A coach pulls up at the plane, Stansted Airport 21:51, July 28, 2015 (PIC Daniel Trilling)
UPDATE 21:24 Tuesday 28 July: Unity Centre report that Fred, mentioned in this piece, has been occupying the roof of the courtyard at Harmondsworth immigration removal centre for the past couple of hours. Whenever Home Office officials try to come near him, he is threatening to jump, Unity says. A mattress has been placed in the courtyard below him: “He has been living in the UK for more than 13 years, since he was 11 years old, and he knows no one in Sierra Leone where they are trying to remove him to.” Yesterday Fred told Unity: “I am 24 years old and I have never been this scared in all my life.”
PUBLISHED 16:00 Tuesday 28 July: The Home Office is preparing to deport dozens of west African migrants on a specially chartered aircraft leaving Stansted tonight, bound for Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Gabon. Immigration officials have reportedly detained hundreds of people this month ahead of the flight.
Many of the men booked on the flight are being separated from pregnant partners and young children, according to volunteers at the Unity Centre, Glasgow, who have spoken to deportees. They say that the the men, being held in London immigration lock-ups, expressed “terror and desperation at the prospect of being separated from established lives in the UK”.
Anthony* has a wife and two-year-old child who both have the right to remain in the UK. “We lost a baby in 2008, we visit the burial site regularly. They are trying to take me away from this,” Anthony told the Unity Centre. “Every time I call my wife my son is crying. It is very disheartening that a country that preaches human rights all over the world can do this. How can you split me from my family?”
The Home Office claims Anthony poses a risk to society, after he was arrested for working without permission in 2010. Anthony said he was just trying to support his family.
Another man booked on the flight, George, said: “I have been here for 11 years and I just don’t know what to do. I have nowhere else to go and I am not leaving my fiancée.” His partner is three months pregnant. She is an EU citizen, and the couple have an ongoing application to stay here under European laws.
Charter Flight by Oviyan for Corporate Watch
David will be separated from his pregnant partner, who is British. David told the Unity Centre, “I can’t believe that they won’t even let me see my daughter being born. I haven’t committed any crime in the UK.”
Roland is being taken to Ghana tonight, leaving behind his daughter and sick partner after spending eight months in immigration detention. He says: “I can’t live without my daughter, she’s my everything, she’s my world. I’ve lived here all my life. I don’t know anyone back home.”
Tom, who is being separated from his child, said: “The conditions here are appalling because the way we are being treated is just like animals. They don’t even practice human rights and people need to know about this.”
One man booked on the flight, Steven, wanted to highlight what his fellow deportees were going through: “It is evil. That is the only adjective I can use to describe what is happening. People have families here. They have children here. They pay their taxes. They pay everything. Now because of one silly thing they want to take away people’s right of being with their family.”
Fred, 24, faces deportation to Sierra Leone tonight, even though it is a country that the UK Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel, “except for those involved in the direct response to the Ebola outbreak”.
Fred said: “I have never been this scared in all my life”. He says he knows no one in Sierra Leone, and has lived in the UK since he was 11. He is being deported solely on the basis of intelligence supplied by the Metropolitan Police to immigration officials under Operation Nexus. That’s a joint police and Home Office scheme that puts Border Agency staff into police custody suites and permits the deportation of people only suspected of crime, without any judicial process.
And they're gone. Take-off, Stansted Airport 01:14, July 29, 2015 (PIC Daniel Trilling)
The Home Office started removing migrants by charter flights from secret locations in 2001. Up until March last year, almost 30,000 people had been removed by 800 flights, according to a Home Office response to an inquiry made under the Freedom of Information Act. The flights continued for a decade before independent inspectors were allowed on board, in 2011.
The first reports from HM Inspectorate of Prisons were not reassuring. On a deportation to Nigeria, a flight plan which the Home Office curiously code-names 'Operation Majestic', “inspectors were very concerned at the highly offensive and sometimes racist language they heard staff use between themselves. Quite apart from the offence this language may have caused to those who overheard it, it suggested a shamefully unprofessional and derogatory attitude that did not give confidence that had a more serious incident occurred, it would always have been effectively dealt with.”
Three years after that flight, Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick reported on the findings from a follow-up inspection:
“While there were some noticeable improvements, especially in the attitudes and language of escort staff, several of our recommendations have had to be repeated verbatim this time. The distress of detainees undergoing removal is evident from the behaviours and accounts outlined in this report.”
That report detailed the case of Ms D, a mentally ill Nigerian woman. When she heard that they were going to deport her, she told them she “had nothing in Nigeria” and threatened to kill herself if sent back. Ms D, “was at the extreme of non-compliance, resisting at every point and spitting at anyone who spoke to her”. So to get her out of the country, Home Office contractors placed her in “leg restraints for 10 hours 5 minutes and in handcuffs for 14 hours 30 minutes, continuously in each case.”
Then: “Her head was restrained continuously for more than 45 minutes without sufficient testing of her compliance; her arms were restrained by some staff (but not others) throughout the flight, which was unnecessary; and at one point pain compliance was used when restraint would have sufficed.”
According to the Chief Inspector’s report: “Half an hour later, she was sitting on the tarmac in front of the plane with nobody communicating with her. She took all the medication, including anti-psychotic drugs that the [Home Office] paramedics had handed to the local officials who had then passed it to Ms D.”
“Nigerian officials subsequently said that Ms D was unfit to remain in Nigeria and wanted her to return to the UK. They brought her to the foot of the aircraft front steps unclothed except for a towel around her shoulders as she had ripped her clothes off.”
“Up to 30 local officials surrounded the foot of the stairs, one of whom pushed Ms D forward. She fell on to the stairs, grabbed the handrail and began to struggle. The aircraft commander, additional Tascor staff, pilot and paramedic all said that Ms D was unfit to fly and needed hospital attention, and approximately half hour later, an ambulance arrived.” (Tascor is the escort company, part of Capita).
Ms D was taken to a local hospital and, according to the Home Office, “discharged on the same day”. The inspectors, “do not know what happened thereafter, or whether any dialogue has taken place between the Nigerian and British governments about the way that the incident was handled.”
Those terrible things happened when a team from HM Inspectorate of Prisons was watching, and taking notes. Who knows what goes on when there are no independent witnesses aboard?
*Note: All names have been changed. Thanks to Oviyan for his illustration.