As the government seeks to increase the number and frequency of deportations, it is increasingly chartering private flights carrying as many as 80 people on one flight. In 2008, there were 66 such flights, deporting a total of 1,529 people to such countries as Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria.
According to information recently released by the Home Office, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) spent £8,227,553 on deportation charter flights in the financial year 2008-9, almost double the usual amount spent in previous years following the introduction of mass deportation charter flights in 2001. In 2008-9, another £18,562,162 was spent deporting people on commercial flights.
Needless to say, most of this money goes to private companies and airlines contracted by the UKBA to carry out these forcible removals. Airlines known to have been used include Hamburg International and Czech Airlines. Private bus companies are also contracted to drive people from detention centres to airports and these have included WH Tours and its subcontractor, Woodcock Coaches. The security that goes with these operations is provided by the usual suspects, giant security companies, G4S and Serco.
What’s wrong with mass deportation flights?
As with all deportations, people’s personal lives are torn apart as they are separated from their families and communities. On top of this, the vast majority of specially chartered flights have been to countries devastated by wars and armed conflicts. At least 500 people have been forcibly deported in recent months to Iraq and Afghanistan, countries from which huge numbers of refugees continue to flee. Hundreds more have been deported to Nigeria, DR Congo, Cameroon and Jamaica, where armed conflicts, civil wars and repressive regimes continue to drive people into exile. After being forcibly deported, many people have been kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, killed or have committed suicide. Others have had to change their identities or move again to avoid persecution.
With the introduction of the New Asylum Model in 2005 and its ‘Fast Track’ system for deciding asylum cases, refugees’ access to adequate legal representation was further curtailed. Claims are now often decided within days, regardless of their complexity. With charter flights, the process is further accelerated and a greater number of conditions applied, making it more difficult to access legal representation as charter flights, in the words of the UKBA, “may be subject to different arrangements where it is considered appropriate because of the complexities, practicalities and costs of arranging an operation.” Charter flight deportees are told in their ‘Removal Directions that “removal will not necessarily be deferred in the event that a Judicial Review is lodged.” The emphasis, thus, is on filling the flight rather than ensuring that appropriate legal avenues have been exhausted.
The legality of mass deportation flights themselves has been questioned. A joint charter flight to Afghanistan from the UK and France last November was halted after France pulled out due to concerns raised by campaigners and lawyers that such flights qualified as ‘collective expulsion’, which is prohibited under Protocol 4 to the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK has signed but not ratified the protocol.
Mass deportation flights also allow for greater abuse of deportees due to the absence of other passengers on these flights. A standard practice, confirmed by many of those who have been deported on charter flights, is for each deportee to be handcuffed and forced onto the plane under threat of violence from the ‘escorts’, or the private security guards contracted by the UKBA to carry out deportations. Any disobedience or attempt to resist has been met with excessive force to ‘restrain’ the deportees. This happened, for instance, on the mass deportation flight to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2008, when the deportees were violently attacked onboard the plane after protesting against their deportation.
Mass deportations require mass resistance
Mass deportation flights are a new and urgent challenge to all those struggling for the right to freedom of movement. Resistance against them has been building, from both deportees and campaigners outside.
With this aim, a number of activists from various groups and anti-deportation campaigns met up last year and set up a new network called Stop Deportation to focus on resisting and campaigning against mass deportations. Their first action, in March 2009, was a blockade of Tinsley House detention centre at Gatwick airport, where some Iraqi refugees due to be deported were being held. Using D-locks and superglue, the aim of the protest was to try and prevent the deportees being taken from the detention centre to Stansted airport, where a special charter flight to Iraqi Kurdistan was scheduled that afternoon. The blockade was violently removed by police after about 6 hours and the Tinsley deportees, along with some 50 others from the Campsfield and Dover detention centres, were put on the flight. Nine protesters, including the six locked to the gate, were arrested for aggravated trespass.
Less than two months later, on 12th May, a similar blockade of Colnbrook detention centre, near Heathrow, was staged to try and prevent another mass deportation flight to Iraqi Kurdistan. Again, six blockaders were arrested for obstruction of the highway and the flight sadly went ahead.
Other Stop Deportation protests have included demonstrations outside the Kurdistan Regional Government office and the Nigerian embassy in London to highlight their complicity in the mass deportations to Iraqi Kurdistan and Nigeria. On 30th June this year, the group staged a demonstration outside Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire in an attempt to stop the mass deportation of families and children to Nigeria. Earlier in the morning, another group of protesters had staged a short demonstration outside WH Tours offices in Crawley, near Gatwick, to highlight the company’s role in mass deportations. The joint charter flight that was meant to carry Nigerian refugees to Lagos via Dublin that afternoon was delayed for several hours due to deportees’ refusing to board the plane.
Besides protests and actions, Stop Deportation has produced a briefing on mass deportation flights and has started contacting various groups and campaigns, and even MPs, in the hope of building up a ‘mass movement’ against mass deportations. The network is organising a conference on 3rd October under the title ‘Mass deportations, Mass resistance’. For more details, see http://stopdeportation.net.