‘They hear a bang at the door and it’s the Home Office’: threat of being ‘disappeared’ haunts asylum seekers amid Rwanda crackdown

<span>Protesters block a coach taking away asylum seekers from a hotel in Peckham, south-east London. </span><span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer</span>
Protesters block a coach taking away asylum seekers from a hotel in Peckham, south-east London. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

At 2.37pm on Thursday news that a man had “disappeared” rippled through London’s raid-resistance WhatsApp groups. The asylum seeker had walked into the Home Office immigration reporting centre in Hounslow, west London, for a routine appointment, as many people seeking refuge in Britain are required to do. His brother waited outside.

But the man did not come out. Ten minutes passed, then 20, then an hour, then three. The brother waiting outside went in, and came out with bad news: his sibling had been detained and told he faced being deported to Rwanda.

Calls for help went out on social media. “URGENT! Eaton House has news someone is detained so a van will be trying to leave WE NEED NUMBERS NOW!!” one person wrote. If they were going to stop the man being taken to an immigration removal centre – where he could be held for months before being placed on a deportation flight – protesters were needed urgently.

At at hotel housing asylum seekers in Peckham, south-east London, hundreds had already gathered with a similar aim. A Home Office-contracted coach had been going to take people from the hotel to the Bibby Stockholm barge, moored in Dorset. Dozens of protesters sat in the road, arms linked. Someone reportedly punctured the coach’s tyres. After clashes between police, protestors and coach staff, 45 people were arrested.

The protest achieved its aims – temporarily, at least. When the coach was eventually able to leave, seven hours after it arrived, there were no asylum seekers on board.

In Hounslow, the response on the ground was thinner. At the Eaton House immigration centre – two miles from Heathrow, and with planes constantly flying low overhead – there were two gates through which a van could take the detained man.

The six people who had arrived to offer support had no choice but to split up. Three gathered outside one gate, and three outside the other. At 3pm, an unmarked van featuring no company name – only the abstract logo of the Home Office contractor Mitie – drove in.

At about 4pm, it drove out again, with the asylum seeker inside, speeding through an “entrance only” gate and on to the main road. There was little the six protesters could do. “They knew there weren’t enough of us,” one of them said.

In the front seats, the driver and his colleague appeared triumphant. “They were fucking laughing at us,” another of the protesters said. “To see such casual evil …” her voice trailed off. “They don’t see the people they are detaining as people.” This was a scene repeated across the UK last week, from London to Manchester, Cardiff to Glasgow.

As part of a continuing “crackdown” called Operation Vector, the Home Office says it has increased detention capacity and enlisted 500 “escorts” to round up asylum seekers whom it says are eligible for removal to Rwanda.

Many are people fleeing war and persecution in countries such as Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan who have already been in the UK for at least a year awaiting a decision about whether their asylum claim would be considered.

Last Monday in Solihull, West Midlands, five asylum seekers were held at Sandford House immigration reporting centre after attending a routine appointment, as protesters gathered outside. The detainees included a Christian man who fled Iran for Britain two years ago, according to the Birmingham Dispatch.

Then on Wednesday in Loughborough, Leicestershire, a group of men attending routine appointments were led out in handcuffs, put into a van and driven away. The Home Office has also boasted of raids at houses and hotels, posting a first video last Tuesday, set to cheerful music, showing a man being led from his home in handcuffs.

Tara Wolfe, a barrister who leads the Rwanda project at the charity Bid (Bail for Immigration Detainees), which is supporting about 15 people held as part of the plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, said the detentions had caused a “lot of fear and a sense of powerlessness”.

The exact number detained is not clear and deportation flights to Rwanda have yet to take off. One man was said to have been paid £3,000 as part of a voluntary removals scheme.

Forced deportations are not expected to happen, if they do, until at least July. But the ramping-up of detentions – expected to continue at pace – has won praise from the rightwing press. “There’s no hiding place,” proclaimed a headline in the Sun.

Related: Lone children at risk of deportation to Rwanda after being classified as adults, says charity

Wolfe said those who had been detained had their smartphones and other belongings taken away and now faced a months-long wait until they knew their fate. People have been searched or handcuffed.

Many have been left without robust internet or phone connections while in detention, Wolfe said, leaving them struggling to access legal advice and support from charities.

“There’s just a sense of panic and desperation and people just not knowing why they’ve been detained,” she said. “It’s definitely succeeded in whipping up fear across the whole refugee community.”

Detention Action, a charity that is helping another 10 people detained by the Home Office, said women were being held as well as men. At least one person was detained and told they could be deported to Rwanda. A man from Iran who had been awaiting a decision on whether his asylum claim would be heard in the UK or not has gone on hunger strike.

Related: Detained asylum seekers given Home Office booklet saying Rwanda is ‘generally safe’

This weekend he said that he and his family were “tortured and oppressed” because of their religion in Iran and came to the UK because it is known for its human rights and safety.

“But when you come, you realise there is no interview. You are left like this, in detention, like prison. My family in Iran ask: ‘What’s the difference?’” he said in an emailed statement. “I am damaging my body and my health to get help and to get my voice heard.”

Ann Salter, head of clinical services in Freedom from Torture’s north-west England region, said the detentions had been “retraumatising” even for those not likely to be affected by the Rwanda policy themselves.

“We have heard accounts of people in shared housing hearing banging at the door and it’s Home Office officials coming to take people away. It’s absolutely terrifying,” she said. “Many of our clients come from a situation where they didn’t know when the knock at the door would be, or when they would be lifted from the streets. It is absolutely recreating that climate of fear.”

Refugee charities say the threat of detention risks pushing people to disengage from the system. They may be less likely to report to the Home Office, as well as to access healthcare or go to the police if they are in danger, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

There are also reports of people leaving Home Office accommodation in fear. At one hotel housing asylum seekers in Elephant and Castle, south London, 10 people were reportedly detained, according to youth worker Benny Hunter. He wrote online that he had heard from a friend staying there that some people were “so scared that they are leaving to sleep in parks”.

Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said people were being “deliberately” made to feel “scared and confused”.

“The lack of communication from the Home Office means even those who in theory would not be likely to be removed to Rwanda feel that they might be,” she said. “Detaining people who are reporting to the Home Office is liable to just make people more fearful about turning up.”

If they do not attend appointments – required for many as a condition of immigration bail – asylum seekers risk being arrested and cut off from financial support. Even so, for some, it is not an easy choice.

Outside the Home Office reporting centre in Salford, Greater Manchester, Maggy Moyo, an organiser for the charity Right to Remain, has witnessed the impact of the policy up close. A former asylum seeker herself, she spent hours last week handing out leaflets to people going to routine appointments, with details of charities and legal projects they can call if they do end up being detained.

She said some had not heard of the Rwanda scheme at all. “In asylum accommodation, there is no telly, no radio. There is also a language barrier. So if you’re not lucky enough to get people telling you: ‘Here’s a community group,’ you’re kind of clueless,” she said.

Others were all too aware of the threat. “We had one guy who arrived in the UK in 2022. He knew exactly what might happen to him. He stood there for an hour crying, saying: ‘Should I go in? Or should I just jump and go under the radar?’” Moyo said. “We are looking at him and we don’t know what to say. We can’t give him our word [that he won’t be detained].”

Eventually, the man, from Eritrea, went in. “Thankfully, he came back out,” Moyo said. “But when he came out he said: ‘I’m reporting next week and I’m not sure I will come back.’”