Europe’s third-largest parliamentary group has scolded the United Kingdom for allegedly placing EU citizens in immigration detention centres.
This week UK and European media raised the alarm over dozens of EU citizens being detained at the UK border in the last week due to misunderstandings about newly-imposed entry requirements.
Those affected have included German, Greek, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, Bulgarian and Spanish nationals, some of whom are said to have come to the UK for job interviews or summer jobs.
A handful were taken to the country’s notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, where they were then confined to their rooms after a COVID-19 scare.
The European Commission confirmed to Euronews that it had raised the issue last week in meetings between the EU Delegation in London, the Portuguese Presidency and other member states.
The EU team in London is also in contact with the Home Office about ongoing cases. Commission spokesman Peter Stano said: “This does not seem to be a generalised trend as a small number of citizens from some EU member states are concerned.
“Nevertheless, the delegation in London is following this case closely, in particular the conditions and the duration of retention, which are a source of concern.
“The Delegation stands ready to support member states in so far as possible.”
Members of the European Parliament’s centrist Renew Group have meanwhile penned a withering open letter to Commission chiefs asking for this to be dealt with as a priority.
The bloc’s representatives attended the first Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee with the UK in February, and at that meeting, both sides had stressed the importance of communication and upholding citizens’ rights.
“Unfortunately,” the Renew Group MEPs wrote, “detention of young and often low-risk EU citizens arriving in the UK for summer jobs and not yet being fully aware of entry conditions is not in line with this statement and the spirit of good cooperation that we would expect.
“We are deeply concerned by these events and we call on the Commission to urgently address this issue in the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee.”
President Dacian Cioloş also called UK Border Force’s actions “grossly disproportionate”, adding: “There would rightly be outrage if this was reciprocated for UK nationals.”
Several of the affected EU citizens told English-language media that on being stopped by Border Force and realising their error, they had offered to pay for their own flights home, to no avail.
One of those was a 25-year-old Spanish woman who had worked in the UK hospitality industry for six months in 2019 and mistakenly thought she could return to apply for pre-settled status.
On telling Border Force she was in the country for “work reasons”, she was held at the airport for hours, then transferred to Yarl’s Wood, where she remained for four days.
Spanish Foreign Ministry officials confirmed to El Pais they were aware of the case. The Bulgarian Ambassador to the UK, Marin Raykov, has separately confirmed “several” Bulgarian citizens have been held in detention centres since Brexit.
What caused the heavy-handed response?
The UK Home Office has not yet released data on border detentions since Brexit came into force in January.
Under the country’s EU Settlement Scheme, EU citizens who arrived in the UK before December 31, 2020 can apply for ‘pre-settled status’ up until June.
The new rules state that EU citizens arriving in the country can “attend meetings, conferences, seminars, interviews” and “negotiate and sign deals and contracts” without work visas.
But this has given rise to confusion over whether EU citizens can explore the UK job market without a visa, then go home with an offer in order to apply for one.
EU nationals are also now banned from taking up unpaid UK internships: an aspect of the agreement that has not been well-publicised since January.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “EU citizens are our friends and neighbours and we want them to remain, which is why they have until 30 June to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme if they were resident in the UK before 31 December 2020.
“For those who were not resident before this date, as the public expects, we require evidence of an individual’s right to live and work in the UK.”
UK statutory body blocked from inspecting Yarl's Wood
Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre is one of 10 facilities in the UK where foreign nationals believed to be illegal immigrants are held prior to being deported.
The Home Office facility in rural Bedforshire, which houses up to 400 people at a time, has been the subject of repeated allegations of inhumane treatment and abuse of detainees.
Many of those held at Yarl's Wood have been women trafficked into Britain, or people fleeing abusive marriages, torture or human rights abuses in their countries of origin.
Over the prison-like facility's 17-year existence detainees have staged repeated hunger strikes over maltreatment and shoddy food and health provision. Several UK grassroots campaigns are actively trying to get the site shut down.
Since 2014 Yarl's Wood has been run by Serco, a private contractor that received £70 million to operate it for eight years.
In May this year the site's Independent Monitoring Board said its officers' annual scrutiny of the facilities had been hampered by Serco withdrawing their access in June 2020.
"This is in contravention of the Board’s statutory rights," they wrote. "Serco management also ceased providing its monthly Centre manager’s report to the Board in June."