The Home Office has admitted it holds no record of British citizens barred from boarding transatlantic flights despite them being identified by US security officials as potential threats at UK airports.
James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, confirmed that information regarding the numbers, religion and ethnicity of Britons prevented from travelling abroad was not retained by the government.
The admission came after a question by Stella Creasy, the Labour MP, who raised the case of a British Muslim family of 11 who were barred by US authorities from flying from Gatwick to Los Angeles, where they had planned a Disneyland holiday.
The Mahmood family had been granted travel authorisation through a pre-flight visa obtained online but were blocked when attempting to board their plane in December.
In response to Creasy’s question about the matter, Brokenshire wrote: “You asked for the statistical information relating to the numbers, religion, ethnicity and cultural background of British citizens refused entry to other countries and notified of that at UK airports. We do not hold this information, as these matters are from the government making the decision, the carrier and the individual concerned.”
A “small number” of US Department of Homeland Security officials are present at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports to advise airlines on immigration matters, including the admissibility of individuals travelling to the US, the Home Office letter states.
In a separate letter, David Cameron told Creasy: “It is important to be clear that no UK authorities were involved in any way in preventing the members of the Mahmood family from flying.
“The US Department of Homeland Security has a small number of officials present at UK airports, advising airlines on travel to the US and criteria for entry.
He added: “The advice that these officials provide to airlines is the responsibility of the US authorities, and airlines flying from the UK are not mandated to follow this advice.”
When pressed on whether they were under obligation or not to follow such advice from US security officials at UK airports, airlines including British Airways said they were unable to comment on security measures.
A Home Office spokesman confirmed that under the US immigration advisory programme, US Customs and Border Protection officers had been operating at Heathrow since 2007 and at Gatwick and Manchester since 2008. The spokesman said these officials held no powers in the UK, and that the UK had a similar presence in the US.
Creasy urged the government to ensure that what was happening to British citizens at UK airports was held to account. She said: “I’m concerned the prime minister says no records are held by the UK of what happens at either Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester – how can I tell my residents their fears are not warranted when our government is turning a blind eye to what the US is doing at our airports? Our Muslim community in Britain deserves better than a shrug – it needs answers.”
She added: “If the US is identifying passengers who are a concern, I’m also surprised the prime minister admits they don’t inform UK authorities about this – they apparently just let them walk out of the airport.
“He also say airlines don’t have to do what homeland security officials say only further compounding the confusion over whats going on.”
Creasy said she would be joining an initiative with Tell Mama, the Islamophobia monitoring project, to call for the UK government to formally address concerns about UK Muslims facing travel restrictions.
The Walthamstow MP said: “We need much more scrutiny of this situation to be confident prejudice plays no part in our security operations – that’s why we’re launching a survey to try to understand the scale and nature of just who is being stopped from travelling and why. Because even if our prime minister operates a don’t ask don’t tell policy, we will. I hope anyone of any faith and none who has ever been stopped from boarding a plane will complete this short survey on the Tell Mama site and help us get to the bottom of what is going on.”
Tell Mama launched the survey this weekend and has already received responses, the organisation said. It aims to collect information to track how often people are barred from flying and to gauge a sense of the profiles of UK citizens who are stopped.
It wants “to get the government to ensure no UK citizen is unfairly treated at UK airports”.
The organisation said in a statement to the Guardian: “These issues have huge impacts on trust and confidence between Muslims and the state and give the impression that Muslims may be targeted because of their faith. This is not the case, but it gives that impression.”
Mohammad Tariq Mahmood, one of the family members turned away from the LA flight, said when the news first emerged: “The children had been counting down the days to the trip for months, and were devastated not to be able to visit their cousins as planned.
“I have never been more embarrassed in my life. I work here, I have a business here. But we were alienated.”
According to US Customs and Border Protection, unarmed, plainclothes officers operate at airports and “discreetly assist airline and security employees with review of traveler information during the processing of US-bound flights”.
Immigration and Advisory Programme officers identify potential threats, who then “engage carriers and travellers to confirm potential matches and make ‘no board’ recommendations to air carriers and the host government to prevent these passengers from boarding flights destined to the United States”.
The Guardian is awaiting a response from US Customs and Border Protection on the number of homeland security officials at UK airports.
After the Mahmoods were barred from travelling to Disneyland, US Customs and Border Protection said: “US Customs and Border Protection welcomes more than a million passengers arriving to the United States every day. CBP officers are charged with enforcing not only immigration and customs laws, but they enforce over 400 laws for 40 other agencies. The religion, faith, or spiritual beliefs of an international traveler are not determining factors about his/her admissibility into the US under US immigration law.”