Ministers faced double embarrassment last night over the Home Office practice of arresting failed asylum-seekers late at night or early in the morning in preparation for rapid removal from Britain.
The High Court declared a Home Office policy that denies some refugees a last-minute appeal against deportation "unlawful". The department said it was disappointed and announced that it would appeal against the ruling. And a Whitehall watchdog today warns that early morning raids on asylum-seeking families intensified the stress felt by youngsters in an already traumatic situation.
The landmark court ruling came after human rights lawyers challenged the instant removal from Britain of certain categories of refugees.
In general, people are given 72 hours' notice that they are to be deported, enabling them to launch a final legal challenge to their removal from the country.
But three years ago the previous government introduced an "exceptions policy" that enabled immigration officers to fast-track the removal of some refugees. It includes those judged to be in fragile mental health, and at risk of becoming suicidal if they knew they were about to be deported, and children deemed likely to abscond.
In his ruling, the judge said one case he found "disturbing" was that of a teenage girl, known as "T", from Eritrea, who was taken from her English home by UK Border Agency officers at 4am one morning and – unable to contact her lawyers – flown to Italy just hours later.
He ruled: "This case shows that the right of access to justice was infringed when limited notice was given, and also that sometimes removal directions are issued incorrectly or have to be stayed."
Refugee groups complained that the policy resulted in immigration officers arresting vulnerable people late at night and transporting them under guard just hours later to early morning flights taking them back to the countries they have fled.
But Mr Justice Silber, sitting in London yesterday, quashed the practice, which is supported by the coalition government. He ruled: "It is clear that the new policy fails to ensure that those who receive reduced periods of notice will be able to obtain legal advice in the time available before they are removed."
Emma Ginn, its co-ordinator, said: "It felt like the policy was designed to remove vulnerable people from the country in a way that denied them any real chance to speak to a lawyer. Quite apart from the affront to justice, the cost in human misery was a source of shame."
Tim Finch, head of migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank, said: "The current system for removing migrants is a mess. It looks tough, but it doesn't deliver. It tramples over basic rights in its desperation to be seen to be taking action – but then it falls foul of the law."
But the Home Office said: "The policy of making limited exceptions in special circumstances to 72-hour notification of immigration removal has been an important element of our management of removals. The Government remains committed to removing individuals with no right to be in the UK as quickly as possible."
Meanwhile, John Vine, the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency, has raised serious question-marks over the treatment of refugee children when they are removed from Britain – particularly over early morning raids.
In a report published today, he says: "Arrest at any time will undoubtedly be an unpleasant experience and have the potential to have a negative impact on the whole family, particularly the children."
Early morning raids on asylum-seeking families have become the "norm", Mr Vine said. "While there is never going to be an optimum time to arrest a family at their home, we were concerned that there was no individual approach to the timing of the arrest of each family given their particular circumstances.
"For example, an arrest involving a parent with a child below school age could feasibly take place later in the day or in the evening."
Mr Vine said there were "significant weaknesses in current family removal procedures and no processes in place to collect, analyse and publish information on families who are subject to removal".
Case study: Denied access to lawyer and mobile phone confiscated
"Mr Nyam" from Cameroon suffers from a severe form of sickle-cell disease, leading to regular health breakdowns requiring hospitalisation. Ten deportation orders have been attempted and abandoned so far, but most have ended with Mr Nyam in hospital.
On 27 April 2010, he was arrested at 10.30pm with a view to his removal at 6.30am the following morning. During his arrest he had expressly asked to speak to his solicitor but this was denied, and his mobile phone was taken away. It was not the first time he had been subjected to a "no notice" removal.
A friend of Mr Nyam's who was with him at the time managed to text his solicitor whose mobile phone happened to be switched on and the solicitor was, also luckily, available. He managed to secure an injunction preventing the deportation at 1.30am. The presiding judge called the manner of the deportation "completely unconscionable".
Mr Nyam's solicitor, Hani Zubeidi of Fadiga & Co, said: "It was pure chance that I was up late working. Otherwise I'd have got to the office the next day to find my client had already left the UK."
Home Office policy states that the immigration officer must allow the individual to speak to their legal representative, and that this may involve providing a mobile telephone. According to the policy, where possible the removal should also be scheduled during office hours.
Mr Nyam's lawyers argue that a deliberate decision was made to try to remove him outside office hours to hinder access to legal representation, thereby denying him access to justice.Reuse content