Priti Patel admits illegal policy to seize Channel migrants’ phones

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The Government department said it believes the practice developed “organically” and it has now stopped. Today, the High Court heard Border Force officials would take migrants’ phones and demand their pin codes as a matter of course.

This was because of the mistaken belief “that an illegal entry offence was always committed by passengers” trying to enter the UK on small boats at the time.

Ms Patel’s department also admitted that ordering asylum seekers to hand over their PIN numbers to allow immigration officers to access their phones was unlawful.

Data protection impact assessments carried out at the time also breached the law, it said.

The move came as increasing numbers of migrants made the crossing – but ended before a record 28,300 embarked on the perilous journey last year.

The court heard that the “blanket seizure policy” operated at the Tug Haven reception unit in Dover between April and November 2020.

Home Office lawyers said its “precise origins are not known” and the policy “appears to have developed organically”.

Sir James Eadie QC, representing the Home Secretary, made the admissions after three asylum seekers took the Government to court over their phones being seized.

The men, from Iraq and Iran, were all arrested on arrival and stripped of their possessions despite committing no crime.

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Authorities kept their mobile phones for several months, leaving them unable to contact their loved ones.

This left one of the men fearing that his wife and seven-year-old daughter had been killed.

The claimants are asking the High Court to make declarations of “serious illegality”, award damages and require the Home Office to alert everyone affected by the unlawful policy.

Their lawyers estimate that hundreds or thousands of mobile phones may have been unlawfully seized dating back to 2018.

Alan Payne QC told the High Court: “The Home Secretary is accepting that the seizure policies were unlawful, were not in accordance with the law for the purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights and did not provide a lawful basis for the processing of data.”

Mr Payne said a version of a mobile phone policy that has been scrapped was unlawful because it was “blanket and unpublished”.

In December, the Court of Appeal ruled that crossing the Channel with the aim of being intercepted and claiming asylum did not amount to a crime.

Lord Justice Edis, who heard that case and the current challenge, said material received subsequently suggests “the origin of the error was actually in the Home Office and its agencies”.

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