The queue waiting to enter Britain’s busiest immigration tribunal centre is long in the early morning.
Asylum seekers, illegal migrants and visa over-stayers of every nationality jostle with lawyers, carrying bulging briefcases of documents, who are about to fight for their right to live in this country.
Here at Taylor House in Central London, tens of thousands of hearings a year are overseen by immigration judges, at huge cost to the taxpayer.
James Hanratty, above, an immigration judge for 16 years, said crooked solicitors and legal advisers are helping their clients make up bogus tales of persecution
Recently, one of those judges, who has now retired, blew the whistle on what goes on at some of those tribunals, accusing unscrupulous immigration lawyers of aiding and abetting foreign ‘liars and chancers’.
James Hanratty, an immigration judge for 16 years, said crooked solicitors and legal advisers are helping their clients make up bogus tales of persecution, torture or sexual violation and even supplying false documents to back up the stories.
The respected former judge is not alone in raising the alarm. Mr Justice Green, a High Court judge, last year said immigration lawyers deliberately drag out cases for decades to stop clients — even those with a dismal chance of staying — being removed from Britain.
A report last month from Migration Watch UK, which campaigns for tougher border controls, estimated that, every year, the illegal migrant population in the UK of visa over-stayers, clandestine arrivals and failed asylum seekers grows by 70,000 or more.
French police continue to play cat and mouse with migrants, pictured near Calais. The Supreme Court this week ruled that the deportation of foreign criminals with British-born children is legal, which until now has been used to stop or delay deportations
Former Home Office immigration chief David Wood told a House of Commons select committee last year that Britain now has one million illegals, acknowledging that huge numbers live ‘under the radar’. He also said that few were ever likely to be sent home. For deportation is a difficult business, too.
Home Office figures show that, of the 10,129 illegals, including foreign criminals released from UK prisons, ordered to be placed on deportation flights from January 2016 to May this year, 6,237 (or 61 per cent) were removed before take-off or at the 11th hour did not board. Many had made last-minute appeals using immigration lawyers to avoid removal.
Only this month, a Somalian convicted gang rapist, Yaqub Ahmed, 29, escaped being thrown out. He was on a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul from Heathrow when passengers heckled the private security guards overseeing his deportation. ‘They’re separating him from his family!’ one passenger shouted.
Migrants in Caen continue to break into lorries bound for the UK using the Ouistreham ferry port to Portsmouth
As a result, Ahmed, who has just completed a nine-year sentence for a sex attack on a 16-year-old girl in Crouch End, North London, was taken off the aircraft and sent back to an immigration detention centre.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the deportation of foreign criminals with British-born children is legal. It’s an historic ruling that will limit the power of lawyers to use the European Convention on Human Rights, which safeguards family life, as a legal loophole to let offenders stay here.
Time will tell whether it will speed up deportations or reduce queues in our immigration courts.
For years, I have reported on immigration hearings where foreigners, some of whom should never have come to Britain, or who should have left by now, try to convince judges they have the right to stay.
Opposite are battle-weary Home Office officials who’ve heard many stories before.
Armies of interpreters dance attendance, some on hundreds of pounds a day from the public purse. They have to be versed in tongues ranging from Pidgin English (spoken in remote areas of Africa and New Guinea), to Korean and Farsi.
Overseeing this extraordinary scene are the well-meaning judges, bombarded daily with tales about the horrors the migrants will face if they are thrown out.
There are no oaths sworn here, only a request from the judges that those in front of them tell the truth.
For some begging to stay — as I have seen — it seems a lot to ask.
During three days that I spent listening to immigration hearings at Taylor House, I watched a 46-year-old South African woman who has been in Britain illegally for nearly 20 years try to win asylum.
A man waves the Union Jack flag in front of French anti-riot police during a march organised by human rights activists in support of migrants and refugees
She said she could not go home because her family physically and verbally abused her for avoiding an arranged marriage in 1998, before she left for Britain on a two-year working visa, which she overstayed.
The woman’s lawyer produced one piece of evidence to back her story: a letter written in large handwriting some years ago on one page, from a friend in South Africa who said she wished to remain anonymous.
The mystery writer said that the woman’s family had fallen out with her when she was in her 20s. The letter did not mention rows over an arranged marriage.
Yet the woman’s lawyer argued that to return her would abuse her rights to a private life in the UK, although she is childless and has not married here.
On several occasions, after failing to get a visa extension, she has asked the Home Office to be allowed to stay. This was refused, but she remained anyway.
Shaking and crying, the woman, who now lives on the outskirts of London, told the court that she was in ‘fear of [her] family’ and admitted she was working illegally as a recruitment consultant and IT specialist in Britain.
When asked by the Home Office official why she had not called friends in the UK to come to court to back up her lawyer’s arguments, she said they were all at work. ‘I am telling you the truth,’ she said in a whisper.
Asked by the woman judge why she hadn’t sought asylum earlier, she said all the lawyers she consulted wanted ‘money and more money and did nothing to help me’.
At this, her current lawyer blushed, before blustering that his client had learned to speak good English while in the UK — which seemed debatable, given that she apparently came from a sophisticated Asian community in Durban, South Africa, where English is the first language.
Afghan aslyum seekers in the demolished jungle Calais, France, last year. Former Home Office immigration chief David Wood told a House of Commons select committee last year that Britain now has one million illegals
In another, equally mystifying, case — again with a paucity of evidence, but more tears — a Bangladeshi man from East London begged to stay in Britain so that he could see his son.
The boy, in his early teens, lives in London with the man’s estranged wife, his cousin, whom he married before entering the UK illegally eight years ago at the age of 30.
The Bangladeshi hoped to stay using European law — enshrined in Britain by the Human Rights Act —which gives the right to a family life.
Yet the lawyer, from a thriving immigration practice in London, struggled to argue his case when it became clear that the man only sees his son occasionally on the street walking to school or at extended family gatherings at a mosque, when his wife is there with the boy.
Putting his head in his hands and weeping, the father pleaded with the judge: ‘I saw my son last week. He waved at me across the street as he went to school with a friend. My relationship is very good with him and he calls me Dad. He is my heart and soul.’
However, the case began to unravel when the official for the Home Office began to ask why statements from his witnesses bore such a strong resemblance to each other.
Sue Reid has been told by those working at immigration hearings that some more unscrupulous lawyers prepare country-by-country crib sheets for migrants to learn before a hearing [File photo]
The wording in at least three cases was identical, raising the question as to whether they had been written by the witnesses.
This did not seem to surprise the woman judge. She barely raised an eyebrow at the revelation that the evidence did not seem credible. For, time and again, it seems decisions at the hearings are based on questionable evidence.
I have been told by those working at immigration hearings that some more unscrupulous lawyers prepare country-by-country crib sheets for migrants to learn before a hearing.
For example, if you are from Ghana, you might be advised to say you are gay and deserve sanctuary because you come from a country that abhors homosexuality.
Four years ago, a father of two escaped deportation moments before being put on a plane to Jamaica by declaring that he was homosexual.
The 55-year-old was ordered to be sent back to his homeland after building up a criminal record that included thefts, drug possession and assaults.
Yet, in handcuffs at Gatwick, he said he was gay and claimed he could not be sent home, as he faced discrimination there. The claim halted his deportation.
Mr Justice Green, a High Court judge, above, last year said immigration lawyers deliberately drag out cases for decades to stop clients — even those with a dismal chance of staying — being removed from Britain
And if, for instance, you say you are a Christian from Iran, you can argue you will face persecution or torture in a country ruled by Islamic hardliners. And so on.
Of course, it’s important to state that many of the 26,000 foreigners claiming asylum each year will be telling the truth and deserve our help.
The problem for immigration judges — who earn six-figure salaries — in busy hearings is that they can struggle to uncover who is honest and who is not.
An immigration solicitor was last year suspended indefinitely after making an application knowing that his client was lying.
Mansoor Ali, a partner at a Manchester firm with a reputation for advising migrants, was told by his Pakistani client that he had cheated the system by saying he was in the UK as a student.
In fact, a confession was recorded in Ali’s files admitting the man had never been to college and had paid agents to get bogus certificates from UK education establishments. Yet Ali took a fee of £720 and appealed his client’s case.
No wonder that one QC versed in immigration law told me some time ago that some tales at the tribunals are ‘seriously unbelievable’.
Four years ago, a father of two escaped deportation moments before being put on a plane to Jamaica by declaring that he was homosexual. Yet, in handcuffs at Gatwick, he said he was gay and claimed he could not be sent home, as he faced discrimination there. The claim halted his deportation [File photo]
James Hanratty — who has written a book called The Making Of An Immigration Judge — says the immigration system is now a huge industry that has attracted ‘bent legal advisers’ chasing pots of gold.
‘So dishonesty and deception, some of it comical, are all too frequent, as I saw time and again.’
Mr Hanratty has highlighted a case before him in which a lawyer falsified a statement for a Somali woman who claimed her life was in danger because she was from a minority clan.
Her husband, she insisted, had had his throat cut by a rival warlord at their home in Mogadishu, forcing her to flee to England. Her story was backed by her lawyers.
Yet the case crumbled when a Home Office official who had done his homework asked how her murdered husband had been able to claim asylum in Britain 18 months before.
‘There was stunned silence because she had no answer and shouted at me,’ said Mr Hanratty. ‘The solicitors who had prepared her statement knew it was rubbish.’
To make a bad situation worse, the hearings — including those I witnessed at Taylor House — are often shrouded in secrecy, with reporting restrictions (which can be applied for by downloading a form from a government website) becoming the norm.
On one Tuesday during the week I was there, of the 64 hearings held, almost a quarter were covered by this rule.
This is only part of a wider culture of secrecy. A 28-year-old man who is a French speaker of African descent (and a criminal who has just finished a prison sentence) was brought to court from an immigration deportation centre, asking for bail.
His name was listed on the door of the hearing room. When, after the hearing, I asked his relative (who I told I was a journalist) to confirm the spelling of his name, the woman judge shouted across the room.
She ordered the relative not to confirm the man’s name because I was ‘from the Daily Mail’.
After another hearing, involving a claim to stay, I was chased down a corridor by a lawyer and told that I could not use any names I’d heard, not even his own firm’s, even though there were no reporting restrictions.
On a third occasion, five minutes after I entered a hearing, an immigration lawyer asked the judge to stop me reporting details of the case, on the grounds that it was confidential.
In a welcome spark of common sense, the judge refused.
To make a bad situation worse, the hearings — including those Sue Reid witnessed at Taylor House — are often shrouded in secrecy, with reporting restrictions becoming the norm [File photo]
And so, relentlessly, the hearings went on. And there were yet more tears.
In one, a 69-year-old Ukrainian grandmother dabbed her eyes with a tissue as she begged the judge to let her stay in the UK with her daughter, who has five children and is married to a British doctor who works in the NHS and runs a private health clinic.
The grandmother, through an interpreter, said she had suffered marital violence in the Ukraine. She had also been frightened by unrest in her home country.
She wanted to stay in Britain, said her lawyer, because she had depression and needed help dressing and even feeding herself.
A medical report was produced to show she suffered failing health and was becoming forgetful.
Yet this appeared to be tainted, as it had been written by a former associate of her doctor son-in-law.
When the judge called the son-in-law to the hearing and asked why he had ordered the report and what he had said to his colleague, there was no proper answer.
The judge asked to see the referral letter the doctor had sent to his associate, however it could not be found in the bundles of files brought to court by her lawyer. The hearing continued — while the mystery of the letter remained unsolved.
This may all have been innocent and the Ukrainian lady might well deserve to stay in Britain.
But it’s the sort of thing that makes you fear Mr Hanratty is right: that immigration tribunals are open to abuse at a time when our public services are groaning, our hospitals are full and we need millions of houses to be built to accommodate a ballooning population.
My three days at Taylor House certainly did nothing to prove him wrong.