The Home Office has been pressing ahead with deportation flights despite warnings from the UN that they risk spreading coronavirus.
The Independent has learned that a charter flight is set to depart the UK for Lithuania on Friday despite calls by the UN Network on Migration for all governments to suspend forced returns during the pandemic. The group warned the practice posed a risk to both deportees and the countries receiving them.
Twenty-four removals from the UK took place between 20 March and 3 April alone, returning individuals from Bulgaria, Romania, Hong Kong, Poland and the USA. The Home Office has declined to reveal the total number of deportations that have taken place during the lockdown.
The flight to Lithuania is due to depart with just one individual on board, prompting concern that the Home Office is acting against public health and at a cost of thousands of pounds in taxpayers’ money. A previous freedom of information request revealed almost £12,000 per person was spent on charter flights last year.
The number of people in the UK’s immigration detention estate has fallen considerably since the lockdown started in March, but about 254 people are still being held. To place someone in detention, the Home Office must have a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale.
In a statement published last month, the UN Network on Migration said: “Forced returns can intensify serious public health risks for everyone – migrants, public officials, health workers, social workers and both host and origin communities. Forced returns place additional strain on countries of return.”
It warned that deportees may be at risk of experiencing “extreme financial hardship” and potentially human trafficking on return to their country of origin, due to already high levels of unemployment as a result of the pandemic.
They may also face additional risks such as lack of access to adequate health care and poor water and sanitation systems, the UN said, adding that many health systems were already stretched and lacking capacity to protect returnees and their communities, including through testing upon arrival and quarantine and self-isolation measures.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, which has legally challenged the Home Office’s continued detention and deportation of migrants during the pandemic, said: “Despite guidance from the UN and the government’s own public health advice against all but essential travel, the Home Office is desperately seeking to operate a forced removals policy throughout this pandemic regardless of the clear dangers.
“Tomorrow Priti Patel has chartered a private plane to remove just one person to Lithuania, sacrificing common sense, public health and thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money. The humane and responsible response is to suspend all removals and release people safely from detention until this emergency has passed.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We make no apology for protecting the public by removing serious, violent and persistent foreign national offenders from the UK. On all removal flights public health guidance is adhered to, those on the flight are seen by a healthcare professional before they are returned and anyone who is exhibiting symptoms would be removed from the flight and placed into protective isolation.”
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