Pro-refugee protesters demonstrate outside the Home Office in London © Andy Rain/EPA

One of the lawyers that the Home Office criticised for frustrating efforts to remove asylum seekers from the UK has described how he was representing clients fleeing an atrocity-hit Syrian town and trying to join an established community in London.

Amjad Salfiti, a solicitor at London-based John St Solicitors, was speaking the day after the Home Office published a video, later taken down, criticising “activist lawyers” who tried to prevent the removal of asylum seekers from the UK.

The department separately criticised lawyers who submitted “last-minute challenges . . . hours before a scheduled flight” to prevent the “entirely legitimate and legal returns” of people who had entered the UK through “illegal routes”.

Earlier in the day, the department was forced to cancel a planned flight to remove 23 people — three of them Mr Salfiti’s clients — from the UK to Spain.

The three were among 17 people from the town of Naba Alsakher, 70km south-west of Damascus, who arrived in the UK in small boats and whom the Home Office wants to send back to Spain, the first European Union country that they reached. The Home Office on Thursday complained that many of the challenges it faced to its efforts to remove asylum seekers were “baseless and entirely without merit”.

However, Mr Salfiti insisted his clients had a sound legal basis to have their claims processed in the UK. He said they wished to join a large community of people from Naba Alsakher living in Willesden Green, north-west London. He also said they had not made asylum claims elsewhere in Europe.

A group of people thought to be asylum seekers are brought into Dover, Kent, by Border Force officers © Gareth Fuller/PA

There has been considerable controversy over asylum seekers’ rights amid a surge in arrivals in small boats across the English Channel in recent months. That rise has come amid sharp declines in arrivals by other means, such as hiding in trucks, but has been politically contentious because of its visibility.

Mr Salfiti said the Home Office had not been able to show any evidence that his clients had sought asylum in Spain before travelling to the UK. Under the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which governs which member state is responsible for an asylum seeker, migrants can be sent back to a country in which they previously made a claim.

He also insisted that his clients should be spared removal to another country under provisions in the regulation allowing migrants to stay in a place with which they have strong emotional or cultural ties. Mr Salfiti said that description applied to Willesden Green for his clients.

“Their relatives have all been . . . fully recognised as refugees, mainly because of the experience that the entire population of that region have suffered of being under the control of Islamist groups such as al-Nusra,” Mr Salfiti said, referring to an Islamist group active in the area during Syria’s war.

“Some have been tortured; some have been detained and mistreated; some have been shot at randomly; some are deserters [from the Syrian army].”

Several of his clients already had siblings living in Willesden Green, Mr Salfiti said, meaning that any attempt to remove them to Spain would split up families.

Although immigration lawyers say there is no legal obligation on asylum seekers to make a claim in the first safe country they reach, the Home Office has insisted that they should do so and that the hazardous trip across the Channel is consequently unnecessary.

It has also said would-be asylum seekers should use safe and legal routes to reach the UK, although the only such route — the Global Resettlement Programme — has been blocked since March 12 because of Coronavirus.

Lawyers representing asylum seekers object to the Home Office’s characterisation of their arrival in the UK as illegal immigration, since international law makes it clear a refugee has the right to break a country’s immigration rules in the pursuit of asylum.

Mr Salfiti added that he had written to the Home Office to ask how his firm’s name came to appear, with the name of two other firms involved in appeals, in the Sun newspaper. He said it felt like an attempt to intimidate those involved in representing asylum seekers.

The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.

This story has been amended to clarify the scope of the EU’s Dublin Regulation.

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