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Thu 6 May 2021

When prominent campaigner Dahaba Ali tweeted that she had been refused settled status, the department responded quickly on social media – is this part of a pattern? asks Sian Norris

Eyebrows were raised at the Home Office’s swift response on social media after the BBC Newsnight producer and EU citizens’ rights campaigner Dahaba Ali tweeted that she had been refused settled status in the UK.

This is not the first time the department has been accused of responding to cases where settled status has been refused after a scandal has erupted on social media.

In 2019, the host of popular TV show First Dates Fred Sirieix was refused settled status, in a move the Home Office later branded “a mistake”. In response, Sirieix said that the process made people feel like “second-class citizens” and called out the “Brexit shambles”. 

Ali, 27, was born in the Netherlands where her mother was granted refugee status after fleeing war in Somalia. She has lived in the UK since she was 10 and is a prominent campaigner for EU citizens’ rights. 

On 8 April, Ali tweeted the “devastating personal news” that her application for settled status had been refused. She explained how, without this status, she would be “in the UK illegally and I can’t work nor can I access any public funds or services including the NHS”. 

In response, the Home Office tweeted that it had been “trying to reach Ali” and encouraged her to call the department. Ali responded with thanks, while pointing out that she had not received any call or email. She is now working with the Home Office to “resolve my case”.

The Home Office told the Guardian that Ali “is able to reapply to the scheme by 30 June 2021 and we encourage her to get in touch with the helpline where our dedicated staff can support her to provide the requested evidence”. It said it made “several repeated attempts to contact her over a number of weeks – by email, phone and text – but the evidence requested was not provided”. It accepted “a range of evidence and will work with people on a case-by-case basis to consider other evidence if necessary”, it added.

According to human rights lawyer Shoaib Khan, “cases like this also demonstrate another of the Home Office’s very strongly-held beliefs – never admit a mistake unless it becomes a public embarrassment or a court forces you to”.

“None of this is a secret to those familiar with the Home Office and its workings, but it takes a case like this every few months to highlight these institutional failings,” he said.


Disaster Management

Back in 2018, experts raised concerns that the Home Office appeared to be in a “continuous stage of disaster management” after identifying how erroneous immigration decisions were reversed following media coverage or a social media storm. 

That same year, the Independent reported on three cases in which individuals expressed concern that they faced wrongful deportation from the UK.

The first was Yvonne Williams – the daughter of a Windrush immigrant who faced being returned to Jamaica despite having lived in the UK since she was a child and her whole family being here. The second involved a six-year-old who was blocked from entering the UK after a holiday. The third was the case of Hafizzulah Husseinkhel, a 27-year-old Afghan man, who was threatened with deportation despite having served in the British Army.

The Independent claimed that, following its reporting, the Home Office overturned two decisions within 12 hours of publication, exposing what the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants called “a completely dysfunctional system” which is “unfair” for those individuals who can’t get their cases in the media or who, as with Ali and Sirieix, don’t have public profiles. 

Similarly, the decision to reject a gay man’s application to remain in the UK was reversed 23 minutes after Buzzfeed published an article about his situation. A second Buzzfeed story a year later involved Davinder Singh who had lived in the UK since she was a toddler and had faced a two-year-long battle to obtain citizenship. Within hours of Buzzfeed contacting the Home Office press office for a response, she was granted citizenship “out of the blue”.

In 2018, Shoaib Khan submitted a Freedom of Information request to ascertain why certain cases that drew media attention led to speedy reversals. In response, the Home Office said it did not “have a specific team responsible for resolving cases identified in the media” and that “all immigration cases are dealt with as standard according to normal casework procedures”.

However, a Buzzfeed investigation published the same year accused the Home Office of creating a “rapid response strategy to solve cases that were generating bad publicity for the department”, which gave senior immigration staff the “freedom to make decisions outside of the rules and quickly grant visas and citizenship to individuals whose cases are reported in the press”.

“It is unacceptable that the Home Office continues to overturn incorrect decisions that make the news, while denying that the department monitors the media for such cases,” Khan told Byline Times. “If there is no one at the Home Office who keeps an eye on the news for this, it really is an incredible coincidence that those cases are dealt with within hours of publication, while others can take years to be resolved.”


Deportations

Not everyone who is refused a visa, residency or settled status sees the decision reversed. 

Despite receiving local media coverage and support from MPs, care worker Anugwom Goodluck was deported to Nigeria in 2020 when the Coronavirus pandemic meant that he was no longer able to work. The 30-year-old, who came to the UK to do a Master’s degree at the University of Sussex, said his “whole life is in England”.

Another case saw a Syrian man deported to Spain despite having relatives in the UK. He claimed that, despite having an ongoing legal case, he was handcuffed and put on a flight. 

A young man deported to Jamaica told the Guardian that adjusting to his new life had been “very hard, very tiring” and that “people are trying to kill me here”. He was deported after a period of being homeless and had criminal convictions.

For people seeking asylum in the UK, a refusal can kickstart a long appeal process including judicial reviews during which the person is often destitute and reliant on charitable support. It can lead to them being housed in a detention centre such as Yarl’s Wood and deportation. 

Khan believes that the “trend is indicative of the Home Office’s general attitude towards immigrants and immigration”.

“The Home Office needs a complete overhaul if such behaviours are to be stopped and it is no surprise that people do not trust the department,” he said. “There needs to be greater transparency, the laws and rules need to be clearer, staff need to be retrained, and procedures need to be made fairer but, most importantly, there needs to be an inculcation of humanity and sensitivity at the very highest levels.”

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