Handcuffed, detained, denied medicine: EU citizens’ UK border ordeals

Travellers caught up in extension of ‘hostile environment’ policy tell of being made to feel like criminals

Alarming stories have emerged of EU citizens being handcuffed at British airports, made to sleep in parked vans or prevented from accessing medication after being denied entry into the country under Brexit rules.

Ana Silvestre, 20, an Italian and Brazilian dual national, was refused entry at Luton airport on 8 May together with her Brazilian husband. She was handcuffed at the airport and left in a van overnight before being taken to Colnbrook detention centre, where she spent seven days before being sent back to Italy.

Silvestre’s sister, who has lived in Liverpool for two years, said she received “no information whatsoever if they were OK or where they were” after their arrival until her sister called from a phone given to her at the centre the following morning.

Under the protocols used at immigration removal centres, detainees have their phones taken away to prevent them from taking photos or videos, and they are often unable to access their baggage.

“When she called me, she was crying, and kept telling me that they were making them feel like criminals,” Silvestre’s sister said. “She told me they made them walk through the airport in handcuffs and she had never felt so humiliated in her entire life.”

Immigration staff at the airport refused to give Silvestre the birth control pills that control her polycystic ovary syndrome and also refused to give her husband his blood pressure medication, her sister claimed.

Other travellers who have been turned away in recent months as the government’s “hostile environment” policy on immigration is applied to EU citizens have said they were also denied access to medication.

Abi, 20, from Estonia, was accused of intending to work as an au pair and was locked up in Gatwick for 30 hours before being expelled at the end of last month. During her detention, she said, she had several panic attacks, vomited from fear, and was not allowed to retrieve a sedative from her luggage.

She was travelling alone for the first time to stay with family friends in Britain, and asked that the Guardian use a pseudonym.

“First they asked what I was doing in the UK and I said that I was visiting family friends,” she said. “After that they asked me the same question again, as if it was not the right response. Then I said I would be helping to watch their kids. So they immediately assumed that I was going to work as au pair.”

Border Force officers said they would call her friends but did not do so, and when her hosts rushed to Gatwick, the officers refused to speak to them face to face, she said.

“I had panic attacks. I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything because I was so sick to my stomach. Because of the fear and stress, I was so nauseous that finally I puked,” Abi said. “I was afraid that I would have a nervous breakdown, so I asked the security staff if I could get a sedative from my bag. They didn’t let me.”

Officials promised to take her somewhere to spend the night where she could get medical help, but eventually she was ordered to sleep in the airport holding room accompanied by two men who were also being expelled, she said.

Anaïs Lauretta, 25, from France, who was taken from Gatwick to Colnbrook and on to Yarl’s Wood detention centre for seven days after being denied entry on 26 February, said she was initially unable to access her antibiotics. “They were taken away,” she said.

On Friday, in response to reports in the Guardian and other European newspapers about EU nationals being detained, the Home Office announced a rule change allowing EU citizens stopped at the frontier to ask for bail in order to spend time with their friends or families in the UK awaiting their expulsion flight.

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.”


Giles Tremlett in Madrid and Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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