The Home Office deported 13 men to Jamaica on a controversial charter flight that left in the early hours of Wednesday morning, but a significant number of other offenders were granted a last-minute reprieve after a legal challenge.
Documents lodged in the high court by the Home Office stated that its intention was to remove as many as 50 Jamaican nationals, but only a fraction of that number boarded the flight, according to ministry sources.
The Home Office minister for immigration compliance, Chris Philp, said the flight had removed 13 “serious foreign criminals” from the UK. A number of others due to be onboard are said to have been granted a reprieve after the ministry acknowledged they may have been victims of modern slavery.
The mass deportation became a high-profile issue after a series of campaigns including one from 82 black public figures – among them the author Bernardine Evaristo, the model Naomi Campbell and the historian David Olusoga – who urged airlines not to operate the Home Office flight.
Several NGOs, dozens of solicitors and barristers including 11 QCs signed a letter saying the deportation flight was unlawful, unjust and racist. More than 60 MPs and peers signed a letter to the home secretary, Priti Patel, calling for the flight to be cancelled, and a petition from BARAC UK and BAME Lawyers for Justice attracted more than 180,000 signatures.
A series of legal challenges were launched in the days before the flight, many of which succeeded.
Charter flights to Jamaica are particularly controversial because of the Windrush scandal, and because some people earmarked for deportation came to the UK as children or have lived in the country for decades with established families.
A last-ditch legal attempt by two children to prevent the deportation of many of those due to be on the flight failed. The two siblings brought the case on behalf of their father, arguing that the Home Office had failed to properly assess the best interests of children whose parents it sought to deport.
The children were hoping to secure an injunction preventing the flight from leaving until an assessment had been carried out in the cases of all of the children about to be separated from their fathers. Their application did not succeed but the case will continue.
The Guardian has seen a letter and drawing from a 10-year-old boy addressed to a judge he hoped would remove his father from the flight. The boy wrote: “People are making decisions about my dad. When they grew up they probably had a dad. The decisions they make mean I won’t have a dad with me.”
No one who arrived in the UK under the age of 12 was put on the flight, after the Home Office and the Jamaican authorities quietly agreed a deal not to remove people who came as children, according to Jamaica’s high commissioner, Seth Ramocan. Documents seen by the Guardian have confirmed the arrangement.
Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, said: “This cowboy operation was stopped in its tracks by judges intervening to defend those whose lives are at risk in Jamaica. But the tragedy of this tale is the many devastated children who have had a loving parent forcibly ripped from their lives without any consultation or being able to make their voice heard. This is child cruelty plain and simple and it will not stand.”
Karen Doyle, of Movement for Justice, said: “While there are many families desperately relieved this morning, there are also many children who just lost their father before Christmas at a time of pandemic when children’s mental health is already suffering.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.