The Home Office is prosecuting asylum seekers for steering dinghies despite ‘not being part of criminal gangs.’ This comes as a judge rules that the Home Office is failing to follow its own policy on procedure to identify victims of trafficking in asylum interviews. Further, Home Office officials have expressed concern that migrant children’s welfare is being side-lined amid the UK’s ‘brutal push to deport.’ Reports of incidents of self-harm in a detention centre holding asylum seekers who have crossed the Channel indicate the issue has surged by 2000%.

The Home Office is pushing to criminalise asylum seekers who steer dinghies under an offence previously used to prosecute human smugglers. This push undermines UNHCR’s definition of smugglers as facilitating journeys for “financial or other material benefit.”  The immigration enforcement unit is analysing drone footage of small boats to single out migrants who may be prosecuted. The Independent Chief inspector of Borders and Immigration published a report which outlined that the immigration enforcement’s criminal and financial investigation team found small boat crossing investigations “difficult because there were no organised crime group members onboard the boats, although one of the migrants might have agreed with the facilitators to act as a ‘chaperone’ for a reduced fee.” Following the drowning of a Kurdish Iranian family in the Channel last month, campaigners have said the policy meant authorities were criminalising asylum seekers for “trying to save lives” by steering the boats safely during dangerous journeys.  Eight migrants who admitted steering boats have been jailed since August with sentences ranging from sixteen months to over two and a half years. Upon serving these sentences, they will be eligible for deportation. Bella Sankey, Director of Detention Action dismissed the government’s argument that jail sentences will deter crossings stating that asylum seekers crossing the Channel “won’t know the consequences or they will think it’s worth the risk.” She further stated that the Home Office was “conflating what everyone understands a people smuggler to be” with asylum seekers risking their own lives to reach the UK and that asylum seekers who steer boats should be exempt from prosecution for facilitating unlawful immigration and the offence should be reserved for people “using it as a business.”

The deportation of hundreds of asylum seekers may be halted following a ruling that  the Home Secretary departed from her own policy on identifying victims of human trafficking.  The case was brought after the Home Office has continued to use abridged screening interviews for public health reasons. The shortened interviews of between 15-18 minutes, leave out crucial questions designed to pick up on indicators that asylum seekers had been trafficked. Jack Holborn, counsel for the Home Secretary, told the court: “Our position is, it’s a justified departure from the published policy and it doesn’t really matter.” But Mr Justice Fordham of the High Court said he believed it was a departure “without good reason”. He added: “There is, in my judgment, a serious risk of injustice and irreversible harm from this question continuing to be unasked and unanswered.” Interim relief was granted to the applicants, pending a full hearing of the case next month. Mr Justice Fordham ordered the Home Office to interview asylum seekers properly, using the correct legal test for beginning an investigation into human trafficking.

Internal emails and documents reportedly reveal that Home Office officials have expressed concern that the welfare of children and families who have crossed the Channel to the UK is being “compromised” by an intent to prosecute individuals for immigration offence. It has also been reported that at least one senior safeguarding official has resigned. One email from a safeguarding expert questioned the use of restraint and “physical intervention” on children. A former safeguarding expert told the Guardian that “the Home Office began undermining our welfare advice.” Harrowing details of cases emerged from the emails including one family where the children were separated from the parents who were subsequently restrained on the way to a deportation flight. Another case involved an Iranian teenager who was caring for her young brother when the Home Office twice attempted to deport before safeguarding officials intervened.

New figures revealed there were 80 incidents of self-harm requiring medical treatment in Brook House, a removal centre near Gatwick Airport, in August and September of this year, compared with five in the same period in 2019. This comes despite the fact that over the same period, the number of detainees in the facility has reduced to around a third of its normal capacity – from 294 to around 100 owing to the Home Offices release of large numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic. Additional data indicated that there were 161 hunger strikes in Brook house during this period compared to just nine in the same period in 2019. Bella Sankey stated “Our immigration detention centres are filled with survivors of war, torture and human trafficking. Evidence shows our system frequently pushes people to the point of self-harm and attempted suicide.” She further emphasised that the dramatic surge in incidents has occurred amid the “politically driven escalation of deportations” which raise “serious safety concerns that Priti Patel must now answer.”

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 Photo: (CC) Jeff Djevdet, February 2016

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.