UK ministers have told border officials to stop locking up EU citizens in detention centres, it has emerged.
After 48 hours of criticism over “disproportionate” and “heavy-handed” decisions to place EU nationals without the correct paperwork for entry into the UK in immigration removal centres for days, the Home Office has issued new guidance to its border force.
It has advised border officials that, where appropriate, they should grant EU nationals immigration bail instead. This means passengers who are refused entry to the UK but cannot get an immediate flight home because of Covid travel restrictions will be permitted entry on bail conditions.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “While international travel is disrupted due to the pandemic, we have updated our guidance to clarify that overseas nationals, including EU citizens, who have been refused entry to the UK and are awaiting removal, should be granted immigration bail, where appropriate.
“Now freedom of movement has ended, people from across the EU can continue to visit the UK, but those coming to work or study must meet our entry requirements and we urge them to check before travelling.”
The Home Office came under pressure to act after a succession of stories of EU citizens including Italians, Spaniards and Bulgarians finding themselves in detention centres around Heathrow and Gatwick, surrounded by barbed wire and terrified.
One Italian woman, who was coming to the UK to improve her English on a short-stay visit to her uncle, an NHS consultant in London, told how she was sent to what she thought was a prison at Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow.
She was expelled from the UK before her uncle was able to advocate on her behalf.
The immigration barrister Colin Yeo said the new government guidance was “welcome as a short-term fix for the Home Office to stop automatically detaining people in the detention centres instead of putting them on planes”.
But he said it was not a long-term solution to the fact many in the EU do not know about the new rules because they are not obsessed with Brexit.
Luke Piper, head of policy at the campaign group the3million said it was a “carve-out solution that did not address the arbitrary decision-making of unnecessarily detaining people coming to this country”, which he said was a historical problem that “can’t be resolved by removing one group from its impact”.
The Conservative MP Alberto Costa, who has campaigned for EU citizens’ rights, said it was “greatly welcomed that the Home Office has urgently updated its guidance to ensure that overseas nationals, including EEA nationals, who have entered the UK under a mistaken belief that they are entitled, are to be granted immigration bail, where appropriate, rather than removal to a detention centre”.
The Home Office said detention was still an option for border forces but only in “some cases, including to keep the public safe”.
It added that “where possible a removal will take place imminently and the individual will remain at the airport until the flight”.