Up to 20 asylum seekers are scheduled to be deported to France and Germany on Wednesday under the Dublin regulation, a law that requires asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in.
Lawyers said it was “disproportionate” to carry out chartered returns in the current climate, and accused the Home Office of failing to give sufficient regard to to the “unpredictable nature” of flights on which vulnerable individuals are forcibly removed.
The Independent understands that there will be no testing for deportees or immigration escorts on departure or arrival, raising concerns that the move could risk spreading Covid-19 between countries.
Ministers have already been criticised for charter flights that have departed from the UK to eastern European countries during the lockdown, but this is the first removal of asylum seekers since the pandemic began.
It comes after Priti Patel vowed to take action to tackle small boat crossings following a surge in asylum seekers reaching British shores by boat this year. More than 2,500 people are known to have made the unauthorised crossing so far in 2020, compared with fewer than 500 in 2018.
One individual who is scheduled to be on the flight, a Yemeni national who said he fled his country last summer after being jailed and threatened by the Houthi regime, told The Independent he felt suicidal after being detained last Friday and issued removal directions.
The 24-year-old, who didn’t want to be named, arrived in the UK on 27 May after crossing in a small boat from Calais. He then claimed asylum and was subsequently placed in a hotel in Birmingham which is being used to house asylum seekers during the lockdown.
He spent two months in the hotel, during which he said he felt “safe” and “human” again. On 30 July, he was placed into asylum dispersal accommodation in Coventry, but early the following morning the house was raided by immigration enforcement officers and he was taken to Brook House removal centre.
“I felt so scared. Everything I’ve worked so hard to reach is being demolished. I’m destroyed. I’m unable to eat or drink. I feel that there’s no meaning to my life,” he said.
The Yemeni national said he wanted to claim asylum in the UK because he felt he would adapt better here than in other European countries, as he already knew members of the Yemeni community in Britain and wouldn’t face the “harshness” he faced while travelling through France and Spain.
“In Spain, I was first housed by a charity for a few days, but then they kicked me out because they were closing, and I had to sleep on the streets. In France, I slept in a bus station and face a lot of difficulty from street gangs, who stole my food,” he said.
“Coming to the UK was a new opportunity to live again. I was feeling safe. I felt human again. Now I’m scared. I’d rather go back and be killed in Yemen than die on the streets in France. I have the right to claim asylum in the UK. My country is in a war.”
Lily Parrott, trainee solicitor at Duncan Lewis, the law firm representing the man, said it was “deeply concerning” that the Home Office was resuming removals to France, noting there had been a recent spike in cases of Covid-19 in the country, in particular Marseille, where the flight is set to land.
“These asylum seekers risk facing destitution and homelessness. Further, we have not been assured that the people being removed are being done so lawfully or that the Home Office has checked whether they are at high risk from Covid-19,” she said.
Celia Clarke, director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, speculated that the move may be part of a strategy to “rush through” as many removals as possible under Dublin regulations, because the practice will likely cease to be part of UK law after the Brexit date.
“This utterly reckless step risks spreading coronavirus across borders. As so often happens, immigration enforcement is being prioritised over public health,” she added.
Labour MP Diane Abbott said it was “unbelievable”, adding: “All of these asylum seekers will be particularly vulnerable to Covid, because of their ethnicity and other medical reasons, and we know France has seen a rise in Covid cases. The Home Office is potentially sending people to their death, but does not seem to care.“
Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action, said the decision to charter the flight was “wrong in principle and will be dangerous in practice”.
She continued: “How can the Home Office guarantee that those they are seeking to deport have had adequate access to legal advice and have not been exposed to Covid either in detention or in crowded asylum accommodation?
“Instead of playing politics with public health, the Home Office could take this opportunity to redeem its Windrush-damaged reputation and show a human face.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are returning migrants who have no legal right to be in the UK. They have illegally crossed the Channel when they have no need and no right to leave mainland Europe.
“The flight is a very strong signal to anyone attempting to cross that you are wasting your time and will be returned. Further flights are planned in the coming weeks and months.”