The Home Office has said it will press ahead with a controversial charter flight deporting Jamaican nationals, even as a last-minute court order granted some of them a temporary reprieve.
More than 50 men had been due to be flown to Kingston on Tuesday morning because of their criminal records, even though some had lived in the UK since childhood and committed only low-level offences.
But on Monday night the Court of Appeal ordered the Home Office not to deport dozens of the men who had not been granted adequate access to legal advice. The men been denied access to working sim cards at Heathrow detention facilities following a mobile phone signal outage that prevented them from consulting lawyers.
The flight went ahead on Tuesday morning but it is not clear how many people were on board.
Sajid Javid, the Chancellor and a former Home Secretary, defended the decision to proceed with the flight for some of the men, saying it was "to protect the public". He said the men had committed serious crimes "like manslaughter, rape, dealing in class A drugs".
Those still set to be flown back to Jamaica told The Independent that they feared for their lives on return to Kingston. Five people previously deported to Jamaica were killed shortly after their arrival.
Evidence presented to the court by charity Detention Action showed replacement sim cards were being distributed only from last Wednesday, breaching the Home Office’s own policy that all deportees must be given a minimum of five working days before removal to seek legal advice if they wish to.
It comes after the department was forced to admit it had known about the issue affecting detainees’ mobile phone signals since 13 January, but still pressed ahead with charter flights to Ghana, Nigeria and France before providing working sim cards.
Locked in his cell at Brook House removal centre on Monday, 25-year-old Rohan McLennon, who has been in the UK since the age of eight, said: “They are sending me to death. I’m very depressed. I can’t eat. I’m very scared. If they leave me at the airport I will not know which way to turn.
“People are going to take what they are saying and think we are murderers and rapists. That is not me, but they’re going to stereotypes us as murderers and killers. People are going to want to kill me. Their own police officers are corrupted.
“I’d rather die in Brook House now than go in that plane tomorrow, because I know my family will come to my funeral. In Jamaica my family would not come. They wouldn’t know I’d have died.”
The northwest London resident said he had been sentenced to two-and-a-half years over a drug offence committed after he was groomed by county lines gangs as a teenager while he tried to save to secure his immigration status. He added: “They want to send me back to a place I’ve not been since I was eight years old. The only thing I remember from Jamaica is brushing my teeth. I’ve got no one there.”
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “Even after the appalling Windrush scandal, Conservative ministers were brazenly defending their plans to deport people just hours before the court ruled it unlawful.
“No one can trust the Home Office to get these decisions right, and we owe it to the victims of the Windrush scandal to prevent anything like it from happening again.”
Mobile phones provided by the Home Office at the outset of detention are the principal means by which detainees are able to access legal assistance, contact their solicitors and stay in touch with their families.
Handing down the ruling on Monday evening, Lady Justice Simler said: “At best some individuals have had a functioning sim card for three working days. At worst, the evidence indicates that some have still not received a functioning sim card.
“Further, in light of the evidence filed by the claimant I cannot be confident that there were adequate alternative means of accessing legal advice and assistance during a minimum of five working days before the charter flight to Jamaica.”
It remained unclear on Monday evening whether all of those due to be deported from the Heathrow removal centres affected by mobile phone problems would be taken off the flight, but Detention Action said this was likely to be the case.
Bella Sankey, director of the charity, said the “landmark” decision was a “victory for access to justice, fairness and the rule of law”.
She added: “On the basis of this order from our Court of Appeal we do not believe that anyone currently detained at the Heathrow detention centres can be removed on tomorrow’s flight. We understand that this will apply to at least 56 people.”
Toufique Hossain, director of public law at Duncan Lewis, who represented the charity, said: “For weeks now detainees’ complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
“Their removal looms large, hours away and yet again it takes judicial intervention to make the home office take basic, humane and fair steps to allow people to enjoy their constitutional right to access justice.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The planned charter flight to Jamaica is specifically for deporting foreign national offenders. Those detained for removal include people convicted of manslaughter, rape, violent crime and dealing class-A drugs.
“We are urgently asking the judge to reconsider their ruling and it would be inappropriate to comment further whilst legal proceedings are ongoing.”
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