Campaign groups and Labour have accused the Home Office of lacking transparency even after the Windrush scandal because it refuses to say how many people of different nationalities have been deported from the UK after committing crimes in recent years.
The Home Office has repeatedly declined to provide breakdowns of deportations by nationality, saying to do this risked harming relations with other countries, and could adversely affect immigration controls.
The explanation prompted concern from campaign groups, who said the only reason the information could affect relations would be if it showed certain nationalities were being disproportionately targeted for removal.
Deportations, particularly to Jamaica, have become an increasingly contentious issue in recent months, with some of those removed having lived in the UK since they were children, or for many years, with close family links.
Both the home secretary, Priti Patel, and Boris Johnson have accused “activist lawyers” of launching spurious, last-minute cases to thwart detention flights, prompting warnings from the legal profession that such rhetoric could endanger lawyers.
The Guardian asked the Home Office under freedom of information laws to provide a breakdown by nationality of foreign nationals deported in the past five years under the 2007 UK Borders Act, which requires deportation for those jailed for 12 months or longer.
In refusing the request, the Home Office confirmed it held the information, but would not, because to do so was “likely to prejudice diplomatic relations between the UK and a foreign government”, and could “prejudice the operation of immigration controls”.
An internal review of the decision by the Home Office upheld the decision. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is now examining whether the data should be released.
Bishop Desmond Jaddoo, the chair of the Windrush National Organisation, said the data would help “in developing a clear picture of the actions of the Home Office”, and with recommendations from a review into the way long-established British nationals of Caribbean origin were wrongly targeted for immigration enforcement.
“The Windrush National Organisation sees transparency and accountability by the Home Office as a crucial element in building trust and confidence,” he said.
The review by Wendy Williams said the Home Office had showed “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race”.
It was commissioned after the Guardian’s reporting on the way the “hostile environment” immigration policy saw members of the Windrush generation wrongly deported, sacked from jobs and deprived of services such as healthcare.
Labour’s Holly Lynch, the shadow immigration minister, said the lack of transparency on this issue was unacceptable. She said: “So much trust has been destroyed by the Windrush scandal that the government must provide greater transparency over such a critical issue.”
Bella Sankey, the director of Detention Action, which campaigns over deportation flights, said: “This freedom of information request is straightforward and should be entirely uncontroversial for the Home Office to fulfil.
“If the law is being applied equally to all, no matter their nationality, how could disclosures concerning numbers of deportations possibly ‘prejudice relations’ with countries the government deports to? If Priti Patel has nothing to hide, then she has nothing to fear from a request for basic transparency.”
Celia Clarke, the director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said there was “a general unwillingness on the part of the Home Office to disclose vital information in relation to deportations and removals”.
She said: “In the interests of transparency, the information sought under this FoI should of course be in the public domain; shrouding it in secrecy just leads to speculation as to why. It also makes it much more difficult to hold the Home Office to account for its actions.”
The Home Office said it regularly published data by nationality and other categories for enforced returns, which covers those deported after committing crimes as well as other areas, such as breaches of immigration rules, but would await the ICO decision before commenting further.
A spokesman said: “We are committed to openness and transparency, which is why we publish a significant amount of data specifically on returns every quarter on gov.uk.”