Home Office: Unlawful Search & Phone Seizure Practices
Between at least April 2020 and 23 November 2020, the Home Office adopted an unpublished “mobile phone policy” whereby migrants who arrived in the UK by small boats were searched and had their mobile phones and SIM cards seized. In some cases, immigration officials demanded PIN numbers and claimed that migrants were legally required to provide this information.
The phones and SIM cards were then retained by the Home Office and, in many cases, data from these devices – including emails, photos and videos – was downloaded by immigration officials.
Under this policy, the Home Office seized almost 2,000 mobile phones.
In HM, MA & KH v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWHC 695 (Admin), the High Court found that the policy of searching migrants, seizing their phones and downloading their data was unlawful for several reasons, including that the policy was unpublished, breached GDPR and breached the human rights of migrants affected by the policy.
Following a later order by the High Court, a large number of migrants affected by the policy are now starting to receive letters – entitled “notification of unlawful search practices” – from the Criminal & Financial Investigations department of Immigration Enforcement. These letters confirm that the recipient may have been “searched on arrival by Home Office staff… with the intention (amongst other things) of seizing any phone you might have had in your possession”.
The letter states that these actions were unlawful and offers an apology from the Home Office for “any unlawful acts which took place”. As ordered, the letter also advises that “if you have not taken legal advice on your position, you are strongly advised to do so.”
Anyone who has received such a letter from the Home Office or was subject to the Home Office’s unlawful “mobile phones policy” may be entitled to compensation. However, there are time limits for claiming compensation, so it is important that anyone affected contacts a legal adviser as soon as possible.