The UK government’s criticism of “activist lawyers” is harmful and undermines those protecting the legal rights of asylum seekers

By Reanna Smith

Last month a record number of asylum seekers crossed the English Channel in an attempt to seek a better life in the UK. Following this, the British government has pushed immigration to the top of the agenda, resuming deportation flights that were halted due to COVID-19. As a result, heightened media coverage has produced a lot of misguided information in regards to those crossing the Channel, with even the UK politicians making false statements about the so-called “illegal immigrants”.

Most recently, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has come under fire for using the phrase “activist lawyers” in a tweet about recent deportation flights. This comes just over a week after the Home Office was forced to remove a video using the same phrase from their twitter account after lawyers labelled it offensive. This language seeks to diminish the reputation of lawyers who are doing their job to uphold the law and ensure that their clients who are seeking asylum have access to fair and professional legal advice.

To suggest that this is “activism” undermines laws that have been democratically put in place to protect people and set a dangerous precedent for the way that politicians can do this. This continued criticism of lawyers comes as a deportation flight was cancelled on the 27th August after those set to be deported made legal appeals against this. The next deportation flight on the 3rd of September saw a group of asylum seekers left on the streets of Madrid without food, water, or shelter upon their arrival.

Now the Home Office has been forced by a senior judge at the high court to cancel another flight to Spain due to concerns that 20 asylum seekers would once again be left destitute in Madrid, which would break human rights laws. As the government pushes for more deportation flights, it’s becoming evident just how damaging these rushed flights, and the immigration detention before them, can be to vulnerable asylum seekers.

A recent report from Corporate Watch has revealed the brutality and fear faced by those scheduled to be on the deportation flights and suggests that elements of them may not be legal. One of the testimonies included in the report paints a clear picture of the reality faced by desperate asylum seekers during the deportation process. The deportee, who was removed from the UK just a day before the cancelled flight on August 27th said:

“That night before the flight when we were locked in our rooms and I heard that I had lost my appeal, I was desperate. I started to cut myself. I wasn’t the only one. Eight people self-harmed or tried to kill themselves rather than be taken on that plane. One guy threw a kettle of boiling water on himself. One man tried to hang himself with the cable of the TV in his room”. But it seems that even this wasn’t enough to halt the flight that so clearly put lives at risk, the testimony continues:

“About 5 in the morning they came to my room, guards with riot shields. On the way to the van, they led me through a kind of corridor which was full of people – guards, managers, officials from the Home Office. They all watched while a doctor examined me, then the doctor said – ‘yes, he’s fit to fly’. On the plane later I saw one guy hurt really badly, fresh blood on his head and on his clothes. He hadn’t just tried to stop the ticket, he really wanted to kill himself. He was taken to Germany.”

Despite the recent high court ruling and the significant evidence that shows the inhumane and dangerous effects of these flights, the Home Secretary plans to continue large numbers of deportations. It’s been revealed that Priti Patel plans to deport at least 1000 migrants in weekly deportation flights to the EU.

The recent deportations have resulted in asylum seekers being left homeless, and have taken a significant toll on the mental health of those detained in immigration removal centres, with even the high court ruling that what the Home Office is doing is not humane. “Activist lawyers” are needed now more than ever to protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, who wish to settle in the UK in hopes of a better life. Despite attacks on their reputation by the government, they won’t be bullied into backing down.


Reanna Smith writes for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of lawyers who offer professional legal advice and assistance to asylum seekers in the UK.


The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.



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