In a UK government U-turn, Border Force immigration officials have been ordered to stop detaining EU citizens without UK visas. In recent weeks, it has been widely reported that EU nationals without the correct UK visa have been held in ‘prison-like’ detention centres, sparking fury among European governments.
The outcry has forced the UK to reverse its decision to hold EU citizens. According to reports, some were held for days, had their phones confiscated and were refused visiting rights because of COVID-19 restrictions. The policy was changed following complaints from EU nations that their citizens were being detained because of administrative errors.
Many EU countries claim that those detained were young people who had failed to understand changes to UK immigration rules after Brexit. The policy change comes just before the UK is set to lift its ban on non-essential overseas travel due to COVID-19, and following the government’s launch of its latest EU Settlement Scheme campaign.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “While international travel is disrupted due to the pandemic, we have updated our guidance to clarify that overseas nationals, including EU citizens, who have been refused entry to the UK and are awaiting removal should be granted immigration bail, where appropriate.”
“Now freedom of movement has ended, people from across the EU can continue to visit the UK, but those coming to work or study must meet our entry requirements and we urge them to check before travelling,” the spokesperson added.
On 1 January, 2021, the right of EU citizens to work UK visa-free ended and many of those held were deemed by UK immigration officials to be seeking work without having a UK visa. Most of those denied UK entry were held at Heathrow or Gatwick airport and sent back to their home countries within hours on return flights.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has affected the number of flights leaving the UK, meaning that many EU citizens deemed to have incorrect UK visas or no visa at all were put into vans and transported to UK immigration centres.
Held for a week
Some have reported being held for nearly a week prior to being flown out of the country. EU citizens were held at centres such as Colnbrook, near Heathrow airport, which has previously been described as ‘too prison-like’ by inspectors.
It was reported that many people had been harming themselves when being held at UK immigration centres, while many were locked up for too long in cells, while others were unnecessarily handcuffed.
According to campaign group the3million, a couple with Brazilian-Italian nationality were separated and spent five days in detention before being returned to Milan, Italy.
Luke Piper, head of group policy at the3million, which represents EU citizens in the UK, said: “There were periods of detention in isolation and where they [the Brazilian-Italian couple] were both denied access to medication.”
“It’s all part of this ongoing problem with the Home Office returns. They just go for the most heavy-handed, over-the-top way of controlling entry clearance. People don’t see border control as a gateway to being criminalised,” Mr Piper added.
Tens of thousands detained
According to official records, around 25,000 people a year are detained on UK immigration grounds, with more than half of those detained for less than seven days.
With COVID restrictions starting to ease in the UK and summer travel set to rise, campaigners fear that detainee numbers could rise sharply.
Meanwhile, 5.4 million EU citizens have now applied for the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), which is set to close on 30 June. The EUSS allows citizens of the EU who have been in Britain for a minimum of five years to live and work in the UK, free of immigration controls.
Applicant numbers for the EUSS have far exceed government expectations, and suggest that one in five people living in London is an EU citizen. 300,000 applications are still awaiting review.
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