Lawyers are challenging the Home Office policy of deporting people to Vietnam who could be victims of trafficking after the UK sent a second charter flight to the country within a matter of weeks.
The challenge follows concern from lawyers and charities that some victims of trafficking could be wrongly removed from the UK under a speedy processing system for migrants in detention known as “detained asylum casework”.
Tom Nunn, of Duncan Lewis solicitors, who is bringing the legal challenge against the Home Office for fast-tracking the removal of some Vietnamese people from the UK, said: “The concern is that a large number of Vietnamese nationals are being placed in this sped-up asylum process despite the fact that many are showing clear indicators of trafficking.”
One 20-year-old, who was brought to the UK four years ago for labour exploitation arranged by her family to help pay off their debts, was due to be put on the flight which left Birmingham airport last Wednesday night but was granted a last-minute reprieve. Twenty-one people are believed to have been deported.
The flight was part of the Home Office’s “summer season” of deportation flights to countries including Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Jamaica, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria.
Many Vietnamese victims of trafficking who reach the UK are forced to work in cannabis farms or nail bars. In the last few months there has been an increase in Vietnamese people crossing the Channel to the UK on small boats.
Chi, the 20-year-old who spoke to the Guardian, arrived in the UK from Vietnam in January 2017, managed to escape from labour exploitation and is now in foster care. She has been doing an access-to-nursing course.
Home Office enforcement officers tried to arrest and detain her while she was asleep so that she could be put on an April Vietnam charter flight, but her foster mother prevented them from doing so. She was later detained on 13 July when she went to a Home Office reporting appointment.
“At first I thought it would be like a prison where we wouldn’t get any food. But they did give us food and there was a library there. I was the youngest Vietnamese person there,” she said. “There were others who were older than me. All of us were so scared. I was crying a lot in there. I just wanted to come back to my foster mum. I was so scared while I was in detention about being sent back to Vietnam. I couldn’t go back to my family and I was frightened I would be trafficked back to the UK.”
A Facebook group for Vietnamese nationals in the UK discussed the April charter flight and said that although some on the flight had opted for voluntary return – as did a number on this week’s flight – it was not truly voluntary. “Out of 13 people who voluntarily repatriated, only six asked to return. The remaining seven were kept in the immigration camp for so long they got discouraged and agreed to sign the application form to return to Vietnam,” one person posted.
The SOAS Detainee Support Group called on TUI, the holiday flight company thought to be operating the Vietnam deportation flights, to end its collaboration with the Home Office. TUI declined to comment.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s quite clear that many Vietnamese suffer from exploitation and abuse on the long trail from Vietnam to Britain. What’s worrisome is how very little concern the Vietnam government has for its own nationals preyed upon by agents and brokers selling this dangerous journey to desperate people, and the eagerness of the British government to send these people back into harm’s way by returning them to where they came from, regardless of the abuses they suffered along the way.”
Bella Sankey, the director of the charity Detention Action, said: “Many Vietnamese survivors of modern slavery and trafficking are taken into detention and due to language barriers and trauma, unable to access the support they’re entitled to. A charter flight to Vietnam where individuals have been offered financial incentives to return risks delivering traumatised people to their traffickers & bolstering their business model.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We only ever return those who we and, where applicable, the courts are satisfied do not need our protection and have no legal basis to remain in the UK.”