Many hundreds of people who arrive in England in small boats are being detained and immediately sent to immigration removal centres, which raises the fear of a new, secret Home Office policy to deport them without their asylum claims being properly considered.
Many detainees are apparent trafficking and torture victims from countries such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, who would normally be allowed asylum accommodation in the community while their claims are processed, but instead they are effectively imprisoned.
Many children are among those who have crossed the Channel and have been sent directly to immigration removal centres, with solicitors claiming the Home Office has classed minors as adults despite not age-assessing them in person.
Some small-boat asylum seekers have been denied access to a lawyer since early May after landing and being immediately detained in a removal centre. Campaigners say the development is ‘not the act of a civilised and compassionate nation’.
A public outcry followed the publication of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s nationality and borders bill. It claims to reform the asylum system but has been described by the UN as having an ‘almost neocolonial approach’ in allowing the UK to shirk its international responsibilities to refugees.
Immigration lawyers say this apparent undisclosed policy change, which appears to have been introduced over the past two months, is unlawful and they are now preparing to challenge it.
Director of public law and immigration at Duncan Lewis, Toufique Hossain, described it as a potentially ‘grave abuse of power’.
Hossain went on to say: “They have effectively started bypassing the asylum system and saying to individuals with strong claims that their claim is weak, and that they may not get an appeal and that they intend to remove them quickly”.
“The whole starting point is to disbelieve people arriving from places where the Home Office knows individuals have a well-founded fear of harm and persecution”.
This shift appears to have affected hundreds already, and Duncan Lewis has received reports that the UK’s network of immigration removal centres is overwhelmed.
Harmondsworth removal centre, near Heathrow airport, whose capacity is 670, is one centre that is understood to be ‘overwhelmed’. The Home Office is also filling Brook House at Gatwick airport and Colnbrook, near Heathrow – with a combined capacity of 850 – with small boat arrivals.
Tom Nunn of Duncan Lewis said:”Detention centres are being filled with people who have just arrived but who are not being released into the community”. He added they are aware of more than 50 Vietnamese nationals, a country which is one of the top sources for trafficking into the UK.
There is also speculation that the Home Office has chartered a deportation flight to Vietnam at the end of July for small boat arrivals, although government would not confirm this.
Nunn said the firm were aware of Iraqis and Afghans who had indicators of torture, but whom the Home Office had apparently detained in contravention of the established asylum process.
“There have been a few cases where medical advice from doctors in the immigration centre is that they are victims of torture. We are however, seeing a lot of cases where the Home Office is pushing back on this, basically saying that: “You’re a victim of torture but we believe we can remove you quickly and therefore we’ll keep you in detention”.
Clare Mosely of charity Care4Calais, said: “To detain and deport such vulnerable people in this way is not the act of a civilised and compassionate nation. If we fail to ensure that those who need our help are treated in a fair and decent manner we risk losing our reputation as a decent and honest society”.
Asylum seekers are usually placed in special accommodation while their claims are heard, a process that can often take longer than a year. Currently there is a record backlog of 109,000 cases in the system with over 79,000 being processed for more than a year. This is not the first time that the Home Office appears to have quietly introduced measures that reduce the rights and protection of asylum seekers.
The Home Office, last year, secretly shortened asylum screening interviews for arrivals in the UK, a move that meant torture and trafficking victims could be deported far more quickly.
The high court however, last week, ruled that Patel should quickly bring back to the UK a small boat asylum seeker and Sudanese torture survivor who was removed to France.
The 38 year old was tracked down by Liberty Investigates in an investigation whose evidence paved the way for the government defeat.
Called Omar, in the investigation, he had nine of the eleven indicators of trafficking and torture yet was deported to France after just two months in the UK.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We assess the suitability of all new arrivals and only detain people when there is a realistic prospect of their removal within a reasonable timescale, and evidence of their vulnerability is outweighed by immigration considerations.
“It is inaccurate to say unaccompanied minors are being classed as adults during age assessment interviews. The Home Office makes every effort to ensure people’s age is assessed correctly, in the interests of safeguarding and to avoid abuse of the system”. They added that the government would ‘crack down on illegal entry and the criminality associated with it’.
The spokesperson said “People should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in and we must ensure dangerous journeys are not incentivised”.