A Home Office policy, under which 2,000 mobile phones have been seized from asylum seekers arriving to the UK irregularly, has been decaled unlawful by the High Court. Charities as well as sponsors offering to host Ukrainians under the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme denounce visa restrictions, red-tape and delays causing distress and leaving people stranded in the conflict zone. 12,000 of the 16,000 Afghans evacuated following the regime change in Afghanistan in 2021 remain in temporary housing.

The High Court has ruled against home secretary, Priti Patel in a juridical review filed by three asylum seekers over the confiscation of their phones and extraction of personal data by UK authorities. The court found the unpublished but widely implemented policy unlawful, and in breach of human rights as well as data protection laws. While the Home Office argued that section 48 of the Immigration Act 2016 allowed officials to confiscate, search and extract data from the phones of asylum seekers arriving irregularly the High Court ruled that it cannot be used to carry out personal searches and accordingly such searches and the subsequent seizures of their phones was unlawful. Further, it found the policy in infringement of their right to family and private life under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). According to one of the lawyers representing the three asylum seekers 2,000 phones have been seized under the “secret, blanket policy” of the Home Office. “Such systematic extraction of personal data from vulnerable asylum seekers, who were not suspects in any crime, was an astonishing and unparalleled assault on fundamental privacy rights”, Clare Jennings of Gold Jennings, another lawyer on the case stated. A Home Office spokesperson commented the ruling saying: “Channel crossings are an overt abuse of our immigration laws but they also impact on the UK taxpayer, risk lives and our ability to help refugees who come to the UK via safe and legal routes”. The lack of safe and legal routes to the UK and the criminalisation of asylum seekers arriving irregularly has been widely critisised in the context of the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill – dubbed the ‘Anti Refugee Bill’ by campaigners.

In a joint letter, ECRE members the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross, alongside Save the Children and Oxfam demands the immediate waiving of visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees in line with the policy of the EU. Currently only people with a valid biometric passport and relatives in the UK can enter without first obtaining a visa. Further, the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, launched by the government in response to critique over visa restrictions, allowing members of the public to sponsor a Ukrainian citizen or resident is defined by red-tape and delays. According to the organisations: “causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians and increasing frustration to tens of thousands of Britons who want to welcome them into their homes”. According to Robina Qureshi, head of Positive Action in Housing, the scheme has given people “false hope” and amounts to a “gimmick”. She stated: “The government made a fanfare of its Homes for Ukraine community sponsorship programme. Michael Gove told parliament on 14 March that there was no limit on the numbers coming in. Yet none of the families we are supporting have yet got a visa to travel under the community sponsorship scheme and are still waiting”. Charities are not alone in their critique. Reportedly, a Conservative councillor shocked over the red tape surrounding the UK’s Ukraine visa system has resigned over the governments “hostile” and “xenophobic” approach to refugees. The critique also resonates with members of the public who have signed up to host Ukrainians under the scheme. Samantha Flower, who has applied to sponsor a 17-year-old Ukrainian boy said she was met by delays and bureaucracy leaving the child in Ukraine while the paperwork is processed. “If he doesn’t make it out alive, it’s because the red tape prevented it,” she stated. On March 30 two weeks after the launch of the scheme just 2,700 visas had been granted, according to Home Office figures.

Despite the delays, bureaucracy and restrictive visa policies surrounding the UK response to Ukrainian displacements, commentators are pointing to the comparatively worse situation in terms of rights for other groups of asylum seekers. Senior Metro news reporter, James Hockaday writes: “it wasn’t until war broke out in Europe that the Government decided to let Ukrainians seek work straight away under its new sponsorship scheme. Meanwhile people fleeing violence from countries like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen can only work after waiting 12 months for their claim with the Home Office”. Following the regime change in Afghanistan in 2021, the UK evacuated roughly 16,000 people from the country – 12,000 remain housed temporarily in hotels. While the government has explained its failure as the result of a shortage of affordable housing across the UK, critics have pointed to inept planning, the lack of will and even a hostility toward asylum seekers and migrants in general. ”There is a xenophobic attitude underpinning immigration and asylum policy in the U.K.,” said refugee and migrant rights program director for Amnesty UK, Steve Valdez-Symonds.

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