The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK has renewed calls for a fair and person-centred approach to immigration in light of a planned charter flight that would remove many people who may not have not been in a position to obtain adequate legal advice, and many of whom grew up in Britain.
The charter flight to Kingston, Jamaica, is scheduled for Tuesday 11th February. Many of those served with removal directions are being held at Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre where there is ongoing mobile phone signal outage. There are concerns that this has made it difficult or impossible for people to contact their solicitors, or NGOs that typically make referrals to solicitors. In consequence of the signal outage, the charity Detention Action has brought a legal challenge seeking to compel that Home Office to issue alternative SIM cards to people detained and to ensure that anyone who is facing removal has adequate time to access legal advice. Family members and NGOs supporting people due to be removed have objected on the basis that many of them were either born in the UK or arrived here as young children.
Following the so-called ‘Windrush’ scandal, in which British citizens were subjected to hostile environment measures, detained, and forcibly removed from the UK, the government temporarily suspended charter flights in 2018 because they could not guarantee that these would not result in wrongful removals. After they were resumed, it was revealed that at least 5 people had been killed after being forced to return to Jamaica since the exposure of the ‘Windrush’ scandal.
JRS UK provides an outreach service to the Heathrow detention centres, offering accompaniment and practical support. Within and from this context, we offer to accompany, serve, and advocate for all those detained under immigration powers. The signal outage has affected people with whom we work. William Neal, JRS UK’s detention outreach officer, explained, “In order to allow adequate access to legal advice the use of mobile phones within detention is vitally important. Furthermore, those in detention depend on their mobile phones as the sole way of maintaining contact with families, friends and communities on whom they rely on for emotional support. Through our weekly drop-in service, we have seen how the continued, wide-spread loss of phone signal as compounded the anxiety, stress and frustration felt by many.”
Many of those who have so far been served with removal directions for the flight on Tuesday are understood to be categorised by the Home Office as “foreign national offenders”. This occurs in a context where immigration infractions are increasingly criminalised under the hostile environment. For example, the Immigration Act 2016 introduced a distinct criminal offence of working without permission to do so. Asylum seekers and other migrants can thus be criminalised for actions that would be legal for a British citizen. Furthermore, recent research has highlighted that many classed as “foreign national offenders” have spent their whole lives in Britain.
In his second report on the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, commissioned by the government and published in July 2018, Stephen Shaw found that “a significant proportion of those deemed Foreign National Offenders had grown up in the UK…had been to UK schools, and all of their close family and friends were based in the UK. Many had no command of the language of the country to which they were to be ‘returned’, or any remaining family ties there.” He consequently recommended that “The Home Office should no longer routinely seek to remove those who were born in the UK or have been brought up here from an early age.”
Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK, said “No one should face forced removal without having had the opportunity to obtain legal advice. The routine deportation of people who know no other home than Britain tears apart families and communities and once again demonstrates a failure to look at human persons when implementing immigration control. The scheduled flight is further proof of the need for a more person-centred approach to immigration”.
The report reviewing the Windrush scandal has yet to be published. A leaked draft of the report is purported to recommend that the government “consider ending all deportation of foreign national offenders where they arrived in the UK as children”, which would echo Mr Shaw’s recommendation. A number of MPs and NGOs have called for the flight to be suspended until the review has been published and its recommendations implemented.
Concerns have also been raised that some of those on the flight may be victims of modern slavery. JRS UK often supports victims of trafficking in Heathrow IRC who have been forced to work in cannabis farms and then criminalised for cannabis related offences. They are therefore classed by the Home Office as foreign national offenders. Further details can be found in our topical briefing.