Government attack on asylum lawyers puts them at risk of violence

Home Secretary is attempting to subvert refugees’ legal rights & rule of law

London, UK – 26 October 2020

By Reanna Smith

As an increasing number of refugees desperately enter the UK via small boat crossings over the English Channel, the UK government has begun pushing for an increasing number of deportations. But several of the scheduled flights have been cancelled, following legal appeals from the asylum seekers facing removal. In response, the government has launched persistent attacks on asylum and immigration lawyers, seeking to undermine the work they do to protect the basic human rights of vulnerable people who have often faced persecution and even torture.

It started when the Home Office was forced to remove a video about delayed and cancelled deportations using the phrase “activist lawyers” from their Twitter account after lawyers labelled it offensive.  Despite this, just a week later, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, used the same phrase in another tweet about deportations, sparking further criticism.

The latest attack on lawyers comes from the Prime Minister himself. In a speech as part of the online Conservative party conference, he said: “We’re also backing those police up, protecting the public by changing the law to stop the early release of serious sexual and violent offenders and stopping the whole criminal justice system from being hamstrung by what the home secretary would doubtless – and rightly – call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders.”

It may seem trivial to some, but the use of this type of language towards lawyers directly undermines the laws that they uphold. Phrases such as “lefty human rights lawyers” as well as “activist lawyers” have been irresponsibly used for political point-scoring. It criticises solicitors for ensuring that everyone receives the legal representation they are entitled to, as well as for holding the government to account over breaches of people’s legal rights.

The Law Society, the independent professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, has asked the government to change the language that they use. They said that insults from the government put lawyers at risk of physical and verbal abuse and weakens the legal system. Simon Davis, President of The Law Society said: “Legal rights cannot be rewritten through rhetoric.”

The threat of physical harm to lawyers was proven to be quite serious, when a knife attack happened in a London law firm. The attack by an alleged far-right extremist came just days after Priti Patel had criticised lawyers and the firm blamed her for the assault. It requested that The Law Society ask Priti Patel to cease her targeting of lawyers. They said: “It must be ensured that no further lives are endangered as a result of her untruthful and deliberately inflammatory rhetoric. Put simply, this must stop now, before innocent lives are taken and other irreparable damage is done to those who work in this field.”

The government’s frustration with lawyers has come after the cancellation of several deportations when they resumed again in August, after having been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But recent removals that have gone ahead only act as further evidence of the mistreatment of asylum seekers. In September, it was revealed that a British deportation flight had left a group of asylum seekers in Madrid without food, water, or shelter upon their arrival.

A recent report from Corporate Watch has further revealed the devastation that these deportations, and the detention period prior to them, cause. It suggests that the government has rushed the most recent deportations in a reaction to the recent “media panic”, without considering the effect that this has on asylum seekers’ welfare and rights. The report details the experiences of asylum seekers awaiting removal from the UK, claiming that many are abused whilst in detention and the fear of deportation is so strong that suicide attempts are a regular occurrence. It also claims that in several UK detention centres asylum seekers don’t have adequate access to legal advice.

In a statement as part of the report, one person who had been deported from the UK said:

“They don’t care about your health or your mental health. They are just scared you will die there. They don’t care what happens to you just so long as you don’t die in front of their eyes. It doesn’t matter if you die somewhere else.”

Following the removal flight that left asylum seekers stranded and destitute in Madrid, the high court recently forced the government to cancel another flight due to concerns about this happening again. Despite the high court’s concerns over the inhumanity of these deportations and the current second wave of Coronavirus in the country, the Home Secretary plans to continue to schedule charter flights to remove asylum seekers. In her speech at the Conservative party conference, Priti Patel announced an overhaul of the UK asylum system, claiming it is “fundamentally broken”.

The UK asylum system is indeed broken, but the measures suggested by the government only seek to deter asylum seekers, rather than provide help for these vulnerable people who need a place of refuge and wish to settle in the UK. Until safe pathways are created and asylum seekers are given proper access to legal advice in detention, then the work that these “activist lawyers” do will continue to be necessary to sustain human rights.  Whilst continuing attacks from the government may damage their reputation, undermine their work and even put them at risk of violence from anti-refugee extremists, these dedicated, courageous lawyers will continue to do their job to uphold the law.

• Reanna Smith is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal team who assist those claiming asylum in the UK