Shine A Light

Ghosted away: UK’s secret removal flights examined

On Home Office flights private sector guards apply restraints so extreme they are very rarely used in prisons. What happened on the 24/25 May flight to Nigeria and Ghana?

Lotte Lewis
6 June 2016
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Mass removal flight from UK, 2013 (James Bridle

Lately one Australian family’s immigration case and prospect of forced removal from the UK made front-page news across Scottish national newspapers, was discussed in the House of Commons, picked up by The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Mail, and BBC News — resulting in a job offer that might help keep the family here, and a crowdfunder page that has raised more than £4000.

In the same week, around 100 people were torn from their long-standing communities in the UK and forcibly removed to a country from which they fled, or hadn’t lived in for up to 20 years. Of these people, their family, their friends, their distress, the fate that awaits them, there is no public awareness, nor any media reporting. With the exception of Shine A Light at openDemocracy, no journalists or media outlets picked up the multiple press releases widely issued by The Unity Centre in the lead up to the flight.

In the early hours of Wednesday 25 May — at 1am — a delayed private charter plane left Stansted airport, bound for Nigeria and Ghana. The UK government does not publicly reveal the location of departure (even to detainees who are set to be on the plane). The flight itself does not appear on airport flight schedules or online as a planned flight. However, we can reveal that the contracted airline is Titan Airways.

Who were the passengers?

During the previous weeks, hundreds of people with refused asylum and human rights claims were detained in preparation for the flight. We heard reports from inside the UK’s “detention estate” that around 300 people had been issued removal directions for this particular charter flight.

Operation Majestic

The overbooking of seats reflects the Home Office imperative to fill the flight, regardless of people’s individual cases. “Reserve” detainees go through the normal removal procedures, say their goodbyes, are kept on coaches — but don’t know whether or not they’ll be removed until after the flight has left. This practice has been condemned repeatedly by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, as lacking in humanity and “unacceptable”.

The UK government’s policy of forcibly removing people en masse via private charter flights to Nigeria and Ghana (and sometimes Sierra Leone) goes by the code-name “Operation Majestic”.

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Mass removal flight from UK, 2013 (James Bridle

Commonly, between 60 and 80 people are accompanied by commercially contracted security guards. On the charter flight of May 24/25 this company was Tascor. Standard practice is 2 security guards for every detainee, with no independent witnesses or monitoring groups aboard.

Between January and March 2016, 438 men and and 23 women were forcibly removed from the UK on a total of 10 charter flights, according to a Home Office response to a Freedom of Information request by John O (FOI 39552, 2 June 2016). The number of private security guards totalled 875. The destinations: Pakistan, Albania, Nigeria and Ghana.

On fewer than three flights per year, prisons inspectors are aboard. Reporting on a removal to Jamaica in 2011, when there were 104 guards from the security company G4S and 35 detainees, the inspectors wrote: “the sheer numbers of staff created an inevitably intimidating atmosphere, regardless of how they conducted themselves. This effect was significantly aggravated by the loud behaviour of a few staff.” Two of the people being removed told inspectors they had lived in the UK for 27 and 36 years respectively. One woman said she had lived in the UK for 12 years and was leaving her 18-year old daughter behind.

On a removal flight to Sri Lanka in December 2012, 72 guards from the security company Reliance (now called Tascor) and 3 medics escorted 29 detainees on the 19 hour journey. Prisons inspectors reported: “There were too many escort staff with little or nothing to do.” The people being removed included a person in a wheelchair who was brain damaged, and a 67 year old woman who “had boarded the flight before receiving confirmation of an injunction preventing her removal”.

Restraints too extreme for prison

Reporting on a removal to Nigeria and Ghana that took place in November 2013, when there were 82 guards for 42 detainees, inspectors wrote: “some ways of working had become entrenched, for which there was little justification. These included keeping handcuffs on for much longer than necessary; holding detainees by the arm in secure areas; searching in locations without any privacy; denying privacy to detainees using the toilet; and withholding facilities such as pillows, blankets and hot drinks during an overnight flight without regard to evidence of risk in the individual case. There were deficiencies in the recording and communication of information about risk, which is essential when detainees are being passed from the care of one contractor to another during a very stressful series of events.”

Inspectors didn’t join a flight to Nigeria and Ghana again until July 2015. What had changed?  The inspectors wrote: “We repeat almost exactly the same points in this report.” 

They went on: “waist restraint belts had replaced handcuffs, and officers no longer routinely held detainees’ arms within secure detention centres. There was a risk that waist restraint belts, which were now embedded in practice, were being overused and applied whenever there was any ground for supposing that the person might not cooperate during the boarding of the coach or aircraft. They were used on eight detainees during this operation. When the wrists are in the close position (i.e. tight to the hips) they are almost equivalent to body belts, the most extreme and very rarely used, mechanical restraints available in prisons.”

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Mass removal flight from UK, 2013 (James Bridle

Detainees tell us that many are held in solitary confinement the night (or two) before a charter flight —perhaps an attempt by the Home Office to avoid collective resistance. Last month one person in detention awaiting forced removal on a charter flight to Pakistan told us: “Yesterday we moved to the short stay side of the centre and 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.”

Detainees were packed into coaches the afternoon of Tuesday 24th May. By early evening their phones were switched off — making it difficult for detainees to contact their solicitor or support groups regarding any legal avenues still available that may stop them from being removed.

Collective expulsion

Those who were forcibly removed on the 24th/25th include a woman who was served with a refusal of her fresh asylum claim whilst she was waiting for the coach to arrive at Yarl’s Wood (the notorious Bedfordshire detention centre) — indicating the regular Home Office practice of preparing to remove people before their asylum claim has even been legally exhausted. She told us that she was subsequently denied access to the library by members of staff and thus was unable to pursue a judicial review to challenge the refusal of her fresh asylum claim.  

We do not know whether a judicial review might have stopped her forced removal. The Home Office state that due to the “effort and expense” of a charter flight, a judicial review may not necessarily defer removal.

This case demonstrates how one’s nationality (identified by the Home Office) determines who is on a charter flight — regardless of the different stages that people are at within the asylum/immigration process. It challenges David Wood’s claim, asserted whilst acting as UK Border Agency Director of Enforcement, that charter flights are specifically for “difficult” individuals — raising questions about collective expulsion.

Others removed on the charter flight included a man from the LGBT community, who was forced to leave behind his partner in the UK, and who told us he faces violence and imprisonment upon return to Ghana.

Unable to access the legal surgery inside detention before his removal date due to extremely long waiting times, he was forced to represent himself, not knowing the scale or depth of evidence needed to substantiate his claim.

Another man on the charter flight had come to the UK when he was 14 — but the Home Office failed to recognise him as a dependent of his mother (who now has British citizenship). And so 14 years later he has been forcibly removed from her, his siblings and long-term partner, to a country which he has no family in or memories of.

When asked for the number of passengers and reserves on the charter flight, the Home Office responded: “A removal flight to Nigeria and Ghana went ahead on 24 May as planned. We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”

We do not know what forms of restraint were used on this flight, whether people were treated courteously, or, as has happened on previous flights, subjected to coarse language, excessive physical restraints and racist abuse. This is because there were no independent witnesses aboard and we have lost contact with the people being removed. It is particularly difficult to maintain contact after removal: upon arrival, many people are destitute or forced to go into hiding.

Detainees are calling for raised public awareness of the use of charter flights. One person who was deported from the UK last year told us: “It’s about 90 per cent of us that don't want to go, the other 10 per cent don't want to go either but they are tired of being humiliated so they say they are ready.”

For more information on mass deportation charter flights, see here. 

To get in touch, contact The Unity Centre at [email protected]


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