The charter flight deporting asylum seekers to Europe under the Dublin convention – a law that requires asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe EU country they arrive in – went ahead despite warnings that some of those on board may also have been denied access to justice.
At least 16 were taken off the flight after it emerged that the Home Office had failed to act on indicators that they had been victims of torture and exploitation, which should have triggered an investigation into their case before any consideration of deportation.
One of the individuals, an Eritrean national who did to want to be named, told The Independent he had been terrified of being deported to Switzerland, where he had already claimed asylum twice and both times been refused – meaning he would likely be immediately sent back to Eritrea.
The 27-year-old, who arrived in the UK last July, said he fled from his country after being detained by government forces for political reasons. He was captured on his journey and held for five months in Libya, where he was forced to work during the day and imprisoned at night.
Speaking from Colnbrook removal centre, he said: “The work was on a farm – weeding and digging, collecting vegetables. They don’t pay you,” he said. “We got one piece of bread a day. We slept on the floor in a big warehouse and they locked us in. It wasn’t possible to escape because they would find you. My friend tried to escape and he was killed.”
The asylum seeker said that shortly after he was issued removal directions last Wednesday, he attempted to take his own life.
“I was so stressed. They say Switzerland is a ‘safe third country’, but I was there for four years and I told them I’ve had all these bad things happen but they didn’t care. They refused my asylum twice,” he said.
“I faced so many problems in Libya, I was beaten. They beat us with metal. So many friends were killed there because the people were very cruel. They don’t care. Even if you’re sick, they don’t care they and just say ‘go work’.”
The Eritrean national was referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the Home Office's framework for identifying victims of modern slavery – after Duncan Lewis Solicitors intervened on his case. The NRM has already identified him as a potential victim and will now investigate his case further.
Immigration lawyer Isabella Kirwan, of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who represented the man, said it was wrong that it was “left up to lawyers” to request referrals at the last minute during the removal process.
“The Home Office intended to remove these refugees from the UK without even looking at whether they had been forced into labour or had survived of human trafficking before arriving in the UK,” she said.
“The clients all disclosed indicators of exploitation to the Home Office which should have triggered referrals into the NRM for the Home Office to investigate this further.
“All of the clients we took on were Eritreans who had passed through Libya. The Home Office has a legal duty to protect refugees who have survived torture and human trafficking. They are routinely failing in this duty.”
It comes after a controversial charter flight left for Jamaica last week amid serious concerns over access to justice in detention centres, which resulted in a Court of Appeal ruling that prevented the majority of the planned deportations.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Anyone who makes a trafficking or modern slavery claim has them properly considered and concluded before removal. The UK only ever returns those who both the Home Office and the courts are satisfied do not need our protection and have no legal basis to remain in the UK.”