Thursday, 12 December 2013

Britain’s brutal charter flight deportation programme

On 29th November, Britain’s attempt to deport an asylum seeker demonstrated the brutality of its immigration programme. In the Huffpost, Matt Carr described the incident as ‘A Study in Barbarism’. Isa Muazu, who is Nigerian and had been in the UK since 2007, had outstayed his visa and his claim for asylum was denied. His deportation was fast-tracked and he flown to Nigeria on a chartered private jet (at an estimated cost of £180,000) Yet his doctor had declared he was not fit to fly. He had been on hunger strike for 100 days because of his fear that his return would mean certain persecution, and probable murder, by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram. He was unable to stand up or see. The Home Office was in no doubt over the severity of his health, and had prepared an ‘end of life plan’ and he was carried onto the plane on a stretcher.

Some of Muaza’s supporters blocked access to Harmondsworth detention centre, outside Heathrow Airport, and there have been other protests including a candlelit vigil outside the Home Office. It is heartening that so many come out to show support for people as their deportation date approaches. Nigerian authorities refused to let the plane land, for reasons that are as yet unclear, and Muazu was returned to the UK via Malta. Now he is in the medical wing at Harmondsworth. But there is no sign that Muazu’s ordeal is over. No mercy is being granted even when he could be at the edge of death. Nigeria has given permission for planes to land if the Home Office deports an asylum seeker and the UK officials are working with the Nigerian government to secure his removal.

While Muazu was enduring this ordeal, I was reading an important report Collective Expulsion: The case against Britain’s mass deportation charter flights, which was published by Corporate Watch in September. It is a damning indictment of the UK’s forced deportation charter flights programme, which is a major plank of the UK’s approach to immigration. The authors are Phil Miller of Stop Deportation and Shiar Youssef of Corporate Watch. Research was conducted through FOI (Freedom of Information) requests, statistical analysis and case studies, working to counter the lack of transparency of the government bodies and agencies involved.

'Collective Expulsion' report by Corporate Watch & Stop Deportation
‘Collective Expulsion’ describes how charter flight deportations ‘on an industrial scale’ began in 2001, under the Labour government led by Tony Blair and enforced by the UKBA (UK Border Agency), to demonstrate a tough stance on immigration. A ‘target’ of 50,000 deportations per year was set. A deportation programme driven by arbitrary numerical targets undermines the consideration of an individual’s circumstances, and changes in the situation with conflict and other crises in the countries that people are deported to.

One justification of the charter flights is deportees’ supposed ‘disruptive behaviour’ but no data was supplied on instances of such behaviour. Furthermore, the deportation charter flights, and wider immigration policy, pander to a right wing tabloid narrative that asylum seekers are a risk to society, a danger to public order or national security. Yet a full 80 per cent of people who were removed had not committed any criminal offence. Racists’ attempts to associate asylum seekers with criminality is without foundation; foreign prisoners were less likely than British inmates to be convicted of a violent offence, and no more likely for a sexual offence. The high rate of deportations of nationalities with only a negligible population in prison, such as Afghanistan, suggests that people are being targeted on the basis of a biased political agenda.

Charter flight deportations are used to deter potential immigrants, and to intimidate communities who have settled in the UK. The UKBA actively encourages media coverage to ram the message home, that migrants are not wanted. For example, when 48 Roma were deported to the Czech Republic, film crews were invited with the expectation that it would be shown on one of the Czech Republic’s major television stations. The high profile of the deportations draws attention to the people in the country they are returned to, putting them at even greater risk of persecution and harm. Charter flights are becoming the standard way of carrying out forced deportations to a growing number of countries, ‘almost exclusively’ countries where the UK has active foreign policy interests and where people are at risk of persecution and violence. There is compelling evidence that countries are chosen on the basis of a political agenda, when the sole criterion should be the unique circumstances of each individuals’ asylum claim. There has been a disproportionately high number of deportations to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, bolstering the government’s claims that these countries are safer due to British military intervention. Charter flight deportation flights to Pakistan began on 24 November 2011, the same day that UK Home Secretary Theresa May landed in the country and held a press conference announcing increased bilateral ties. Since February 2012, there have been monthly charter flights deporting between 50 and 85 people.

A brief series of deportee charter flights to Sri Lanka began in 2009, when the war against the Tamil Tigers was escalating shortly before the ceasefire ended the conflict. The Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition government reported that it resumed mass expulsion of Tamil refugees in February 2012, in spite of ‘persistent’ allegations that returned asylum seekers were being ill-treated and tortured. The allegations turned out to be true, but UK officials denied the evidence and the flights did not cease until February 2013. Throughout this period, the UK had strengthened its trade and investment with Sri Lanka. Scottish police forces trained the Sri Lankan police force and a UK firm carried out the country’s first successful oil drilling operation. Subsequently, a court case revealed collusion between UK and Sri Lankan officials who had organised the deportations. To my mind, this indicates that people at serious risk of serious harm had been used as bargaining chips in bilateral negotiations.

Arrangements for charter flights obstruct the accessing of adequate legal representation, right to appeal and judicial review. Procedural details impede access to justice and there is a fundamental lack of communication with the people being removed. Communication for legal advice and representation is particularly difficult for detainees being held in Immigrant Removal Centres immediately before charter flights, at the time when it is most crucial. Indeed, recent cuts to legal aid have made it ‘practically impossible for most people facing removal from the UK to seek a judicial review of their removal decision’. Legal aid firms are under so much pressure they frequently cannot provide an adequate service. Often it is impossible for a person served with a removal notice to find a lawyer to advise them in the time frame available. The minimum notice period for charter flight deportees is just five working days. When cases do get before a judge, they are overwhelmed with insufficient time to consider each case so can’t challenge deportation decisions. It has become standard practice not to consider last minute applications for a judicial review.

When deportees are moved to airport for charter flights it is common practice to take additional people, ‘reserves’, who may or may not, on that occasion, be deported. The rationale is that reserves will take the place of other deportees, in the event that one or more of them is removed from the flight as a result of last-minute legal representations. The extensive use of ‘reserves’ inflicts additional stress on people undergoing deportation. This procedure has been institutionalised, with no regard for the cruelty and psychological damage of being subjected to several stages of the removal procedure, only to be returned to a detention centre to anticipate the likelihood of undergoing the same traumatic process again, at an unspecified later date.

Human rights are paramount, and must trump financial considerations. But the irony is that the charter flights are also enormously expensive, far more so than deporting people on commercial flights, due to the cost of hiring aircraft (typically private jets used by the super-rich) and the fact that such flights are harder to organise. The report’s findings contradict authorities’ claims that charter flights are used because there are no commercial flights to destination airports. Since 2002, the cost of the charter flights is in excess of £50 million. The cost of the charter flights increased dramatically in the time frame covered by the report. In 2002-3 the average cost of removing one person by charter flight was £575. By 2011/12 this had escalated almost eightfold to £4,799. This price increase is far higher than the increase in aviation costs, of both scheduled and charter flights, over the period. The UKBA claims that charter flights are better value for taxpayers because a lower ration of escorts is required per person being deported. Yet it is not unusual for two, or even three, times more security staff than deportees to be on board the charter flight planes.

There is no doubt that the UK’s charter flight mass expulsion programme is draconian, abusive and cruel, and the ‘Collective Expulsion’ report poses questions as to the legality of the deportation charter flights. The two main legal issues highlighted by the report are prohibition of expulsion of people to countries where there is a risk of death or ill-treatment, and prohibition of discrimination and arbitrariness in deportation rulings and procedures. Cases must be decided on the basis of objective examination of the circumstances of each individual case and people should not be deported collectively, en masse, based on their nationality or being members of specific racial or ethnic groups.

Conveniently, there are no other passengers on charter flights to witness what is happening to the deportees, the brutality of how people are treated, the restraint techniques that are used. This was not the case when, in October 2010, deportee Jimmy Mabenga died on board a British Airways flight to Angola. He died after being ‘restrained’ by three G4S escorts in full view of other passengers. Very few charter flights had inspectors on board, and reports from those flights were alarming. Inspectors observing staff witnessed racist language, overtly sexual language about women, swearing and abusive behaviour. It was evident that some escorts had no accredited training in the use of force in the confined space of an aircraft. I agree with the report’s authors that forced deportation is inherently abusive, and this ill treatment adds to the inhumanity of the charter flight programme.

‘Collective Expulsion’ is a comprehensive report, but it is notable that some aspects of the deportation programme which the authors wished to analyse remain shrouded in mystery. Investigation of the charter flights was hampered by the fact that, regarding some aspects of procedures, there were no review documents, even though statements had been made that reviews were being conducted or were ongoing. Corporate Watch, Stop Deportation and many other groups are doing vital, brilliant work to expose the brutality of the UK’s deportation programme, and to end it.


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