What is a mass deportation charter flight, and who is on one?
Mass deportations (or “Charter flights”) refer to the well-established Home Office practice of hiring a whole (private) aircraft to forcibly remove multiple people against their will at one time – most commonly around 60-80 people (but can be up to 100). The only people on these flights are deportees* and Tascor security guards, without independent monitoring or documentation of what takes place on the way to the airport, during the flight, and after landing.
Known Home Office charter flights currently operate to Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan and Albania, whilst it looks incredibly likely that charter flights will start up again to Afghanistan. These charter flights have been known to stop off in other countries within the EU, such as Belgium, to pick up more detainees on the way.
These mass deportations are often used to forcibly remove people to countries which receive few commercial flights from the UK – because they are countries it is considered especially dangerous to fly to – and therefore countries which people may be especially scared to return to, demonstrated by the story of one woman who swallowed all of the medication she had instantly upon landing in Nigeria.
Bimonthly charter flights to Nigeria and Ghana (named “Operation Majestic” by the Home Office) are often made up of a mixture of people who have had their asylum claims rejected by the Home Office (whilst some still have ongoing claims), people who may have spent their whole life in the UK but lack British citizenship, and, after being convicted for a crime and serving a prison sentence longer than 12 months, are subsequently transferred to immigration detention and given deportation orders to a country they know nothing about and may have never lived in, and people who are labeled as “overstayers” by the Home Office.
Many on charter flights have been given the “right” to appeal once they have been deported, which is used by the Home Office to in part to justify the use of charter flights. From The Unity Centre’s experience of continued contact with individuals given out of country appeal rights, it is clear that these circumstances essentially mean that an individual has no right of appeal, given the enormous obstacles that stand in the way. The Unity Centre is currently is contact with at least one individual who is pursuing an out of country appeal – who, upon being forcibly removed to Bangladesh, is street homeless and severely ill – meaning that he is unable to even afford enough phone credit to call a lawyer in the UK.
Individuals that The Unity Centre have been in contact with over the past years on charter flights range from people who have lived in the UK for over 20 years with their partner, children and whole family here, to people who were forcibly removed to a country which was not their country of origin, to people who are torture survivors and should not lawfully be detained or removed, to people who were put onto charter planes despite how their serious mental and physical meant that it was highly dangerous for them to fly. One person who was previously removed on a charter flight came to the UK from Nigeria aged 14, but the Home Office failed to recognise him as a dependent of his mother (who now has British citizenship), and he was forced to leave her, his siblings and long-term partner – with whom he was moving in with when he was detained. Charter flights enable individuals with extremely convincing reasons for staying in the UK to be removed en mass with very few questions asked.
[*Whilst deportation traditionally refers to the forced removal and double punishment of someone with a criminal conviction and without British citizenship, the terms “deported” and “forcibly removed” are used interchangeably here, in the belief that deportation cannot be justified by the fact that someone has committed a crime they have already “served their time” for. Deporting “high numbers” of foreign national offenders is often used by the Home Office in an attempt to justify the use of charter flights – despite how the number of FNOs is significantly low compared to the number of removal directions issued.]
To see statements by people facing deportation via a charter flight or who have already been deported, go to the Detained Voices website.
Why does the Home Office use mass deportation charter flights?
In an article in The Telegraph (2009), David Wood (then current UK Border Agency Director of Enforcement) explained why the Home Office began using charter flights in 2001: “It was a response to the fact that some of those being deported realised that if they made a big enough fuss at the airport – if they took off their clothes, for instance, or started biting and spitting – they could delay the process. We found that pilots would then refuse to take the person on the grounds that other passengers would object. So although we still use scheduled flights, we use special flights for individuals who are difficult to remove and might cause trouble.”
Whilst Wood’s assertion that charter flights are used specifically for difficult individuals, it is clear that charter flights are used only for individuals of a certain nationality – and that this is what defines the people on a charter flight. The Home Office does not gather together identified “difficult” detainees, but rather collects people from the same “country of origin” – regardless of how these people are at completely different stages within the asylum/immigration system. For example, George was forcibly removed last July, in spite of having more than a week left to appeal the refusal of his EEA application to remain in the UK with his pregnant partner.
This practice raises questions about collective expulsion – that the policy of using charter flights to remove people en masse may breach human rights law, as it targets specific nationalities in order to fill up seats on charter flights – as argued by Corporate Watch, Right to Remain, and The Unity Centre. This leads the Home Office to remove people who may still have active legal claims, rather than ensuring that the appropriate legal avenues and requirements have been exhausted and adhered to. The Unity Centre has been in contact with many detainees who are given tickets for charter flights yet lack legal representation – and has been told that they won’t be able to access legal advice within the detention centre until the day before the charter flight.
Mass deportation charter flights are incredibly difficult to challenge, specifically due to the simple fact that they are specially chartered by the Home Office; for example, in a letter addressed to an individual facing forced removal in 2014, the Home Office states that due to the “effort and expense” of a charter flight, a judicial review (of Home Office practice – which has been successful for over 36% people seeking asylum) may not necessarily defer forced removal. In doing so, the Home Office simultaneously contradicts its own assertion that charter flights are cost-effective (the average cost per person being removed in 2015 was over £5000). Whilst Detained Fast Track was ruled unlawful, from speaking to detainees it is clear that similar barriers to accessing justice through legal representation persist – and that the Home Office is deliberately using its powers to limit those that most need legal protection.
Wood’s claim that “difficult” detainees necessitate “special flights” directly implies the misuse of force and violence on charter flights. In arguing that commercial flights are problematic for forcibly removing people successfully, Wood indicates how security guards and immigration officers on board charter flights are able to abide by different rules and break Home Office policy when enforcing removal, away from public scrutiny (the flights do not appear on airport flight schedules, and detainees do not know the whereabouts of departure). If practices of restraint are excessive and violent enough to kill Jimmy Mubenga on a commercial British Airways flight, what are they like on a private charter?
What happens in the lead up to and during a charter flight?
We often do not know what takes place on a mass deportation charter flight, which is precisely the Home Office’s aim! Beginning in 2001, charter flights continued for a decade before independent inspectors were allowed on board in 2011 (and has happened twice since then: in 2013 and 2015). Upon return, many go into hiding in fear for their lives, are immediately street homeless, or may be taken straight to prison from the airport – and thus it is incredibly difficult to maintain contact with people who have been deported.
However, we do know that, a few days before the scheduled flight, detainees are moved to detention centres situated around London; they are locked up in solitary confinement the night before (and often before that) – believed to be an attempt by the Home Office to avoid collective resistance to removal. One detainee who was previously awaiting forced removal on a charter flight to Pakistan said: “Yesterday we moved to short stay side of the centre because of our flight, they closed our room door at 8pm and then didn’t open…I can’t stay one more night in that room, I am sure I will die because the room is so small and we are two boys in there and the air in the room is not enough for two people.”
In the afternoon, detainees are taken (often with force) from detention, handcuffed, and put onto coaches bound for the airport. “Reserve” detainees are kept on coaches, unaware if they are being put on the plane or not until after the flight has actually left – demonstrating the Home Office’s clear emphasis on filling the flight regardless of detainees’ individual cases. Standard practice is that each person facing removal is accompanied by two Tascor security “escorts”; so, for a flight forcibly removing 80 people, there would be 160 guards present. Handcuffed detainees are forced onto the plane under the threat of violence, often with unnecessary and excessive wrist and waist restraint belts, which are often kept on continuously for the whole journey, with head restraints for those who attempt to resist (brought in following the death of Jimmy Mubenga in 2010). One independent report found that the use of waist restraints, which circulate around the entire body and hold one’s hands and arms firmly by one side, is not according to the Home Office guidelines of exceptional circumstances – but have instead become routine – not only for those who resist, but for those who do not too.
Deportees from a charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana back in May 2016 told The Unity Centre how 8 Tascor security guards restrained and physically forced one man onto the flight. Tascor are the same contracted company who deported another person to Nigeria via a commercial Virgin Atlantic flight earlier this year, who told The Unity Centre how he did not physically resist onboard the flight, but made it clear to other passengers and the accompanying guards that he was being forcibly removed against his will, and that he had a partner and young child in the UK. In response, Tascor guards applied forceful pressure to his joints: to his wrists, left knee and left thumb. No passenger took action or offered support. For the duration of the flight Terry was restrained around his waist and wrists. Terry says he left the plane in Nigeria in serious pain: his wrists were swollen and he walked with a limp. He says he took more than two weeks to recover and had no money to see a doctor.
Clearly, no one resisting on a charter flights wants to “delay the process” as Wood argues (and as a result spend longer imprisoned in immigration detention); rather, they are extremely fearful of being forcibly returned to a country from which they previously fled, or have strong reasons to want to remain in the UK.
In the case of Nigeria, once the plane has landed at the naval base in Lagos – after hours and hours of travelling – aggressive Nigerian immigration officials conduct lengthy individual interviews at the front of the plane, with no confidentiality. Individuals are made to go through the frightening and degrading process of Nigerian immigration officials demanding bribes in order to let them go. In many cases, police officers (of the country of destination) enter the plane upon landing, and using force, eject anyone who is reluctant to leave the cabin and enter a country they once fled from, or never step foot in before.
Mass deportation charter flights are facilitated by Titan Airways, who collude with the Home Office to deport people against their will, describing themselves as “the UK’s most prestigious airline”.
What is the role of the receiving country?
The consent of the country (to which detainees face deportation to) is required in order to issue detainees with emergency travel documents, and allow detainees to disembark upon arrival. Movement for Justice have drawn attention to the importance of targeting receiving countries’ embassies and high commissions, calling on the Nigerian government to refuse to accept charter flights and allow them to land.
The Nigerian High Commission states that “before any Nigerian is deported, the High Commission always insists that: their citizenship has been proved beyond reasonable doubt; they are medically fit; they are allowed to exhaust all their legal remedies; for those who have stayed in the UK for more than 15 years, proof of existence of friends and relations as well as capacity to reintegrate.”
This statement can be understood to be completely false, as the Nigerian government is paid by the Home Office to interview people in detention and issue them with emergency travel documents – even when these conditions have not been met. The corruption of the Nigerian Government by the UK was alluded to by David Cameron himself. The Unity Centre has seen copious numbers of individuals that fail to meet these requirements. Ola (not his real name) was born in Belgium (with a Belgium birth certificate), and had lived in the UK for 17 years before he was deported last November to Nigeria – despite having no connections to the country (with no family or records there), and the fact that the Nigerian High Commission previously refused to issue travel documents for him in 2013. Detainees are often identified as Nigerian by the High Commission based on arbitrary indicators such as the markings on their face. In some cases, it has even been acknowledged by the Nigerian High Commission that individuals being issued with travel documents are not Nigerian, as one detainee said he was greeted by Mrs. Ngere, a Deputy Immigration Officer, as her “Eritrean brother”.
The Unity Centre has been in contact with individuals who have been so unsuitable to fly that, in one instance, a detainee was taken to the airport in an ambulance, and subsequently deported on a charter flight. Upon request of the Home Office, the Nigerian High Commission issue travel documents to individuals (both inside and outside of detention) regardless of what stage they have reached in their immigration case – demonstrating their disregard of whether someone has “exhaust[ed] all their legal remedies” or not. Whilst the Nigerian High Commission claims to examine the relations someone may hold to the country they face deportation to, theyfail to acknowledge the immediate family members one has in the UK, such as a partner and children. Ray (not his real name) stated: “Immigration Judges tell us we can maintain our family life over Skype. But how can you take your child to school through Skype? How can you have a relationship with your wife over Skype?”