In 2012, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, she boasted that she would create a ‘hostile environment’ in respect of immigration. Time has shown that this is certainly an area where she has succeeded; the Windrush scandal along with the appalling detention conditions at Yarls Wood bear witness to her harsh regime. However, the Home Office is also using subtler techniques to try and achieve their impossible immigration targets.
One option available to some people in the UK is a so-called ‘Voluntary Return’ to their home country. This is where refugees, people seeking asylum and people who have become undocumented voluntarily accept support to leave the UK. However, while some charities previously offered support with this, it has become apparent that the Home Office is directly operating ‘Return Clinics’ from local charities and community centres. One such clinic has already been operating in Manchester and the programme is being rolled out to other areas. Many charities and third sector organisations are concerned about this new development because of the risk that people will mistake these Home Office run ‘clinics’ as community support and advice services. This practice comes hot on the heels of a government initiative which used homelessness charities to identify vulnerable EU migrants who were in the UK legally but struggling to find accommodation; many were subsequently deported.
Vulnerable people should be made to feel safe when accessing community centres and using voluntary organisations in order to seek impartial advice and support; they should not have to fear that hostile Home Office Immigration Enforcement Officers may be operating in their host communities. People should not feel pressured to take up voluntary returns and should receive comprehensive, accessible, legal immigration advice about all the options open to them including asylum and the Right to Remain. Many rightly fear being pressured to return to their home countries where they may face violence and persecution.
In order to better understand the situation my office has been meeting with a range of organisations to learn first hand how the Voluntary Returns process fits within the wider immigration control landscape. It is very clear that those who wish to return voluntarily to their home country can do so already with relative ease as the Home Office give dedicated support to those making the decision autonomously. The Voluntary Returns Clinics therefore appear to be both unnecessary and insidious. I hope to raise this issue with the relevant authorities especially as EU funding appears to have been used to support the Home Office initiative.