The number of EU citizens the Government is deporting from the UK has rocketed since the Brexit vote, despite ministers’ promises to guarantee residents’ rights, The Independent can reveal.
Analysis of official government data shows there were 26 per cent more enforced removals of EU nationals in the first three months of 2017 than in the same period last year.
Almost 5,000 EU citizens have now been deported from Britain in the last 12 months: the highest since current records began and an increase of 14 per cent in the last year alone.
The figures come after a leaked Home Office memo revealed comprehensive plans to significantly restrict immigration from Europe when Britain leaves the EU.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair yesterday called for tough new rules to allow Britain to curb EU immigration to change voters’ minds about Brexit.
The former Prime Minister admitted open borders were no longer appropriate, putting his name to a report urging tighter domestic controls and restrictions to free movement negotiated within the EU.
Human rights campaigners told The Independent that many of the removals are illegal, while Labour called the figures “disgraceful” and said they could make Brexit talks more difficult. The policies causing the clampdown are currently being challenged in UK courts.
The number of EU citizens being removed from the UK has now increased fivefold since 2010. It reached 4,754 in 2016 – up from just 973 in the year the Conservatives came to power. The rapid rise followed a fall of more than 74 per cent in the previous six years, down from 3,779 in 2004.
It comes despite a significant drop in the total number of people being deported, suggesting the focus of the Home Office and its immigration enforcement units has shifted specifically towards immigrants from EU countries.
The revelation that the Government appears to have ramped up removals of EU citizens living in Britain comes after Theresa May told Parliament in June: “EU citizens are an integral part of the economic, cultural and social fabric of our country and I have always been clear that I want to protect their rights.”
As Home Secretary, Theresa May vowed to create “a really hostile environment for illegal migrants”. Those working with migrants say that, in reality, the Government has adopted a “hostile” approach towards all immigrants, even those that are in the UK legally.
One method ministers have used to deport EU nationals already living legally in the UK is new Home Office regulations, introduced by Ms May in May 2016, that says EU citizens sleeping rough in the UK are “misusing” their rights and should be deported.
The change was introduced without full parliamentary scrutiny and received little attention at the time. But it means that, for the first time, homeless EU citizens can be forcibly removed from the UK, even if they have committed no criminal offence.
Under EU law, European nationals have the right to remain in the UK unless they are “abusing” their rights; for example, if they have been convicted of fraud or found to have entered into a marriage of convenience to remain in the country.
The EU’s citizens’ rights directive makes clear that it is illegal for member states to expel EU citizens “except on serious grounds of public policy or public security”. Controversially, UK ministers are now interpreting this to include so-called offences such as sleeping on the streets.
Charities say at least some of those being deported for reasons such as rough sleeping have been working in the UK for more than five years, which means they have a legal right to remain in the country permanently. In these cases, it would be illegal to deport them if they have not abused their rights as defined by EU law. As such, campaigners have launched a judicial review against the deportation policy.
Those working with migrants say rough sleepers are often taken into detention immediately, without the 30 days they are supposed to be given to leave the UK voluntarily. This restricts their access to legal representation.
Furthermore, many of the letters serving notice of removal are printed in English and cannot be understood by some of those they affect, it is claimed.
Lara ten Caten, an immigration lawyer at human rights group Liberty, said: “The removal of EEA rough sleepers isn’t just illegal – it’s symptomatic of the compassionless approach of a Government desperate to look tough on immigration, whatever the human cost. Many of those the Home Office tried to remove were working or had a permanent right to be here – but they simply didn’t bother to check.
“It’s also a timely reminder of the need for careful scrutiny of the Repeal Bill, which is meant to bring home the rights we all have under EU law.
“This Government’s disregard of the rights of EU citizens shows they simply can’t be trusted to treat even the most vulnerable with basic decency or dignity – how can we trust them to properly protect our fundamental rights as they rewrite our laws?”
Diane Abbott, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, told The Independent: “This is disgraceful but not surprising.
“This Tory Government’s obsession with immigration targets and creating a ‘hostile environment’ mires everything that they do. This news is hardly a recipe for good relations during Brexit negotiations.
“Sending ‘error’ deportation letters, failing to confirm their status and actually deporting EU nationals is unlikely to fill them with much confidence about their position in the UK. Labour are clear we value the contribution EU nationals make to our society and we want them to stay.”
Benjamin Morgan of migrant support group North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) told The Independent that the increase in deportations shows Theresa May is “extending her ‘hostile environment’ for migrants to target people who have lived and worked legally in the UK, often for many years”.
“The message goes something like this: we don’t care how much you’ve paid into the system, or whether you have a family life in the UK. If you fall on hard times you’re out on your ear. Freedom of movement is increasingly a privilege reserved for the rich.”
The Independent has previously revealed how some EU citizens are choosing to leave Britain because they no longer feel welcome. Last month the Home Office was forced to apologise after sending a letter to 100 EU nationals wrongly informing them they were facing deportation. The Home Office has been contacted for comment.
The figures are revealed as MPs prepare to vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill on Monday evening, the key Brexit legislation to paste EU law onto the UK statute book before departure which has triggered accusations of a “Government power grab”.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have toughened our response to foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality by committing crimes in the UK causing misery to victims and blighting our communities. EEA nationals who repeatedly commit minor offences in this country now face a five to 10-year deportation order.
“In addition, those who are encountered sleeping rough may not have a right to reside in the UK and be liable for removal. No-one should come to the UK with the intention of sleeping rough and EEA nationals who do so could be in breach of their free movement rights.
“We work closely with councils and homelessness outreach services to ensure that those who are vulnerable receive the care they need, while supporting local authorities to tackle illegal immigration in their communities.”