Potential victims of trafficking and very vulnerable people are among those due to be deported from the United Kingdom to Jamaica, a charity said on Thursday.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said the Home Office’s planned charter flight from the UK to Kingston on February 11 will have a capacity for up to 50 people.
An MP has called for the flight to be suspended until the publication of the “lessons-learned” review following the Windrush scandal.
“Many of those facing deportation have been residents in the UK for decades and have close family ties,” the JCWI said in a parliamentary briefing.
“We often see people who are as British as the schoolmates they grew up with being deported for minor crimes like possession of cannabis.
“Their school friends caught up in the same folly are chastened with a short sentence and allowed to rehabilitate; while they face a life sentence away from friends and family in a country they never knew.
“We have become aware that potential victims of trafficking have also been served with RDs [removal directions], and we have concerns that some of these may be victims of ‘county lines‘ exploitation.
“We’re also concerned that there are a number of very vulnerable individuals who have not been adequately assessed for their fitness to fly, despite presenting with serious medical conditions.”
Toufique Hossain, a director at Duncan Lewis solicitors, which is representing 13 of the people due to be on Tuesday’s flight, said they were looking at the individual cases in order to prepare urgent applications to stop their removal.
He told the PA news agency he had “serious concerns” regarding the vulnerability of the people on the flight.
Hossain said one of his clients is a man who has been in the UK for many years and was convicted of a drugs offence when he was young – but it was an offence he claims he was “forced” to commit by older gang leaders.
“And that sort of exploitation and forced criminal activity does very much go into the realms of trafficking and modern slavery,” the lawyer said.
Concerns have also been raised about the phone signal being down in the Heathrow detention centres, causing difficulties for people wanting to contact their solicitors or organisations that assist with referrals to solicitors.
Bella Sankey, director at human rights charity Detention Action, which supports people held in immigration detention, told the PA news agency: “We call back our clients really regularly to maintain contact and understand if there have been developments in their case, so for example if they’ve been issued with a removal direction.
“But we are calling and calling and calling and not able to get through to people.”
She added: “We’ve had 30 clients that we’ve not been able to make contact with over the last couple of weeks.”
Detention Action has issued a legal challenge over the issue, seeking to compel the Home Office to issue alternative SIM cards and to ensure that anyone facing removal is given adequate time to access legal advice.
The charity said an order has been issued requiring the home secretary to file a written response to the application for interim relief.
Speaking about the Jamaica flight, Sankey said: “A large number of the people that we know are on the flight are people who have been in the UK since really early childhood.
“They’re British citizens for all intents and purposes, and they have really strong family ties and family connections here.
“We’ve got clients who have very many children who they’ve been ripped away from.”
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Labour MP Nadia Whittome said: “It’s been two years since the Windrush scandal exposed the wrongful detention and deportation of Commonwealth citizens.
“While we wait for the publication of the lessons-learned review, the government plans to deport 50 people – 50 people – to Jamaica by charter flight next week.
“Will the prime minister immediately suspend the flight until the lessons-learned review is published and the recommendations implemented?”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson replied: “I think the whole House will understand that the people of this country will think it right to send back foreign national offenders.”
But Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler challenged his assessment: “The Home Office press team told journalists that everybody on a deportation flight to Jamaica are serious criminals. Mr Speaker, this seems not to be true.
“I’ve got a constituent of mine … He was convicted under the now unlawful joint enterprise rule, he was released after just two months and his wife feels like this stress is going to kill her husband because he has a heart problem.
“Mr Speaker, how can I get the home secretary to take this seriously and be truthful about the people who are on the deportation flight and if we can halt this flight until we establish the true facts of the situation?”
The Home Office denied non-criminals would be on the flight, but promised to legally review the 50 cases before Tuesday.
“The planned charter flight to Jamaica is specifically for removing foreign criminals,” said a spokeswoman. “Those detained for removal include people convicted of manslaughter, rape, violent crime and dealing Class-A drugs.”
The spokeswoman added that “everyone on the flight will have had their cases fully reviewed to ensure there are no outstanding legal barriers, including trafficking and slavery claims, that would prevent their removal from the UK.”
The Home Office said that under the UK Borders Act 2007, a deportation order must be made where a foreign national has been convicted of an offence and received a custodial sentence of 12 months or more.
It added that this is subject to several exceptions, including where to do so would be a breach of a person’s ECHR rights or the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.
In 2018, ministers faced a furious backlash about the treatment of the Windrush generation – named after a ship that brought people to the UK from the Caribbean in 1948.
Long-term UK residents were denied access to services, held in detention or removed despite living legally in the country for decades.