Home Office Admits To Seizing Mobile Phones From Migrants Crossing The Channel

Three asylum seekers have brought a case to the high court, claiming the Home Office operated a policy in which they seized mobile phones from all small-boat arrivals. In the judicial review, the asylum seekers explained the Home Secretary had an unpublished, blanket policy under which phones would be unlawfully taken and their owners forced to provide staff with pin numbers to unlock the phones. 

Tom de la Mare QC, representing one of the asylum seekers, told the Court the arrivals were “bullied” into handing over their phone information so their data could be downloaded to an intelligence database called ‘Project Sunshine’. Many of those whose phones were confiscated on arrival were still waiting for their return several months later. This caused immense distress for the asylum seeker represented by de La Mare, referred to as HM, due to losing contact with his wife and child. “He didn’t know if they were alive or dead”, de la Mare told the Court. Opening the case, de La Mare accused the Home Office of “serious illegality” in operating the policy in “complete secrecy”.

The vulnerability of those who had their phones taken was also noted, with one of the asylum seekers who brought the case to court recognised as a potential victim of trafficking. The three asylum seekers claimed the policy of seizing phones, taking pin numbers, and downloading data was unlawful as the government does not have the legal power to do so to asylum seekers on first arrival. 

Lawyers for Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, have said some aspects of the policy operating between April and November in 2020 were unlawful, but the policy to seize phones to access numbers, emails, and photos was lawful. Initially, the Home Office had denied the existence of this policy but as evidence mounted, they have since confirmed it. Sir James Eadie QC, representing Priti Patel, recognised the Home Office had breached its duty of candour by failing to initially admit the policy existed. However, the majority of his argument was aimed at the crossings of the channel itself, suggesting there was high public interest in obtaining evidence from phones for the identification of those who organise the crossings. Alan Payne QC, also representing Patel, argued the current format of the policy in which fewer phones are confiscated, is lawful.

The case continues as those involved await the results. 

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Rachel Keane

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August 2022
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