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UK Home Office blasted for video on migrants and their 'activist lawyers'

Following pressure from social media users, the department was forced to remove a video accusing 'activist lawyers' of disrupting the asylum system
More than 5,000 migrants have crossed to the UK in small boats so far in 2020 (Ben Standall/ AFP)

The Home Office has come under fire after publishing a post online in which it explained how it was working to remove people with no right to remain in the UK.

The video published on Wednesday showed a graphic of aeroplanes leaving the UK with the caption “We are working to remove migrants with no right to remain in the UK”,  and accusing “activist lawyers” representing migrants of trying to disrupt the asylum system.

It also added that soon the UK “will no longer be bound by EU laws and can negotiate our own return arrangements”.

Following pressure from social media users, the department removed the video.

The deleted clip, viewed more than a million times in less than 24 hours, prompted fierce criticism of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s department.

Legal bodies and university professors condemned the message and lodged complaints with the Home Office’s top civil servant, Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft. He reinforced that the messaging of the video was that “efforts to facilitate legitimate and legal returns are often frustrated by individuals and lawyers  putting in last-minute claims” - which, he said, were “without merit”.  

The row followed news that 12 migrants had been deported by the Home Office on a flight to continental Europe on Wednesday and that another flight holding 23 migrants scheduled for Thursday was halted after a high volume of last-minute legal challenges prevented its departure.

The 23 were represented by the solicitor firms of Duncan Lewis, John Street or Milestone, and all were classed as a risk to themselves or others in detention. 

The Home Office told Middle East Eye that it would no longer be making any fresh comments on the matter and instead directed MEE to comments made by Rycroft in response to Jonathan Portes, an professor in economics at King's College London.

Portes had said that the video and post was a “very clear breach” of government communications standards and urged the department press offices to “take note” so that the “unacceptable behaviour is not repeated”. 

Rycroft said he “has made clear to the team that this post should not be used again from the Home Office accounts or anywhere else by civil servants".

Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee living in the UK, who made his journey across the English Channel five years ago, called for a public apology and clarity from the Home Office over the post. “We live in a democracy and no one should undermine the law,” he said

Akkad appeared in a video last week that was projected onto the white cliffs of Dover, in which he detailed his experiences making the perilous journey from war-torn Syria. “The only difference between me and you is luck,” he explained in the short clip. 

The clip was in response to footage broadcast earlier this month by BBC Breakfast and Sky News of migrants and refugees reaching the UK’s shores in rubber dinghies - footage that was heavily criticised for being "dehumanising" and "voyeuristic", as reporters attempted to interview the people onboard and get close to their dinghies.

Prior to the video being posted, Home Office officials had released various statements over the past two months repeatedly claiming “activist lawyers” were frustrating efforts to send migrants back to France with “vexatious claims”, despite not providing examples.

Amanda Pinto QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said lawyers were “merely doing their jobs”, and condemned the “use of divisive and deceptive language that undermines the rule of law and those working to uphold it”.

The Law Society of England and Wales, an independent professional body that works globally to support and represent solicitors, issued a statement yesterday in which it condemned the Home Office’s video referring to immigration lawyers who provide legal advice to migrants as "activist lawyers".

"Attacks on the integrity of the legal profession undermine the rule of law,” president of the society, Simon Davis, said in the statement. "In countries where lawyers are unable to do their job for fear of intimidation, the rule of law is weakened. The consequences are a society that becomes less safe, less stable and less fair.

“Britain's standing internationally is underpinned by our reputation for democracy, fair play and the independence of our legal system," Davis added. "This independence hinges on lawyers and judges not being hindered or intimidated in carrying out their professional duties and not being identified with their clients or their clients' causes.”

More than 5,000 migrants have crossed to the UK in small boats so far in 2020, with 26 migrants in three boats making it to the UK across the Channel aboard small boats on Thursday, according to the Home Office. The UK Border Force, which picked up the migrants, confirmed they were from Sudan.

Earlier this month, a 16-year-old Sudanese boy was found dead on a beach in northern France after trying to cross the English Channel with a friend in a small boat. 

Since 1 January, authorities in northern France have recorded some 350 attempts or crossings involving more than 4,000 people, compared with 203 attempts and 2,294 migrants for the whole of 2019.

The Ministry of Defence will continue to send aircraft to survey the Channel at the Home Office’s request and is also currently considering deploying small naval patrol boats.