London, United Kingdom – Eniola* spent 13 years living in the UK, working within and becoming a part of the Nigerian community there. The UK government took four days to deport her without the right to appeal.
She had left Nigeria in 2006, aged 39, with her son who was 10 years old at the time, she told Al Jazeera. In 2019, police officers came calling, told her she was under arrest for overstaying her visa, and took her to the Morton Hall immigration detention centre.
Before the end of the week, she was on a plane to Lagos. She says she did not get the chance to go back to her flat to pack her belongings. At the time, she did not know her son’s deportation would follow just a month later. Eniola said she was told that she would have to file an appeal by herself.
“I wasn’t treated differently from other people,” she told Al Jazeera. “We were all treated as unwanted persons generally. [It was] unfair and inhumane.”
Eniola’s experience is one of the thousands of people removed from the UK since the introduction of “deport first, appeal later”, a policy created by Theresa May, then home secretary, in 2014.
It was designed to expedite deportations before they can be stymied by legal challenges, but official records obtained by Al Jazeera through Freedom of Information laws reveal that – between 2016 and 2021 – 77 people were wrongly deported and had to have the Home Office’s decision overturned from abroad.
Legal experts told Al Jazeera the true number of people wrongly deported over this period may be far higher, due to the difficulties involved in first bringing, then sustaining a legal challenge following deportation.
Fizza Qureshi, CEO of Migrants Rights Network, a London-based charity, told Al Jazeera: “Time and time again the Home Office implements policies and procedures that break the law, and ‘deport first, appeal later’ is one such policy … The scale of how many people were affected by this policy is shocking.”
Eniola found support from the Building Bridges for Youth Initiative, a charity that helps support people following deportation, who helped her with accommodation and training, but she was unable to find a lawyer.
“No one seemed interested,” she said, describing how the prospect of pursuing any case soon became overwhelming: “I didn’t start any case as I saw it as an uphill difficult task that would never yield anything positive.”
Critics say the UK Home Office’s rush to deport people, of which “deport first, appeal later” was part, contributed to the Windrush Scandal, in which it emerged in 2017 that British citizens were denied access to benefits and healthcare, lost their jobs and were even deported.
After being legislated for in 2014, “deport first, appeal later” was expanded in 2016 to include challenges based on human rights grounds, but the following year the UK Supreme Court ruled the policy unlawful, and a breach of human rights laws.
Since that decision, the British government has worked to set up video court hearing facilities from various embassies and consulates, arguing that this technology gets around the issues raised by the Supreme Court.
This argument was tested in further cases, such as in a challenge to the deportation of Abiodun Juba, a Nigerian national who came to the UK as a one-year-old in 1987. He challenged a deportation order made after he was convicted of criminal offences.
Andrew Jones, an immigration lawyer who acted for Juba from the UK after he had been deported to Nigeria, has also given evidence in court about the challenges raised when a client has already been deported.
“You might be able to Skype or Whatsapp call, but you might not be able to do that; it might just be by email,” Jones told Al Jazeera. “In terms of being able to get instructions, and take witness statements from abroad … that’s just much much more difficult to do than it is when you’re sitting face to face in a room.”
Even when it is possible to establish phone or video contact, Jones said, these cases can involve dozens of hours of calls to go through complex legal documents and to pore over the details of a person’s life.
“You’re trying to get a picture of the whole of someone’s life in the UK – their family ties, their work experience. You’re trying to establish, in the Home Office’s terminology, how much they are ‘integrated in the UK’,” he said.
This could have a meaningful impact on the outcome of someone’s case, he said.
“There are lots of things that come up in the course of chats with clients that they might never have thought to mention to you because on the face of it it’s not obviously relevant, but suddenly becomes relevant,” said Jones. “It’s much more likely that important or significant information can get missed in those circumstances.”
During the 2017 Supreme Court hearing, it emerged that since the introduction of the policy in 2014, thousands of people had been deported without appeal, and only 72 had filed appeals from outside the UK, none of which had been successful.
According to the latest official statistics, the number of people deported from the UK in the year to September 2021 was at a record low of 2,380 people. This followed a drop of about 40 percent on deportations from the previous year, which the Home Office partially attributes to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Al Jazeera’s findings show that between March 2016 and March 2021, a total of 384 people challenged deportation decisions at a tribunal following their removal, 20 percent of whom were successful, and a further 70 appeals were taken further, to an upper tribunal, though none of those was successful.
While this suggests the hearings taking place may have become more effective due to technology implemented since the Supreme Court case, these figures do little to assuage the concerns of legal experts that many people may be deported first, without regard to their chance to appeal later.
An expedited deportation, Jones said, “makes it much more likely that people just won’t challenge their deportation. They’ll get deported, they won’t have found a solicitor in the UK and won’t know what to do.”
Home Office priority
When these concerns and findings were put to the Home Office, the department requested Eniola’s name and details of her deportation case. Al Jazeera declined to breach the anonymity agreement with her. Instead, Al Jazeera provided the details set out in this story, alongside the full Freedom of Information response and concerns raised by lawyers.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “Al Jazeera has refused to provide us with any proof to substantiate these claims.
“Our priority will always be to keep the British public safe and we will take swift action on foreign national offenders so that we can remove those with no right to be here.”
Home Office data shows that more than 43,000 people were “forcibly returned” from the UK between 2016 and 2020, and notes a rise in legal challenges based on asylum, trafficking or refugee claims. But it is unclear how many people get the chance to take any legal action before being removed.
“The Home Office once again failed to consider the human cost and emotional trauma they were inflicting on those they deported unlawfully, and it was once again left to the courts and the lawyers to rectify these wrongs,” Qureshi said.
*Name changed to protect anonymity