Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos
One July day the British High Commissioner to Nigeria met with the country’s minister of interior to express “delight” at a special gift from one friendly country to another.
The gift, hidden away behind a locked fence in the cargo section of Lagos’s Murtala Mohammed International Airport, is a newly built “reception centre” for processing people forcibly returned to Nigeria by the UK immigration authorities.
Speaking at the commissioning ceremony on 13 July 2016, High Commissioner Paul Arkwright said: “Nigeria is a valued partner to the UK and we have made real progress on issues that are important to both our countries.”
He called the new centre “our gift to the Nigeria Immigration Service” and claimed it would “improve the returns process for you on the ground, but more importantly, allow a dignified return of Nigerians repatriated from the UK, which is important to both our countries.”
According to the Commissioner’s press release, the centre would provide a “safe, secure and weatherproof environment for processing returns, away from the public eye”.
That’s the official version.
Leaving families behind
We’ve gained access to the new centre and elicited confidential comment from Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) employees that tells a different story.
“The property is used to keep deportees from the public eye,” one senior immigration officer told us. “I think is an attempt by the British government to keep shut the mouth of the Nigerian immigration and maintain the relationship of having people deported from the UK to Nigeria.”
There were deeper problems that a new reception centre could not address, the officer said. “There have been recent incidents where distressed Nigerians deported have caused disruption to the runway and tried to stop other planes from leaving to attract attention. Many Nigerian people are suicidal and do not want to be returned or speak to immigration. They are upset for leaving behind their families and life in the United Kingdom.”
“People that have been in the UK for a long time, that have established private life there and have family in the UK, they should not be deported.”
Another long-serving immigration officer told us: “People are deported with bad mental health. I have spoken to many people on charter who should be in hospital in the United Kingdom not on a charter and taken to Nigeria. I have seen some women very distressed when the charter lands here. It is not safe for them here. Away from their families in the United Kingdom.”
Returns centre, front entrance.
This officer said: “Deportation by means of charter is corrupt. I do not think Nigerians should be deported on charters. But charter saves money and this is the priority of Nigeria and United Kingdom government.”
The officer went on: “I don't know if the reception centre means that deportations will increase. It's up to the British government whatever number of people they bringing home but deportation is not stopping anytime soon.”
Charles (not his real name) was deported from the UK to Lagos last year. He has set up a support group for fellow deportees. Speaking from Lagos he told us about his own experience:
“I was deported. It is horrible to be taken away from my child in the UK.”
“The Nigerian immigration noticed how I was holding the pen to sign. They asked me. I reported use of force by the escorts to the Nigeria immigration but they did nothing.”
Charles went on: “People deported are faced with financial difficulties, depressed, traumatised due to prolonged detention and deportation, and are without a job or accommodation in Nigeria.”
Human suffering and indignity
In July 2013 a London inquest jury passed a verdict of “unlawful killing” in the case of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man killed by the “unreasonable force” used by one or more escorts employed by security company G4S during an attempted removal. (The guards were paid by the hour and stood to lose £170 each if the removal failed.) That ‘restraint’ happened aboard a British Airways flight, witnessed by paying passengers and BA crew.
On charter flight removals there are no paying passengers, no free and independent witnesses. Independent scrutiny happens infrequently.
After HM Inspectorate of Prisons accompanied a removal flight to Nigeria in April 2011 their report noted: “inspectors were very concerned at the highly offensive and sometimes racist language they heard staff use between themselves. . . 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.”
On the plane’s arrival at Lagos, Nigerian officials boarded to complete the admissions process. Inspectors reported: “Their attitude was forceful and aggressive.”
Inside the returns centre: screening booths.
As one man tried to explain that he had spent most of his life in London, the escorts, from G4S, “mocked his accent”. The 2011 report is archived here.
In November 2013, inspectors accompanied detainees on journeys from UK detention centres to Nigeria and Ghana. Their report, published in April 2014, is full of human suffering. “A detainee at Colnbrook had self-harmed and barricaded himself in his room before removal,” the inspectors noted. Guards managed to restrain him and he surrendered a razor blade.
“Another detainee at Harmondsworth had been banging his head against a wall repeatedly the evening before departure”. Another “had taken his clothes off at Tinsley House and refused to leave, saying that he would hurt himself and would rather die”. This man was handcuffed and placed under constant supervision.
Ms D, a mentally ill Nigerian woman, told inspectors she “had nothing in Nigeria” and threatened to kill herself if sent back. 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.”
The inspectors reported: “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.”
But, they noted: “On the whole, staff showed commendable calmness and confidence in keeping Ms D under control.” Phil Miller wrote about these matters here on openDemocracy.
A long view of the gate leading to the UK-funded 'immigration returns reception centre'
The latest HMIP report on removals to Nigeria and Ghana, published in November 2015, repeated previous criticisms. Escorts, employed by Tascor, continued to deny privacy to detainees using the toilet, continued to deny pillows, blankets and hot drinks on cold overnight flights, and overused waist restraint belts.
Over two years a “number of issues” had not been addressed, standards had “reached a plateau” with “little aspiration to improve further”. Noting long delays in processing detainees on the plane at Lagos, the inspectors recommended: “The British government should work with the Nigerian government to establish an appropriate reception facility for returnees at Lagos airport.”
That “reception facility” is now open. But our informants suggest this is nothing to celebrate. Does the donation represent a commitment to “respect human rights of migrants” as claimed by the UK and Nigerian governments? Or is it about pushing a nasty business even further out of public view?
Support in Nigeria
A group of people who have been removed to Nigeria against their will by the UK Home Office are offering support and solidarity to people who are also forcibly removed to Nigeria. They want to help to pick people up from the airport, contact any friends or family they may still have in Nigeria, document people’s stories to raise awareness of the injustice and violence of deportations, and challenge removals where possible.
You can read more about the group and donate to their crowdfunder here. The money raised will go towards costs for travelling to and from the airport people, phone credit and phones for people to contact any friends or family they may still have in Nigeria, food, emergency accommodation, emergency transport, and resources for recording peoples stories.