An asylum seeker has claimed he was forced by the Home Office into meeting an Iranian diplomat to discuss a voluntary return to Tehran, breaking a law that bans the UK from telling another country about an asylum claim.
The man, whose appeal against deportation has yet to be resolved, was invited to an immigration centre in Hounslow, west London, in September and found an official waiting there to discuss his case.
His lawyer has accused the Home Office of a dangerous breach of confidentiality, but the department defended it as an optional consultation and part of normal practice.
The exchange highlights government pressure to increase the number of voluntary returns as a way of speeding up the deportation of refused asylum seekers. Similar allegations have emerged in the past in relation to Tamils resisting removal to Sri Lanka.
The asylum seeker does not wish to be identified because he has family living in Iran. The case coincides with the diplomatic row between London and Tehran over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The letter sent to the man before the meeting explained that he was required to report to an office in west London that day and did not indicate who he would meet.
“Nothing was mentioned that there would be a meeting with a representative from the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said his lawyer, Hojabr Afshar of Gulbenkian Andonian Solicitors.
“The Home Office is not supposed to act in a way which divulges details of an asylum claim to the authorities of Iran. My client entered into a room, where he saw an Iranian official already sitting there. He was completely shocked and traumatised.
“The Iranian official told my client: ‘I never knew that you are illegal and claiming asylum in the UK’. This had a gross impact on my client. The action of the Home Office, in this case, amounted to a clear divulging of the asylum claim in breach of duty of confidentiality … This is a clear breach of confidentiality.”
The Iranian man lost his initial claim for asylum, but then appealed against the decision. His case has been referred to a tribunal for a hearing due to take place this week. Whether this means he is a refused asylum seeker in the eyes of the Home Office is unclear.
Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister from Garden Court Chambers and the founder of the asylum advice organisation Free Movement, said the case was worrying.
“The government is legally prohibited by section 13 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 from revealing to another country that a person has claimed asylum here in the UK,” said Yeo, who is not involved in the case.
“As a matter of common sense, when trying to remove or redocument an asylum seeker, there are some countries UK officials should be very careful about. As the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe shows, Iran is surely a one of those countries. Whether or not a person’s asylum claim has succeeded or not, the UK could accidentally expose the asylum seeker to risk on return.”
The Home Office accepts that the letter sent to the asylum seeker about reporting to the immigration centre in September did not refer to any voluntary return meeting. Home Office policy, however, is that voluntary returns can be discussed at any point of the process regardless of whether an appeal has been lodged.
Those reporting to immigration centres are offered an opportunity to discuss returning to former homes, although there is no obligation on them to take part, according to officials.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is normal practice for the Home Office to promote voluntary departure for those whose applications and claims to remain in the UK have been considered, refused and have no right be here. This can include working with officials from foreign embassies and consulates to promote and support voluntary departures.”