlines were meant to vet EU travellers. “It is officials in the country of destination who establish and enforce entry requirements”.
Eugenia said that cabin staff on her return flight had seen several similar cases. Frontier police who met them at Barcelona confirmed this. “They didn’t understand why it was happening. British citizens entering Spain are not treated that way”.
Eugenia said the experience was so traumatic that she had given up on trying to live with her boyfriend. “I am not going back she said, I don’t want to go through that again. The idea of moving to Britain appals me”.
Eight MEPs have written to the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and expressed concern that the Home Office approach is in breach of the ‘spirit’ of the Brexit deal.
Dacion Ciolos, president of the Renew Europe group of MEPs said: “Sending young EU nationals to immigration detention centres is grossly disproportionate and breaches the spirit of good cooperation we would expect”.
The Home Office said the new rules were clear and could be easily checked online. “We require evidence of an individual’s right to live and work in the UK” a spokesperson said. Yet Home Office advice explicitly states that visitors without work visas may “attend meetings, conferences, seminars, interviews and negotiate and sign deals and contracts”.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “We are cooperating very much in the spirit and the terms of the agreements we have with the EU.
A barrister with the NGO Bail for Immigration Detainees, Araniya Kogulathas, said EU citizens were experiencing Britain’s hostile environment for immigration.
“The Home Office need to explain why exploring the job market or attending an interview justifies refusing EEA nationals entry at the border when immigration rules specifically allow visitors to – among other things – attend meetings, conference and interviews”. It seems to be detaining people despite being unclear of its own position. This is yet another illustration of the normalisation of immigration detention in the UK and the Home Office’s disdain for the right to liberty”.
Detainees complained that they were not informed of their right to seek legal assistance. Maria only learned about the Yarl’s Wood Covid scare from her sister, who was barred from visiting because of it. The Home Office denied there had been an “outbreak”.
Spanish officials said they were monitoring the situation and a European Commission spokesperson said it was concerned about “the conditions and duration of retention” while adding that only a “small number of EU citizens” seemed to have been affected.
Marin Raykov, the Bulgarian ambassador, confirmed his consulate had dealt with “several cases, when a return flight was not available withing 24 hours of the arrival time, several Bulgarian citizens were detained at an immigration removal centre”.
He said citizens needed to be given a chance to contact the embassy. “The embassy expects to be promptly notified by the Home Office / Border Force regarding the temporary detention.so consular officials may provide them with the necessary advice, inform their their relatives in Bulgaria if necessary, as well as assist in arranging their speedy return to Bulgaria”.
The Home Office has not released data on border detention since Brexit came into force in January and it remains unclear how many of those detained have been able, or willing, to contact their consulates..