A Japanese woman living in London with her Polish husband has been threatened with deportation, had her child benefit stopped and driving licence revoked even though she is lawfully in the country under EU law, it has emerged.
In a two-year ordeal, photographer Haruko Tomioko, was also threatened with separation from her eight-year-old son.
She told the Guardian how her life was turned upside down, how she was ordered to pay back £5,000 in child benefit for their son and report to a Home Office immigration centre every month. If she did not comply with the reporting order, she was told she was liable to detention, a prison sentence and/or a fine of up to £5,000.
Despite several protests and futile phone calls to the Home Office, two weeks ago she was given seven days to leave the country.
“This means they can come and arrest me. I was really frightened,” she said. “I was afraid I would just get a knock on my door and I would be separated from my son and, with my husband working, who would look after him,” she said.
Lawyers say the ordeal throws the spotlight on the human cost of the “hostile environment” policy operated by the Home Office and is a taste of what could be to come for EU nationals post Brexit.
“She has been treated like a criminal,” said her husband Greg, a gaffer in the film industry, who asked that his surname was not used for fear of reprisals.
After her child benefit and driving licence was stopped. Haruko sought advice from an EU helpline, Your Europe Advice, who confirmed she was entitled to be with her husband provided he was economically active.
She said she could not understand why she was “bullied” by the Home Office when its own website states the same.
She said she was repeatedly asked she why she ”did not go back to Japan” by enforcement officers in Becket House in London even though she explained to them she was married to an EU national exercising his rights.
Immigration barrister Jan Doerfel said Haruko could now have a case against the Home Office as they had acted unlawfully and she should never have been made to report to Becket House.
“I hated going there, it was very depressing, it made me sick. Sometimes you have to queue up outside of the building with people passing by look at you as an illegal immigrant,” she said.
The deportation order was cancelled just last week after Haruko, 48, phoned the “returns preparation team” who had sent the letter to protest that she was the spouse of an EU national. The woman she spoke to was the first person who “listened” to her in two years. When Haruko told her she was married to an EU national, she should not have received what was a “standard letter”.
She said officials at Beckett House treated her poorly.
“All of my experiences show how disorganised the Home Office is; officers don’t know immigration rules. Where are the all information I provided? “ she said.
Doerfel said the authorities’ conduct “constitute repeated violations of EC law” and their “very heavy-handed approach is indicative of the hostile atmosphere surrounding immigration”.
He said “enforcement machinery” in the Haruko case was triggered far too readily” without “scrutiny of the facts”.
Haruko and Greg met in London in 2003 and and married in 2005. For 10 years, she opted to get five-year entry clearance stamps on her passport and was not concerned about her status until David Cameron announced he was going to hold a referendum on the EU in 2015. She decided to apply for a permanent residence card for peace of mind.
After that, she was bombarded with threatening letters, emails and texts which started to roll in like, she says, “a tsunami”.
In October 2015, she was told to “make arrangements” to leave the country when her application was refused.
“I was devastated. I remember the day well because I was supposed to go to a Halloween party with my son, but I couldn’t go I was so upset and shocked. I thought I would be separated from my family and sent back to Japan,” she said.
Three months later, she received a text from Capita indicating enforced immigration procedures were under way.
This was followed by an email telling her she must make “immediate” plans to leave, followed by a letter from the Home Office ordering her to report to Becket House immigration centre with little explanation other than warning her she was liable to detention, prison and a fine if she failed to comply.
Five months later, the DVLA wrote to her to say they had cancelled her driving licence. Three weeks after that, her son’s child benefit was stopped with a demand from HMRC for £5,044 in back payments.
“I was really scared because I thought I would have to pay them £5,000 and we didn’t have that kind of money,” she said. “I tried not to cry in front of my son, but sometimes I just couldn’t stop myself. It’s been really really tough.”
Reporting to Becket House last month was a frightening experience, she said, because an official threatened to separate her from her son. “I remembered clearly when I was called for an interview to the back of office, the officer told me: ‘We can remove you from the UK anytime. We can separate you from your family’ when my son was in the waiting room,” she said.
But Haruko eventually found a volunteer lawyer who wrote to the Home Office telling them she had entered the UK lawfully “as a wife of an EU citizen exercising his treaty rights”.
Within days, her driving licence and child benefit were reinstated. Now the Home Office has admitted she will not be removed from the country.
After a Guardian inquiry, the Home Office said: “Ms Tomioka is not subject to removal from the UK. We are currently working with her to explain how she can make an appropriate application should she wish to do so.”
Lawyer Doerfel says the Home Office should not have triggered enforcement proceedings because Haruko had informed it twice in 2016 and again in 2017 that she was married to an EU national. He said she was “subjected to unlawful reporting requirements, within five weeks had her driver’s licence unlawfully cancelled, and received a shocking letter from HMRC cancelling and reclaiming child benefits to which she was lawfully entitled.”