The shadowy programme which allows migrants to be deported on suspicion alone
In September, Daniel Gardonyi was arrested during a protest against the sell-off of social housing in North London. He was not charged with an offence but before he left the police station he was handed a letter which told him he could be kicked out of the country.
Gardonyi, who is originally from Hungary, has lived in England since 2009. Over the last few years he has taken part in many protests, including the occupation of the Sweets Way estate in Barnett. He doesn't claim benefits and has never been convicted of any crime, yet he is now at risk of removal by the Home Office.
The letter given to him came from Operation Nexus, an initiative run jointly by the police and the Home Office to "remove or deport those who pose a risk to the public or who are not entitled to be in the UK".
The operation, which was launched in 2012, has been received well. Sold to the public as a quick way to rid the UK of dangerous foreign criminals, the right wing press lapped it up. Much of the reporting has focused on the removal of rapists, gangsters and violent offenders. And shortly after it was set up, the Home Office boasted that 175 of 'London’s most prolific foreign national offenders' were removed in the first few months. In one high-profile case a 36-year-old Jamaican man was removed after being accused of a series of sexual assaults, but never convicted.
But scratch below the surface and the Nexus programme appears to be widening the net much further. Take Gardonyi. He's an EU citizen. Nothing in his record suggested he was violent or dangerous. So why was Operation Nexus concerned with his activities?
"We have written to the Home Office three times to ask for more information but have received no response," says Daniel Furner, Gardonyi's solicitor.
"We can't address any concerns they might have if we don't know what they are…he might have been targeted because of his activist work or even just because he is from Eastern Europe we just don't know."
Broadly speaking Nexus cases can be split into two categories. The first part of the operation is focused on the removal of people who are not entitled to be in the UK. There will, of course be straightforward scenarios where somebody has entered the country illegally and once identified by the operation is removed. But it has also been reported that some people are being removed simply for 'not exercising their treaty right to work or be self sufficient.'
Audrey Mogan, a legal project worker at the Aire Centre, an organisation which provides legal advice on European human rights, has been researching and collecting evidence on Nexus for over a year. She says she has seen the programme used to remove people accused of minor offences like petty theft or begging. In any case the 'not exercising their treaty rights' argument is a murky area. As she points out, what if somebody has previously worked but is then made redundant? Or is classed as homeless but is able to stay with friends until they get back on their feet?
The second part of the operation involves the deportation of those who are identified as 'high-harm' individuals. But there doesn't appear to be any definition of what 'high-harm' actually means. In fact, in December last year, the Home office admitted it had left it up to individual police forces to agree on a definition. They appear reluctant to discuss the programme. Politics.co.uk have contacted the Home Office three times for clarification on this point and on other issues surrounding Nexus but have so far received no response.
— The AIRE Centre (@AIRECentre) September 16, 2015
There are also concerns those accused of criminal offences under Nexus are not being given the right to a fair trial. Some of the solicitors I have spoken to are worried that deportation could be seen as an easier option for the police than bringing a prosecution. After all, they only have to suspect a person of a crime under these rules, they don't have to go to the trouble of proving it. There doesn't have to be any conviction, or even a trial – if they can build a satisfactory case against a person they can be kicked out. Only those who appeal against removal will have their case heard by a judge and even then it will be an immigration judge at a tribunal, not in a criminal court.
"The safeguards of a fair trial in the criminal justice system are abandoned in Operation Nexus appeals, making it impossible for appellants to challenge police hearsay evidence," says Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister.
He cites a case in which a man he represented was accused of being a gang member. He says the police presented no evidence of this during the appeal hearing and when challenged they argued that a gang simply means a group of criminals coming together on any one occasion.
"Nexus isn't just being used against alleged gang members, but seems to be applied ever more widely, including to people that someone in the police or Home Office just don't like very much," Yeo adds.
An investigation by immigration solicitors Luqmani, Thompson & Partners highlighted some of the problems with Nexus. It's worth reading this section of their findings in full:
"Operation Nexus strips foreign nationals in deportation appeals of almost every tool available to their similarly accused British counterparts to challenge allegations made against them by the state of wrongdoing. They must litigate without the power to cross examine witnesses giving evidence against them, who may remain anonymous and absent from the court, without publicly funded legal representation, without any restriction as to the material placed before the fact-finding court, and can be found responsible for conduct on a mere balance of probabilities."
Of course not every case is clear cut. Since receiving the Nexus letter Gardonyi was arrested again at another protest and this time charged with obstructing a high court enforcement officer. He is due to appear before magistrates next week. Gardonyi is also of no fixed abode and is not officially employed. But he is not living on the street, works alongside several community projects and does not rely on benefits.
So how did somebody protesting about social housing get caught in the Nexus net? Right now it's impossible to know because Gardonyi himself has never been told. His solicitor has advised him against attending any scheduled interviews with the Home Office until they know what they are dealing with. They've also notified the Home Office that they will be seeking a judicial review if it hasn't responded to their letters within a given time. Without this information, Gardonyi says he feels stressed and anxious about the situation, but insists he will keep fighting.