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Defending the “Activist Lawyers” fighting for the rights of asylum seekers in the UK

The UK government has recently increased its focus on preventing migrant Channel crossings after August saw a record-breaking number of people desperately crossing the English Channel on rubber dinghies,in hopes of settling in the UK and finding a better life.

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that concerns surrounding immigration have gone relatively under the radar in the UK during the past year. But this has now changed with increasing media coverage and policy changes. The UK government have condemned the recent Channel crossings, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson labelling them as “stupid and dangerous”.

Following this, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced that she would do all she can to make these types of crossings unviable, including the threat of bringing in the navy. Now, she’s promised to deport as many asylum seekers as she can back tothe EU.

Their latest push to increase deportations has seen the Home Office attack lawyers who represent asylum seekers. Recently, they were forced to remove a video posted to their twitter account in which they blamed “activist lawyers” for disrupting the deportation flights. After complaints about the remark, the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, said that the phrase shouldn’t have been used and that it wouldn’t happen again.

However, this didn’t stop the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, from using the same phrasing in a tweet just over a week later. She announced that a deportation flight had taken place despite “activist lawyers” attempting to frustrate the process.

This continued criticism of lawyers comes after a deportation flight scheduled for the 27th August was cancelled by the Home Office. All of those set to be on board the flight had legally appealed their cases. The persistent use of this condemning language towards lawyers has been criticised by Barristers all over the country for being wholly irresponsible and completely undermining the rule of law.

So just who are these “activist lawyers” preventing from being deported? In many cases, those awaiting deportations have come from countries with a history of poor human rights records such as Syria or Yemen. Many of those facing deportation in the UK are also of Asian origin. In 2019, a report by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that South Asians made up the highest percentage of people deported from the UK at 21%. East and South East Asians made up 12% of deportees and Middle Eastern and Central Asians also made up 9% of deportees.

There’s evidence to suggest that those detained in UK immigration centres have fled persecution and, in some cases, even experienced torture. Some have even attempted suicide due to the fear of being deported.

Speaking to Detained Voices, one asylum seeker currently in an immigration detention centre awaiting deportation said: “For the first time ever I thought of suicide. I was homeless in the Netherlands and Spain, but the first time I thought of suicide was in the detention centre. Thinking of the three huge guards in black who would come to my room and take me by force. I had nightmares about it. I was angry. I’m not an angry guy but I was so angry. I felt hopeless.”

The Home Office may believe lawyers are wrongly frustrating their attempts of deportations, but a recent report by Corporate Watch suggests that many elements of these deportations could be illegal. The report highlights just how damaging the recent flights have been on asylum seekers, claiming that many have attempted to commit suicide or self-harmed before being deported.

And the fear of deportation doesn’t just lead to self-harm, but has resulted in unnecessary deaths due to immigrants being too scared to ask for help when they need it. This is an issue that has been brought to light during the current pandemic. In April an undocumented Filipino man, who worked in the UK as a cleaner and was known only as Elvis, died from Coronavirus after being too scared to seek medical health. Elvis’s wife, who is also an undocumented Filipino migrant working in the UK, has been left alone to mourn the death of her husband, that could have been prevented if he hadn’t feared deportation. Thousands of undocumented immigrant works could be in the same position as Elvis, choosing to risk their health and lives over being sent back to the country they came from.

It’s clear why these deportations are so feared, even when being sent back to an EU country asylum seekers and immigrants are still at risk. In her tweet about the so-called “activist lawyers,” Priti Patel referenced a successful deportation flight to Spain. However, this same flight saw a group of Syrian men left to sleep on the streets of Madrid with no accommodation provided. When asked to comment on the situation, the Home Office said that they had no responsibility to care for the welfare of the people that they deport. Now, another flight has been halted by the high court over concerns that more asylum seekers could have been left in inhumane conditions in Spain.

This personal attack on lawyers has rightly so offended many, but it’s also a reminder that theses lawyers are doing their job to hold the government to account. As Nicola Burgess, director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants puts it:“If ‘activist lawyer’ means a lawyer who does their job in difficult circumstances, who achieves the desired result for a vulnerable class of people and who is prepared to uphold and serve the rule of law, I will wear the label with pride.”

By calling the lawyers preventing this inhumane treatment “activists”, the Home Office may have intended to diminish their reputation, but they’ve failed at this. When again and again, the Home Offices treatment of asylum seekers is proven to be harsh and unlawful, the work done by “activist lawyers” is only further legitimised.

Reanna Smith is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service,a legal team that assists asylum seekers in the UK.

About Us

MFA is a regional network of non-government organizations (NGOs), associations and trade unions of migrant workers, and individual advocates in Asia who are committed to protect and promote the rights and welfare of migrant workers.

It is guided by a vision of an alternative world system based on respect for human rights and dignity, social justice, and gender equity, particularly for migrant workers.

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