A charter flight to remove asylum seekers who recently arrived in the UK on small boats took off on Wednesday morning carrying 14 people, the Home Office said, despite last-minute high court actions and other interventions just hours before takeoff.
Nineteen people due to fly did not board the plane. The Home Office said 14 people were placed on the charter flight destined for France and Germany.
The 19 who had their deportation stayed had been given an opportunity to make more detailed asylum representations in the UK. Their lawyers and NGOs working with detainees said they had not come across the 14 people whom the Home Office said had been removed.
Due to social distancing rules only 20 people can currently be removed on a charter flight. Some of the 19 who did not fly had their removal directions deferred or stayed just hours before the flight took off, giving the Home Office only a short amount of time to substitute them for other asylum seekers who also arrived in the UK on small boats.
The Home Office argued that all had previously been in another European country – France or Germany – and should have their asylum claims dealt with there under a process known as the Dublin convention, under which an asylum claim is dealt with in the first safe European country an asylum seeker arrives in.
The vulnerability of many of those threatened with removal to mainland Europe is stark, with at least nine thought to be suffering from PTSD, at least eight survivors of torture, and seven at risk of suicide, with several having attempted suicide since arriving in the UK. At least three are victims of trafficking and at least three are suffering from physical injuries after being tortured.
The majority of the asylum seekers due to fly had their tickets deferred by the Home Office before any high court action was required. Three cases were the subject of emergency out-of-hours high court action late on Tuesday evening and into the early hours of Wednesday morning. All three were granted orders staying their removal in order for more detailed submissions about their asylum claims to be made.
They lodged pre-action protocols on Monday, the first stage in the judicial review process, to try to halt the Home Office action to remove them.
Those involved in the legal action come from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Yemen.
The 19 people due to fly were represented by Duncan Lewis solicitors.
Helen Baron, a trainee solicitor at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, said that many of the asylum seekers are extremely vulnerable. “They have suffered further trauma from being detained and their fear of removal after surviving horrors in Yemen, Kuwait, Iran and Afghanistan as well as en route to the UK. We will continue to fight for their protection in the UK.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This morning a flight departed carrying 14 people being removed to France and Germany under the Dublin Regulation.
“These flights are a key part of the UK’s strategy to stop the illegally facilitated crossings from France to the UK. All those due to be on the manifest were served with removal directions with a minimum of five working days’ notice. Some individuals were not on the manifest because they made late claims following being detained.”
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The Home Office does not release comprehensive statistics on those who arrive in the UK in small boats, but analysis by PA Media puts the number who have crossed the Channel this year at more than 4,100. The home secretary, Priti Patel, previously said the small boat arrivals would become an “infrequent phenomenon”. But instead the numbers crossing have increased. She has appointed a former Royal Marine, Dan O’Mahoney, as “clandestine Channel threat commander”.
Humanitarian organisations and migration experts have urged the government to create safe and legal routes to the UK for asylum seekers, to reduce the number of people making risky sea journeys, and to strengthen family reunion provisions and offer humanitarian visas.