Asylum seekers in UK whose phones were seized can claim compensation
Some asylum seekers have told judges they were “bullied” into handing over their passcodes so that officials could download information into an intelligence database called Project Sunshine.
The Telegraph reported on Saturday the high court in the UK has ruled that the Home Office operated an unlawful, secret, blanket policy to take almost 2,000 mobile phones from asylum seekers arriving in the UK on small boats and then downloaded data from these phones.
It is unclear how many can claim compensation, but some estimates suggest the number could be as high as several thousand, yet many may not know they are entitled to the compensation due to the confusion around the unlawful Home Office policy to seize mobile phones. Judges described the unlawful phone seizures as "a failure of governance."
According to the report, only individuals who crossed the Channel between April and November 2020 and had their phone seized may be able to claim compensation. UK officials wrote to 1,323 people who had their phones taken during this period. The total number of individuals who crossed the channel in 2020 is 8,466.
439 phones seized during the specified period cannot be returned to their owners as the Home Office is unable to trace their owners.
Almost 2,000 phone devices were taken from asylum seekers, and then data was unlawfully downloaded.
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Judges have ruled that there was no parliamentary authority for seizures and data extractions, accusing officials of misusing legal power.
Some asylum seekers told judges they were “bullied” into handing over their passcodes so officials could unlock personal information including emails, photos, and videos, and download them to an intelligence database called Project Sunshine.
The pretext for doing so is that it helped officials gather evidence about smugglers who partake in such journeys.
A separate hearing took place in the high court on Friday because the government failed in its “duty of candor” and initially denied that the unpublished phone seizure policy existed.
"We are concerned with a failure of governance which allowed an unlawful policy to operate for an unknown period of time," ruled Lord Justice Edis and Mr. Justice Lane on Friday.
Though the judges said that pressure from the “crisis of mass migration into the UK” did exert an influence over such actions, they mentioned some government officials who avoided explaining how the unlawful policy was applied.
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The judge's concluding remarks were that they "consider there was a collective error of judgment" in the way the legal action was initially responded to.
"The errors here were corporate errors. They were errors of the team, from counsel to the government legal department to the Home Office. Everyone accepts that errors were made," Sir James Eadie said in court.
Former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, formally apologized for this immense error, whereas the lawyers who acted on behalf of three asylum seekers welcomed the judge's declaration that the blanket policy of removing migrants’ phones was unlawful and said it was a “scandal” that so many had their phones taken away from them.
"We are delighted the court has directed the home secretary to inform all those who had their phones taken that their rights have been breached. We hope that lessons will be learned from this case," said Clare Jennings of Gold Jennings solicitors.
"We have addressed the concerns raised through the courts and have a robust policy in place on mobile devices," said a Home Office spokesperson, adding that "our staff is fully trained to ensure any use of powers to seize mobile devices is proportionate, necessary and based on reasonable grounds of suspected involvement in criminal activity such as piloting a small boat."
"It is paramount that we use every tool at our disposal to investigate and disrupt the people smugglers who facilitate these dangerous crossings."
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