The UK’s Home Office said on Thursday its efforts to undertake “entirely legitimate and legal” returns of asylum seekers to Spain had been “frustrated” by legal action, at the end of a day when the department had faced criticism for attacking “activist lawyers” who mounted such actions.
The department made the statement after it was forced to cancel plans to fly a reported total of 23 people from the UK to Spain under the Dublin Regulation. The EU rule allows asylum seekers to be transferred from one member state to another where they have previously made an asylum claim.
The Sun newspaper, which first reported the cancellation, said the department had planned to return 23 migrants to Spain on the flight but that challenges to being removed had been successful for nearly all of them, forcing the stand-down.
Tension has been growing over the status of asylum seekers in the UK because, while arrivals have declined during lockdown, increasing numbers have been crossing the Channel in small boats.
The Home Office has tried to sound tough on the issue. Chris Philp, the immigration minister, has regularly referred to those arriving as “illegal migrants”, while Priti Patel, the home secretary, has sought help from the UK military to deter crossings. The law has long recognised that anyone with a legitimate claim to asylum is allowed to break immigration law to seek asylum in a country.
The Home Office’s statement on its legal defeat used unusually trenchant language for an official departmental statement on a legal issue.
“The government’s efforts to facilitate entirely legitimate and legal returns of people who have entered the UK through illegal routes are too often frustrated by last-minute challenges submitted hours before a scheduled flight,” the department said.
“These claims are very often baseless and entirely without merit but are given full legal consideration, leading to removal being rescheduled.”
The department said such claims often prevented a migrant’s removal from the UK because of a time bar in the Dublin Regulation.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, a pressure group on migrant detention, said the Home Office’s failure to win any of the cases on Thursday demonstrated how “frequently and casually” the department embarked on unlawful action.
“The Home Office’s extraordinary statement seeks to pin the blame for its own mistakes on others — in particular, lawyers who uphold our democratically enacted laws and defend individuals from abuses of power,” she said.
Earlier in the day, the Home Office posted on its Twitter account a video touting the plans for a flight on Thursday but expressing regret that “activist lawyers” were often able to “delay and disrupt returns” under the Dublin Regulation.
The Law Society, representing solicitors, attacked the video as “misleading and dangerous” and warned it undermined the rule of law. “Solicitors advise their clients on their rights under the laws created by parliament,” said Simon Davis, the society’s president.
Amanda Pinto, chair of the Bar Council, representing barristers, said “irresponsible, misleading communications” from the government on lawyers’ work were “extremely damaging to . . . society”.
“Legal professionals who apply the law . . . are merely doing their jobs, enabling people to exercise their statutory rights and defend themselves against those in power,” Ms Pinto said.
The Home Office had deleted the video from its Twitter account by Thursday evening.
The department insists that migrants who arrive in the UK via a safe third country should claim asylum there and not in the UK. “It is right that we seek to remove migrants who have travelled through a safe country and have no right to remain in the UK,” it said.
Immigration lawyers point out that asylum seekers have no legal obligation to make a claim in the first safe country. Home Office figures published on Thursday showed that 53 per cent of asylum seekers in the UK in the year to June were successful in proving their right to some form of refugee protection. The department has said another 10 per cent to 20 per cent mount successful appeals against initial rejections.
Home Office officials expressed frustration in February when the High Court, in a case brought by Detention Action, prevented 25 convicted criminals from being deported to Jamaica on the grounds they had not had proper access to legal advice. The department nevertheless went ahead with deporting another 17 Jamaican citizens.
Get alerts on UK immigration when a new story is published