The number of EU citizens being prevented from entering the UK has soared over the past three months despite a massive reduction in travel because of Covid, according to Home Office figures.

A total of 3,294 EU citizens were prevented from entering the UK, even though post-Brexit rules mean they are allowed to visit the country without visas. That compares with 493 EU citizens in the first quarter of last year, when air traffic was 20 times higher.

Visitors, however, can be stopped or detained and expelled if they are suspected of travelling to Britain to work or settle without meeting the new visa requirements.

Passenger air traffic from the EU is expected to jump almost 20-fold again once Covid-19 restrictions are fully lifted, with experts warning that the number of expulsions and detainees will also grow as a result.

Most EU citizens were turned back at British-run frontier controls at European ferry ports or the Eurostar rail terminal in Paris, with 738 expelled after landing at airports or UK ferry terminals.

Passengers arriving at airports and ports are routinely held in detention centres in the UK before being expelled.

The published numbers confirm a trend that has shocked some EU travellers who, after making honest mistakes about the new rules, have found themselves locked up for days at detention centres.

Many others have been forced to spend hours, or sleep the night, locked up at airports until they are put on return flights.

Since reports of EU citizens being locked up appeared in the Guardian and elsewhere, the Home Office has ordered that, where possible, such travellers be given bail so that they can stay with friends or relatives until they get on a return flight.

The Home Office has also since made it clear that people who have job interviews should not be expelled, despite several recent cases of that happening.

Earlier this month the Home Office ordered border officials to stop locking EU citizens up in detention centre and to instead, where appropriate, give them immigration bail if they were deemed to be breaching the post-Brexit rules.

Immigration rules allow discretion at the frontier, but the burden of proof lies with the visitor to satisfy the decision maker that “they will leave the UK at the end of their visit”, that they will “not live in the UK for extended periods” and will “not undertake any prohibited activities”. They must also have “sufficient funds”.

Guidelines for border officials on assessing the reasons for entry to the UK by a visitor.
Guidelines for border officials on assessing the reasons for entry to the UK by a visitor. Photograph: Home Office

The guidelines also spell out six reasons to doubt a person’s story, including if they are out of work and have most of their family in the UK, or that the “information provided” is “not credible”.

Passenger traffic from the EU was down year-by-year by between 94% and 97% over the first three months of this year, according to the Civil Aviation Authority.

“It is pretty likely that these figures will go up,” said Marley Morris, an associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), pointing to the fact that Brexit has brought an end to complete freedom of movement between the UK and the EU. “There are going to be a lot more people turned away.”

Morris said the first-quarter immigration figures also showed a powerful change in immigration tendencies, as EU workers stayed away while applicants for work visas from Hong Kong soared.

“If this trend continues, there will be major impact on labour market and future immigration patterns,” he said.

Naomi Smith, the chief executive of Best for Britain, called on the home secretary, Priti Patel, to make sure Border Force staff are properly aware of the new rules and apply them fairly.

“Despite assurances to the contrary, the Home Office continues to foster a hostile environment to anyone arriving in Britain, even tourists,” she said. “The home secretary must issue crystal-clear guidance to border staff, improve training and provide a cast-iron guarantee that people who have likely made honest mistakes are treated with understanding and respect.”

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