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Hostile UK border regime traumatises visitors from EU

The Guardian logo The Guardian 14/05/2021 Giles Tremlett in Madrid and Lisa O'Carroll
a group of people with luggage at an airport: There is growing anger over what campaigners and MEPs have said is a ‘disproportionate’ implementation of post-Brexit immigration restrictions on EU citizens. © EPA There is growing anger over what campaigners and MEPs have said is a ‘disproportionate’ implementation of post-Brexit immigration restrictions on EU citizens.

Britain’s hostile regime for potential EU migrants is traumatising visitors caught in its web and provoking further worries for European families receiving visits from relatives, according to accounts provided to the Guardian.

The slightest suspicion that someone may be entering Britain to work is often enough for them to be locked up, held at detention centres for up to a week and then expelled to wherever they have travelled from, some of those caught up by the policy have said. Complaints from relatives and host families in the UK have either gone unanswered, or been ignored by the Home Office and some local MPs, they say.

An Italian NHS consultant told of his horror when his niece arrived from Italy for a short visit but ended up in a detention centre surrounded by barbed wire.

There is growing anger over what campaigners and MEPs have said is a “disproportionate” and “heavy-handed” implementation of post-Brexit immigration restrictions on EU citizens.

On Friday the EU’s co-chair of the post Brexit UK-EU partnership council, Maroš Šefčovič, told a group of Romanian MEPs he would be raising it with the UK authorities.

Giuseppe Pichierri, who has worked for the NHS for 15 years, told the Guardian he had waited for hours at Heathrow airport on 17 April with his four-year-old daughter to collect his 24-year-old niece Marta Lomartire with balloons and cards.

But she did not show. She had been stopped, quizzed and issued with an expulsion order before being locked up in Colnbrook detention centre for the night.

Related: EU citizens arriving in UK being locked up and expelled

Pichierri took his tearful daughter home and was called in the middle of the night and told Lomartire was being taken into detention. “We were never approached or told where she was,” he said. The following day, despite being on call at Kingston hospital, he tracked her down to Colnbrook and had to travel to the detention centre to meet Lomartire, who was scared and upset.

She did not understand where she was being taken and believed it was a prison.

Lomartire, now back home in Puglia, said: “It has been a really ugly experience, but now that I have had time to think about, I’m not going to let that stop me from returning. I’m determined to see my cousins.” She admitted, however, that she was scared she might be stopped at the frontier again and barred from entry because of the stamp on her passport.

“I was expecting to have a beautiful evening with the kids and my cousins, but instead this nightmare started. Instead of a reunion with my little cousins. Instead, I was behind bars and barbed wire. It was the complete opposite to what I had expected.”


Video: No lengthy delays as Brexit comes into effect at UK-EU border (Dailymotion)

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Pichierri welcomed his niece’s visit so she could improve her English and help him and his wife, Jennifer Pichierri, who also works in the NHS with babysitting their 11-month-old baby and two older daughters.Conscious of the Covid-related travel restrictions, Giuseppe had provided her a letter “outlining she could come and stay with us as an au pair, not realising that work, paid or not, is not permissible post-Brexit without a visa”.

He wanted to explain what he called his “honest mistake” to the authorities but never got the chance as Lomartire was expelled.

Jennifer says she fears the stamp on Lomartire’s passport may mean she is barred until she gets a new passport.

Her case emerged 24 hours after the Guardian reported on cases of Spanish, French, Bulgarian and Czech citizens being detained at airports overnight at taken to immigration removal centres.

Questions are being asked about why those without the correct paperwork are not just asked to return to the EU. The cases also highlight what appears to be an inconsistent approach at the border.

The German embassy said it also had citizens trying to go to the UK who said they were doing au pair work, and they were questioned at the airport but let through.

A spokesperson said: “The embassy is aware of a low single-digit number of cases of German nationals that were temporarily held at the airport after arrival. The persons concerned, who stated au pair work as their reason for entry, were allowed to leave after a few hours on the condition that they leave the UK within a few days.”

But the Romanian MEP Alin Mituța told the BBC he knew of five Romanians who had been detained. The Bulgarian embassy has also been told of citizens being taken to detention centres.

Mituța said the action was disproportionate. “They should be held in the airport and sent to their home countries as soon as possible. Sending them in detention centres for a couple of days without access to [their] phones and to be able to communicate with the family is not something that we expect from a country with which we expect to have a good relation in the in the future,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Luke Piper, a lawyer with the campaign group the3million, said he was not asking for EU citizens to be treated differently to other nationals, but just “fairly and not disproportionately”. He added: “It would appear that people have been treated disproportionately and heavy-handedly.”

The Home Office has been contacted but has yet to respond. However, it admitted that there had been a limited Covid outbreak at Yarl’s Wood detention in Bedford, where EU citizens are locked up after being stopped at Gatwick. “We are aware of small number of confirmed coronavirus cases,” a spokesperson confirmed.

Government sources argue that Border Force decisions have been complicated by the lack of return flights for those who enter the country without a necessary work visa and because of Covid.

In a letter sent to her MP, Paul Scully, the Home Office and numerous newspapers, Jennifer Pichierri said they never had an intention to employ Lomartire and she felt “heartbroken and betrayed”.

“She is a family member coming to spend time with her family. We only intended to demonstrate that we needed her help and that we are in a position to fully support her during her stay.”

“We tried to explain all of this to immigration (although my husband only had one short conversation with an immigration officer) to no avail. They denied her access to the UK,” she added.

“We are honest, hard-working citizens and if the decision had been made to deport her of course we would have returned her to the airport the next day.

“This is not the same country I grew up in, the same country that I have left to travel the world several times, that I have always raved about, felt proud of and looked forward to returning to. This is not the same country that my husband entered 13 years ago and decided to stay and dedicate his career to, have a family and build a life in.”

Alberto Costa, the Conservative MP for South Leicestershire, and longstanding campaigner on EU citizens’ rights said if any EU citizen “had entered the UK insisting that they are complying with the rules, and these rules are not being applied fairly, then I am sure the government would wish to be informed of and rectify any discrepancies with the new system”.

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