Special Investigation:

Abused, humiliated and abandoned. What really happens when the UK deports failed asylum-seekers

On a sunny April morning earlier this year, a plane took off from Heathrow's northern runway at a little after 6.30am and turned towards the South coast. Unlike other flights, this one didn't appear on any of the airport's departure boards. Nor were those on board holidaymakers or businessmen.

Instead, this secret flight carried 15 failed asylum-seekers, who were being forcibly removed from the United Kingdom by 45 private security guards. One of those on board was Yves Yitgna Njitchoua, a 34-year-old from Cameroon. "People were screaming and crying because they feared for their lives," he said in an interview with The Independent. Mr Njitchoua says his wrists and legs were handcuffed for the whole flight. He was allowed to go to the toilet only with the door open and four guards standing outside.

Such flights are being used by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) with increasing frequency to return failed asylum-seekers. They are shrouded in secrecy, but an investigation by The Independent has put together details of the process, including the companies and airlines involved, the conditions on board, the techniques permitted, and the contracts of those paid to escort deportees. Though the records of activists, charities, befrienders, and the testimony of deportees themselves, it is possible to build up a picture of chartered and scheduled removal from Britain.

The Independent has found that:

*British Airways, BMI and other leading airlines are among those paid to transport failed asylum-seekers;

*A criminal record, even for assault, is not a barrier to someone becoming a private-security escort;

*Escorts are authorised to use a variety of techniques to restrain deportees including a "Goose Neck" lock and a procedure called "Nose Control";

*Escorts have a financial incentive to ensure removals are successful because the majority of their income is an hourly wage.

Yves Yitgna Njitchoua arrived in Britain and applied for asylum in 2005, claiming he had suffered persecution and been tortured by the police in Cameroon because of his political views. His brother, a local councillor, had been killed because of his involvement in the opposition party.

A medical report compiled for his asylum claim found evidence that he had been tortured on several occasions and had suffered scarring from cigarette burns as well as injuries to his testicles and legs. A UK immigration judge ordered his removal, however.

An attempt to deport him was made on 9 April. He was put on a Kenya Airways flight from Heathrow to Nairobi, from where he was scheduled to fly to Cameroon. He was accompanied by a male and a female escort officer, and a male medical escort; all three were provided by the private security company Group 4 Securicor (G4S).

In an interview Mr Njitchoua said: "At Heathrow I explained why I couldn't go back and [one of the escorts] said: 'For us it doesn't matter if you don't go to Cameroon but if we don't travel to Kenya, we won't get paid so let's go there and if you refuse to go to Cameroon we'll bring you back.'"

In a formal complaint to the UK Border Agency after the removal attempt, lawyers wrote: "They told him that if he went to Kenya they as escorts would earn more money. They told him that there was a 13-hour transit period in Kenya and that if he still did not want to return to Cameroon, they led him to believe that there was a prospect that he could return to the United Kingdom."

After flying through the night, Mr Njitchoua spent the day in Nairobi airport transit lounge, and at around 5pm the escorts asked him to move to the gate for the flight to Cameroon; he refused. Accounts of what happened next differ.

According to reports filed by the three G4S escorts, Mr Njitchoua became physically violent and punched the walls, shouting that somebody "will die today". Kenyan police were called.

Mr Njitchoua claims that one of the escorts went to speak to the Kenyan police: "She came back with a crowd of police officers and they told me you have to move to the gate and they began dragging me by my clothes. They handcuffed my right hand, then tried to join both hands behind my back but I just tried to use all my strength to not allow them to bring my hands together.

"They began pinching me and kicking. They dropped me to the floor and put their legs on my leg and tried to strangle me. I screamed and couldn't breathe so I said I give up and gave up my left hand so they could join them. I was bleeding on my nose and my mouth and my wrist was painful."

According to both accounts, Mr Njitchoua was taken to an immigration office where his handcuffs remained on for over an hour. The flight to Cameroon was suffering technical problems and had not yet departed, but the pilot refused to carry Mr Njitchoua because of his distressed state. Mr Njitchoua and his escorts spent the night on airport benches before flying back on a Virgin Atlantic plane the following morning.

Four days after the incident he was examined by a doctor from the charity Medical Justice who found bruising to the face and ribs, evidence that Mr Njitchoua had been held "tightly around his neck" and a loss of sensation to his right wrist. Dr Charmian Goldwyn concluded: "Overall the distribution of the injuries, the severity of the wrist and facial injuries are highly consistent with Mr Njitchoua's account of assault in Nairobi Airport and an innocent explanation is unlikely."

In statements during a subsequent investigation, all three escorts denied making claims that Mr Njitchoua would not be sent to Cameroon if he agreed to go to Kenya. However, for several years, campaigners have heard similar stories from deportees. While there is no bonus payment to escorts for successful removals, The Independent can confirm that many escorts have a financial incentive to ensure a removal is successful, because the majority of their wages (on top of what a G4S source called a "quite low basic salary") is paid by the hour.

While an overseas removal might last two or three days, an aborted attempt can involve only a few hours work and therefore far less pay, a G4S source acknowledged. When asked if the financial incentive had any effect on the measures taken by escorts to ensure a removal was successful, a G4S spokeswoman said: "Absolutely not. Everything is done professionally and above board. This set-up just helps us to have a flexible workforce."

A report by the Institute of Race Relations in 2005 documented 11 deaths during removals conducted by European countries since 1991. It noted that in each case the deportee suffocated while "control and restraint" methods were being used. The Council of the European Union's guidelines for removal by air state: "Coercive measures... should not compromise the ability of the returnee to breathe normally."

Mr Njitchoua claims that while being restrained on the floor in Nairobi airport he could not breathe because someone was holding his head down.

The Home Office does not publish documentation on the "control and restraint" methods used to effect a removal and the UK Border Agency's operating standards state only that: "When the application of force is deemed necessary, no more force than necessary will be applied and any such force must be reasonable."

However, documents exclusively obtained by this newspaper reveal the types of "control and restraint" techniques used by private detention and escorting officers. G4S requires all overseas escorts to fill in a "Use of Force" report when coercive measures have been used during a removal. The document lists the types of restraints that the company's escorts can use and these include "rigid bar", "chain link", and "double-locked" handcuffs, as well as leg restraints. Rigid bar handcuffs are used by some specially trained police officers to put pressure on an individual's wrist to force compliance.

The form also lists a number of control techniques including the "Goose Neck" wrist lock, and "thumb and straight arm locks", as well as "Nose Control Technique" – which can refer to pressure or a strike on the base of the nose – and "Head Control".

G4S declined to elaborate on what the techniques involved but a spokesperson said they were all approved by the Prison Service.

Amnesty International UK's arms programme director Oliver Sprague said: " 'Control techniques' and 'holds', despite their anodyne names, involve applying pressure to people's joints or strikes to their body to cause pain. Police officers in the UK undergo extensive training in the use of restraints and control techniques, and anyone else using them should be trained to the same standards."

Liz Jones, a spokeswoman for G4S, said that escort officers receive seven weeks' basic training and further specialist instruction in how to use "control and restraint" techniques to prevent violence. "We look for people that can talk, people that can calm situations down, general people skills," she said, adding that the company took employees from all walks of life.

Asked if previous criminal convictions would rule an applicant out, she responded: "Not necessarily, as long as it is declared. It depends on the circumstances for that conviction and how long ago it was. A major child offender, a murderer or a rapist would be ruled out but assault depends on the background details."

A formal complaint was made on 19 April on Mr Njitchoua's behalf by Refugee and Migrant Justice, a specialist charity which provided legal advice to asylum-seekers before going into administration last month.

One week later a UK Government lawyer wrote back with the results of an investigation into the incident.

They concluded that Mr Njitchoua's account was "entirely fictitious" and that he was "abusive from the start, made sustained threats of violence and death to his escorts, and carried out his threats of violence by attacking them using a metal barrier rail as a club".

However, such allegations of excessive force and violence are by no means unique. The UN has launched an investigation after asylum-seekers claimed they were beaten by their British escorts and Iraqi officials during the most recent removal flight from the UK to Iraq on 16 June.

Reports by charities including the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and Medical Justice have found multiple abuses both within detention centres and during the removal process.

In 2008, a Medical Justice report detailed 48 case studies of mistreatment during the removal process in the previous four years. They catalogued another 250 cases in which the detainee wished to remain anonymous and noted that "assault levels on detainees indicate systematic abuse".

The Independent can also reveal that some of Britain's biggest airlines are profiting from the transportation of failed asylum-seekers.

British Airways, BMI, and Virgin Atlantic have each transportedfailed asylum-seekers and their escorts on normal commercial flights in the past six months. British authorities are also believed to have chartered aircraft from Titan Airways, which describes itself as "specialising in VIP and corporate travel" and has been used by the former prime minister Gordon Brown and the Rolling Stones, and small foreign firms such as Hamburg International.

These charter flights can remove more than 100 failed asylum-seekers, foreign-national prisoners, and visa overstayers at a time, and also eliminate the possibility that passengers on commercial routes might complain about the presence of failed asylum-seekers, or witness any altercations.

In 2009, there were 64 charter flights from the UK deporting nearly 2,000 people to countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Information released to The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act shows that charter flights cost the UK Border Agency more than £10m in the past financial year. In the same period, the cost of removing people on scheduled flights increased to £18m.

A total of 6,855 people have been forcibly removed on commercial flights and specially chartered planes in the past year. The removals between 2005 and April 2010 cost almost £110m.

All of the airlines mentioned above were asked if they wanted to comment. Only two replied. A spokesman for BA said: "We are legally obliged to remove 'deportees' from the UK if instructed by the Home Office to do so. If we refuse to comply, we would be in contravention of paragraph 10 (i) of Schedule 2 of the 1971 Immigration Act."

Janis Vanags, vice-president for communications for Air Baltic, said: "In general, we are non-discriminatory. We are a means of transport so we don't decide who can't go on our planes unless they are acting in a specific way that poses safety risks." He added: "We haven't had issues with it before but when we sign a contract in future we might consider it in more detail."

Many of the charter flights are jointly organised by a number of European Union nations under the auspices of the EU's border agency, Frontex.

Yves Yitgna Njitchoua's final removal on 28 April was on a Frontex-organised charter flight and he claims that conditions on board were "extremely distressing" with lots of people "screaming and crying out because they were in fear of their lives".

Earlier this year, on 3 February, Prince Ademola Babatunde Bakare, 37, was returned on a Frontex flight to Nigeria. He had fled to Britain after being tortured because of a dispute over his family's claim to a royal throne.

Unlike most of those on the Frontex flight – which landed in Ireland and Spain to pick up more deportees – he travelled voluntarily, saying he preferred to return to his torturers rather than remain in detention.

He claimed that there were many women and young children on the flight, and described "uncontrolled crying among the children because of the... shouting on the plane".

A spokesperson for Frontex said: "No case of 'beating' or excessive use of force was reported by any of the escorts in regard to this flight. Also no 'uncontrolled crying' was reported by our observer, [although] as return is a very emotional situation, returnees sometimes become very upset." The UKBA and G4S deny Prince Bakare's allegations.

Another deportee, Barzan Nasir, a 28-year-old Kurdish man from Kirkuk in Iraq was sent back to Baghdad on 2009. "They put us in two buses to Stansted airport," he said in an interview at Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow. "There were two guards either side of us and we waited for two hours outside the airport before the bus drove straight to the plane. It was an old [former] Alitalia plane and there was no one around. They used three people to take you to the plane, two people holding you on either side and one person pushing you forward from behind.

"I can never forget that day. They treated us like prisoners, like we weren't human. We were handcuffed and people were crying and screaming that they didn't want to go back, they thought they would die. Security didn't seem to care. When you went to the toilet four people went with you and you had to leave the door half-open.

"We got to Baghdad airport at about two or three in the afternoon. I could see fighter planes and tanks but no normal planes. The got us to go to a reception area and then we were taken back to the plane and it flew to Italy.

"In Italy they started pushing people around. They were pissed off – I could see it on their faces. They put my mate on the floor and when I said: 'Why are you doing that?', they put me on the ground as well. Three or four people were on me and my chest was hurting, one of them pushed down on my head. They dragged me up and just said walk.

"Outside the plane, I was pushed so hard my head hit the side of the bus and they handcuffed me. Then seven or eight [G4S escorts] circled me on the bus and started pushing me. One of them, he had these massive hands, and he grabbed my neck and screamed: 'Shut up!' My hands were handcuffed behind my back but they were too tight and they were causing blood marks under the skin. The marks didn't go for three weeks."

The UK Border Agency's David Wood, strategic director for criminality and detention, replied jointly, on behalf of G4S as well, to the allegations made by Prince Bakare and Barzan Nasir. He rejected their claims entirely: "We do not accept the allegations of mistreatment made by these returnees. They are without foundation.

"The UK Border Agency had a manager on board both of these flights, and was satisfied that our escorts acted professionally at all times. Furthermore, Frontex had its own observer on the Nigeria flight who also reported no mistreatment."

The British government also charters removal flights to Afghanistan. These take place on Tuesday evenings every fortnight under the name Operation Ravel.

Jon Burnett, a researcher for Medical Justice, says that there are cases where escorts have used excessive force and points out that their actions are not open to public scrutiny.

"It's worrying that private companies are making profits from removals, with little semblance of public accountability", he said.

Dashty Jamal, general secretary of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, uses even stronger language: "You judge a country by how it treats the vulnerable and the least well off.

"In the last four years, I've seen people who have been beaten by their escorts, shouted at, sworn at, treated like they're not a human being. It's a shame on this country."



The goose neck

*Documents exclusively obtained by this newspaper reveal the types of "control and restraint" techniques used by private detention and escorting officers. G4S requires all overseas escorts to fill in a "Use of Force" report when coercive measures have been used during a removal. The document lists the types of restraints that the company's escorts can use and these include "rigid bar", "chain link", and "double-locked" handcuffs, as well as leg restraints. Rigid bar handcuffs are used by some specially trained police officers to put pressure on an individual's wrist to force compliance.

The form also lists a number of control techniques including the "Goose Neck" wrist lock, and "thumb and straight arm locks", as well as "Nose Control Technique" – which can refer to pressure or a strike on the base of the nose – and "Head Control".

G4S declined to elaborate on what the techniques involved but a spokeswoman said they were all approved by the Prison Service.

Amnesty International UK's arms programme director Oliver Sprague said: "'Control techniques' and 'holds', despite their anodyne names, involve applying pressure to people's joints or strikes to their body to cause pain. Police officers in the UK undergo extensive training in the use of restraints and control techniques, and anyone else using them should be trained to the same standards."



Escort officers' training

Liz Jones, a spokeswoman for G4S, said that escort officers receive seven weeks' basic training and further specialist instruction in how to use "control and restraint" techniques to prevent violence. "We look for people that can talk, people that can calm situations down, general people skills," she said, adding that the company took employees from all walks of life.

Asked if previous criminal convictions would rule an applicant out, she responded: "Not necessarily, as long as it is declared. It depends on the circumstances for that conviction and how long ago it was. A major child offender, a murderer or a rapist would be ruled out but assault depends on the background details."

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