Dozens of Jamaican nationals have been taken off a removal flight in the days and hours before it was due to take off, raising renewed questions around the legality and efficacy of the Home Office’s deportation policy.
Campaigners say just four deportees were on board the charter plane, which left Birmingham airport in the early hours of Tuesday morning and is said to have had the capacity to seat 350 people. Around 50 people were originally due to fly.
The Home Office removed an unknown number of deportees from the flight list because there had been a Covid outbreak at Colnbrook, an immigration removal centre near Heathrow, where they were being held.
At least another five had their deportation deferred because they had been identified as potential victims of trafficking, with indicators that they had been groomed by county lines gangs and that this had played a role in crimes they had committed.
Among those taken off the flight list include a 23-year-old man who has lived in the UK since he was three months old, and another, aged 29, who has been in the country since he was a year old. Neither has any memory of Jamaica, and both have been identified as potential county lines victims.
The Home Office also took a man with HIV off the flight list. The department was threatened with legal action over its failure to provide him with life-saving treatment in the detention centre, as reported by The Independent.
Last week, it emerged that the Home Office was planning to deport non-criminals to Jamaica for the first time since the Windrush scandal broke, in what was described as an “affront to the Windrush generation”.
Among them was a 20-year-old woman with no criminal convictions, who has been in the country since she was 13 and has no relatives in Jamaica. She was due to be deported with her mother, 56, who also has no convictions. Both were taken off the flight list within hours of The Independent publishing an article about the situation.
The fact that so many people were taken off the flight in the days before its departure will fuel concerns about the efficacy and cost of the current deportation system.
An analysis by The Independent in August revealed that the cost per deportee from the UK had more than tripled in four years, with the average number of returnees on each charter flight dropping from 45 in 2016 to just 15 last year.
This means the Home Office has spent an estimated £13,300 for each person removed, compared with £4,444 four years before.
Sixty charter flights left the UK in 2020, with a total of 883 people on board, according to the analysis of figures obtained through freedom of information law by campaign group No Deportations. This compares to a total of 1,563 people on board a total of 35 flights in 2016.
There are widespread concerns about a lack of access to legal advice for people facing removal, which leads to them only obtaining access to decent lawyers in the days leading up to their flight, when charities intervene and lawyers offer to work pro bono.
Charity Detention Action is currently bringing a legal challenge against the Home Office over access to legal advice in removal centres, warning that people bring last-minute legal claims as a result of the “shambolic” advice system.
Bella Sankey, director at Detention Action, described the deportation flight on Wednesday as a “farce”, adding that the system for people obtaining adequate legal advice was “irrational and arbitrary”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady had called for the flight to be cancelled, adding: “There have been far too many miscarriages of justice in the immigration system. All deportation flights should be suspended while the Home Office addresses its failures to adequately check the circumstances of those targeted for deportation.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Those with no right to be in the UK and foreign national offenders should be in no doubt that we will do whatever is necessary to remove them. This is what the public rightly expects and why we regularly operate flights to different countries.
“We are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery, but we will not tolerate those who seek to abuse the system to prevent their lawful removal. That is why we fully review all cases, with many going through the courts, to ensure there are no outstanding legal barriers – such as modern slavery or trafficking claims – that would prevent removal from the UK.”
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