The Home Office has spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on deportations in a “rush” to remove asylum seekers before the end of the Brexit transition period, with some charter flights carrying only a few people onboard, The Independent can reveal.
New data obtained through freedom of information laws shows that £2.3m was spent on forcibly removing 225 people to European countries in July, August and September this year – double the amount spent on deportation flights in the previous quarter, when 285 people were removed.
On average, the cost of removing each deportee – many of whom were asylum seekers – was just over £10,100, compared with £3,900 in the second quarter of the year. As a comparison, a commercial flight ticket from the UK to Australia costs just over £900.
Some of the charter flights that have left the UK since July 2020 took off with a fraction of the plane’s capacity onboard, with flights to Finland and Sweden carrying six and five people respectively, and one to France carrying a single deportee.
It comes amid concerns that the Home Office is “rushing” through deportations of asylum seekers under Dublin III – a regulation that allows the UK to send refugees back to EU countries they have passed through – which will cease to exist when the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.
The department has said that once the Dublin III regulation ends, it will implement a new policy of deeming asylum claims of people who have travelled through another safe country as “inadmissible” and striking agreements with EU countries to return them. However, there is no evidence that such agreements have yet been made.
In many recent deportation attempts, asylum seekers have had their removal directions cancelled hours before the flight because lawyers intervened and identified previously unacknowledged vulnerabilities – such as indicators that they were trafficked or concern over their fitness to fly – which made their deportation legally unsound.
A report by the Prison Inspectorate published earlier this month found that late cancellations of removal directions were “not unusual”, with numerous deportees having been taken off charter flights hours before they were due to take off in recent months.
In one case cited in the report, a charter flight to France in October that was due to take 30 deportees – most or all of whom were asylum seekers – ended up deporting just one person, with nine people taken off on the same day as the flight.
Charlie Taylor, HM chief inspector of prisons, said: “Such cancellations were commonplace and suggest that detainees’ vulnerabilities, which often lead to cancellations, are not identified early enough.”
A separate report by the prisons watchdog, published in October, warned that asylum seekers arriving in the UK via small boat often had no access to legal advice and were not screened for vulnerability, even once they were placed in removal centres after being served deportation orders.
This year, the Home Office has adopted an “abridged” interview process for asylum seekers, meaning they are given less time and with fewer questions asked. This has prompted concern among experts that individuals have not been given adequate opportunity to disclose any safeguarding needs or experiences of trafficking.
In November, the High Court ruled that the Home Office may be acting unlawfully in “curtailing” asylum-screening interviews by asking a “narrower” set of questions than those that are identified in the published policy guidance; the judge said this created a “serious risk of injustice and irreversible harm”.
Sarah Teather, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, said the charity had been supporting people who were facing flights this week who had “clear” indicators of trafficking and slavery, and who had been through a similar “botched process of screening that allowed the government to avoid treating them with humanity”.
Responding to the new figures, she said: “These eye-watering costs make clear that the rush to force asylum seekers and survivors of trafficking on to planes before Brexit was just a show-and-tell exercise all along.
“This is a shameful episode. The most vulnerable individuals who we have a moral obligation to protect are being used as pawns in a bigger media storm, at vast cost to their lives and great cost to the taxpayer.”
Celia Clarke, director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said the fault for last-minute removal cancellations lay “squarely at the feet of the government for making no enquiries about an individual’s history of trauma or trafficking, and systematically denying access to legal advice until the very last minute”.
She added: “The evidence is beyond dispute and is reiterated by the government’s own inspector. That is why people are forced, in desperation, to make last-minute claims. In addition to the immeasurable human cost, this is a colossal waste of money.”
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: “While the economy contracts, the Home Office has emptied our pockets, removing trafficking victims to destitution across Europe.
“Charter flights are a national ripoff as well as an assault on basic human rights and access to justice. How much more exploitation have these millions fuelled? And all for the sake of some fleeting headlines.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Charter flights are used for a variety of reasons, including to remove highly disruptive individuals who could not be carried on scheduled commercial flights.
“We have run multi-leg charter operations, so the number of returnees to one destination does not reflect the number of passengers on an entire flight but late legal claims can reduce the value for money that we aim to secure from each operation.
“We make no apology for removing dangerous foreign criminals or those who have no right to remain in the UK.”
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