Priti Patel’s Home Office stole refugees’ phones

The Home Office seized refugees’ phones illegally. It should be dismantled

Priti Patel’s Home Office operated a grossly unlawful – and spectacularly cruel – policy of seizing the phones of refugees arriving in the UK

George Peretz

Calls to break up the Home Office – and redistribute its functions across Whitehall – are about to grow even louder, following Friday’s ruling that the department broke the law by confiscating refugees’ phones.

There are some basic principles of English law that you ought to be able to rely on with absolute security when you deal with the state. One of these is that you cannot be searched by an officer of the state, or have your property seized, without a specific legal basis.

Though this has modern overlays in the form of the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act, it falls mostly into the legal specialism known as the bleeding obvious. Or, to use the politer words of the High Court when considering the spectacular failure of the Home Office: “None of the legal concepts involved is novel or recondite.”

The behaviour that generated this judicial reaction was the Home Office’s policy, during most of 2020, of greeting people arriving on small boats to claim refugee status with an immediate search for their mobile phones, seizing those phones, demanding the passwords for those phones (while falsely claiming that it was an offence not to give them), downloading all the data on those phones onto Home Office systems and, finally, refusing to return the phones.

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